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OVERCOMING WATER CHALLENGES IN AGRICULTURE
STATE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE 2020
11/28/2020 11:48:40 PM
Dr. Parveen Kumar

Life and livelihoods depend upon water. Water is a ‘sine qua non’ for human existence ad its sustained availability is of prime importance. The latest report ‘State of Food and Agriculture 2020’ released by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) stresses on overcoming water challenges in agriculture. The report reveals that at present 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high or very high water shortages or scarcity, of which 1.2 billion people live in areas with very high water constraints. From the 1.2 billion people, nearly half live in Southern Asia, and about 460 million live in Eastern and South-eastern Asia. Without immediate action, many more will be affected.
Many factors are contributing for this water scarcity which includes the climate change, rising population, the water wastage, its non judicious use, socio-economic development and many others. There has been a rising demand for this precious natural resource. The anticipated impacts of climate change, such as uncertain rainfall and water availability, further exacerbate these factors. The report further says that as a consequence to all these factors, the annual amount of available freshwater resources per person has declined by more than 20 percent in the past two decades. This is a particularly serious issue in Northern Africa and Western Asia, where per capita freshwater has declined by more than 30 percent and where the average annual volume of water per person barely reaches 1000 m3 which is conventionally considered the threshold for severe water scarcity. Rising incomes and urbanization are leading to increased water demand from industry, energy and services and the dietary changes also imply more demand for water-intensive foods (e.g. meat and dairy products).
Back home, in India the population increase and changing lifestyles has increased demand for water (largely for irrigation) in both urban and rural areas. India has 18% of world population, having 4% of world’s fresh water, out of which 80% is used in agriculture. However, only 48% of it is used in India’s surface and groundwater bodies. In India, water availability per capita has declined from 5000 cubic meters (m3) per annum in 1950 to around 2000 m3 now and is projected to decline to 1500 m3 by 2025 leading to far less water availability for agriculture. The water availability for agricultural use has reached a critical level as the country uses more than 80 per cent of the surface water for this sector alone. On the other hand, inefficient and dilapidated canal irrigation systems have led to a spurt in groundwater development. India is the largest user of groundwater in the world with over 60 per cent of irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of drinking water supplies dependent on aquifers. The 2011 census put India into a league of water deficient nations. A country is considered to be water deficient if the per capita availability falls below 1700 cubic meters per person. The per capita water availability fell by 15% during the first decade of this century to 1545 cubic meters per person and is expected to go down further in the immediate future. Although the rate of depletion of this precious resource has gone down in the country but still it is not at par with the rate at which it is being replenished in the nature. As per the Central Water Commission, 85.3 per cent of the total water consumed was for agriculture in the year 2000 and it is likely to decrease to 83.3 per cent by 2025. Unless and until efforts are being made to conserve water, we are NOT going to do good for our coming generations. The country has to spend more on water conservation particularly in agriculture sector.
The ‘State of Food and Agriculture’ 2020 also warns that the rising competition for scarce water is driving tensions and conflicts among stakeholders thereby exacerbating inequalities in access to water, especially for vulnerable populations, including the rural poor, women and indigenous populations. With ten years to go until 2030, the first estimates for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Indicator 6.4.2 on water stress, together with persistent water shortages in rainfed agriculture, suggest that ensuring sustainable management of water for all remains a challenge. As water is closely linked to several other SDGs, not least that of achieving Zero Hunger, managing scarce water resources well will be a critical determinant for fully achieving them. As agriculture sector is the world’s largest water user accounting for about 70 per cent of global withdrawals urgent and specific focus will have to be paid to water conservation in this sector.
CONSERVING WATER:
Water is a precious resource and needs to be conserved. Ultimately the solution for overcoming the water scarcity has to come from each of us. As agriculture is the largest withdrawal of water, water use in agriculture has to be made more efficient and sustainable. The basic principle should be ‘more crop, per drop’. Many water conservation practices like drip, sprinkler can be adopted more so in rainfed regions of the country where water availability is an issue. Rainwater can be harvested in farm ponds and roof tops for further use in times when water scarcity occurs. The drip and sprinkler system of irrigation avoid the conveyance losses and make the water available directly in the root zone of the plants. Flooding of fields should be avoided. Paddy requirements for water according to FAO estimates make it as one of the most water intensive crops. Techniques like System of Rice Intensification that avoid flooding rice fields should be promoted for cultivation of rice.
Although rarely done, water auditing and accounting is an effective strategy for addressing water shortages more so in agriculture sector. At the global level as per the report, farmers many of whom are small scale farmers working on 128 million hectares (or 11 percent) of rainfed cropland affected by recurring drought can greatly benefit from water water-harvesting and water conservation techniques. By one estimate, these practices could boost rainfed kilocalorie production by up to 24 percent and if combined with irrigation expansion, by more than 40 percent. For herders working on 656 million hectares (or 14 percent) of drought-affected pastureland, a variety of farming measures can buffer the impact of drought and improve water productivity. Many of these measures are indirectly related to water, including disease control and animal health, livestock feeding and drinking management, mobility and stratification of production to reduce grazing pressure in arid areas. For the 171 million hectares (or 62 percent) of the world’s irrigated cropland under high or very high water stress, priority should be given to incentivizing practices that increase water productivity including rehabilitation and modernization of existing irrigation infrastructure and adoption of innovative technologies. These should be combined with improved water governance to guarantee equitable allocation and access to water, as well as environmental flows necessary to sustain water-related ecosystems. In sub Saharan Africa, irrigated areas are expected to more than double by 2050, benefiting millions of small scale farmers. Another point worth mentioning her is that of investments in non-consumptive uses of water is sectors like aquaculture and in non-conventional sources of water, such as water reuse and desalination are an increasingly important strategy to offset scarcity.
We should also have to go for healthy diets that include sustainability considerations at the food systems level that reduce the associated water consumption. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addressing water shortages and scarcity. Different countries and even different regions within countries have different characteristics and face different challenges. They have to devise strategies and water conservation practices accordingly.
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