Let’s respect the water cycle
Amit Bhattacharya | TNN
Think of water and chances are you wouldn’t picture a farmer digging a tubewell. Most urban Indians can’t think beyond their own water woes — dry taps; waking up at odd hours to tank up for the day. Yet, 80% of all the water India uses goes into agriculture. But even so, 60% of our farmlands remain dependent on the rains. Just as water evaporates, it seems, so do the resources that go into water management in the countryside.
The scale of this ‘evaporation’ is so massive it is surprising the issue hasn’t generated more public debate. Nothing illustrates this better than the money spent on canals. In the 15 year-period from 1991-92 to 2006-07, the government spent Rs 1.3 lakh crore on major and medium irrigation projects without achieving any net increase in the irrigated area!
If anything, India’s total canalirrigated area has decreased from 17,791,000 hectares in 1991-91, to 16,531,000 hectares in 2007-08, according to provisional figures released by the agriculture ministry. The story behind this dubious feat encapsulates almost everything that’s wrong with water planning and use in agriculture.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, should know. Last year, he co-authored a paper that contained exactly those startling statistics. He says it’s not about too few new canals but about “many old ones have stopped functioning, at least partially, due to siltation, lack of maintenance and faulty assumptions of water use. Then there are water management and sharing issues. Often there’s intensive water use in upstream areas which leaves no water at the tail-ends.”
Thakkar says it boils down to bad investment decisions. “The government keeps pushing for big irrigation projects without taking care of the existing ones, which in itself is a huge task. According to a 2005 World Bank report, the annual maintenance bill for India’s canal network comes to around Rs 17,000 crore. Less than 10% of that money is available,” he says.
Experts lament that new irrigation projects often fail to take into account the larger hydrological processes they would affect. They also pay little attention to water-use patterns. This has led to river basins such as the Krishna becoming over-irrigated.
Planning Commission member Mihir Shah calls such policy practices “hydroschizophrenia (or) a schizophrenic view of an indivisible resource like water, failing to recognize the unity and integrity of the hydrologic cycle.”
Shah elaborates: “It’s a strange situation. Water management in villages comes under two ministries — rural development ministry and ministry of water resources. Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
Both Shah and Thakkar say the first step in dealing with the crisis is accepting ground realities. “While huge amounts are spent on canal systems, groundwater has emerged as the dominant method of irrigation,” says Thakkar. The latest official figures show that more than 60% of India’s 62 million irrigated hectares is fed by groundwater.
With no regulation, this has obvious perils. In August, two independent studies used satellite data from GRACE or the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment to show that northern India was losing more groundwater thananywhere else in the world except for the Arctic ice sheets. One of the studies put the annual net groundwater loss in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan at 109 cubic km, which is roughly equivalent to 109 billion tonnes. The water table has dropped dramatically in many areas and this is one of main problems Indian agriculture faces today.
Thakkar identifies four urgent policy measures: “Ensure that our old water recharge systems are sustained and enhanced, develop new recharge systems and harvest water where it falls, regulate groundwater use and, lastly, massively promote conservation methods like drip irrigation and rice intensification.”
Shah, who has been asked by the Prime Minister to write a paper for the National Development Council on a holistic water policy, says it's possible for agriculture to grow even as water use falls. “In Australia, water consumption in agriculture has reduced by 30% in the past 20 years. If they can do it, so can we,” he says.
But for that to happen, water policy has to become participatory. “The irrigation department, which is managed by civil engineers, needs to recruit people managers who understand local needs and sentiments,” concludes Shah.
It will make all the difference to a thirsty nation and parched fields.
TOTAL AREA IRRIGATED BY CANALS 1991-92: 17.8 mn hectares 2006-07: 16.8 mn hectares Amount spent on irrigation projects from 1991-92 to 2006-07: Rs 1.3 lakh crore
INFLATION IN IRRIGATION Nagarjunasagar project (AP) Original cost (pre-fifth Plan):
Rs 91.12cr Latest estimates*: Rs 1,184cr Increase: 1299%
Western Kosi canal (Bihar) Original cost: Rs 13.49cr Latest estimates: Rs 904cr Increase: 6701%
Barnar (Bihar) Original cost (in seventh Plan): Rs 8.03cr Latest estimates*: Rs 216.23cr Increase: 2689%
* All ‘latest estimates’ as on 2003, according to Planning Commission document