Water use efficiency in Indian agriculture sector


water-agricultureWhat are the most comprehensive measures and processes in defining successful institutional and governance reform for water use efficiency (WUE) in agriculture? It is one of the most crucial questions that nations want to address today.

Water scarcity across economic sectors has amplified the importance of demand side management and of improving water use efficiency in agriculture. Most countries have tried to address the issue of water scarcity by developing new water sources under a supply management policy. Countries that have abundant water resources can gain from supply management to receive reliable amounts of water for irrigation. However, this strategy is not viable for most countries. As such, since early 1980’s, many countries have focused on improving water use efficiency (WUE) and its governance including institutional and non-institutional reforms as a way to maximize the potential of this exhaustible resource. In short, demand management has emerged as the most significant policy instrument.

Furthermore, concurring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, changes and erraticism in hydrological systems resulting from climate change will disproportionally affect the most vulnerable populations in the developing world. For agriculture, this indicates variations in rainfall and the higher incidence and severity of floods and droughts leading to difficulties in water resources management. Mitigation and adaptation approaches to maximizing WUE in agriculture can be successful only if they are entrenched in longer term strategies closely linked to agricultural and water policy reforms.

India’s hitch with water scarcity is not new. Despite India’s rapid development and urbanization, industrial and domestic water users in India consume 10 percent and 8 percent respectively, while the agricultural sector consumes 82 percent of total supply. But the consumption needs of middle class will continue to drive domestic as well as industrial demand at a high clip. This express growth, combined with limited water supply and the continuing importance of agriculture, illustrates the critical need for improved WUE in India.

States like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, have made substantial headways in reforming their water institutions and governance structures by adopting legislations to promote participatory irrigation management. Presently, the deliberation in India is focused on how to negate the existing irrigation inefficiency and low crop yields and how to restructure irrigation departments so that they can become competent to improve water delivery process. Understanding best practices from other countries and India’s own community based interventions models will help present policy thinkers and planners to enhance governance structures and understand key indicators that can assist in data-driven decision-making.

Development of agricultural water resource in India

In India, agriculture is of central importance to the national and regional economies, contributing 14.6 percent of GDP and over 55 per cent of employment. Along with food security, Agriculture thus also provides livelihood for the majority of the population. But only about 102 million hectares or almost one-third of the total cultivated area is irrigated. In many regions due to inadequate rainfall, irrigation plays a key role in the drive to enabling and enhancing food production. Irrigation gives farmers the security of water supply and enables them to invest in higher yielding crop varieties and increased inputs leading to greater levels of agricultural production than would have been possible under rainfed agriculture.

However, projections of water supply and population growth rates in India are showing a disturbing scenario for the future: while the average per capita supply of water will decrease by one-third by 2025, water use will increase by about 50 percent during the same period. Low water productivity in agriculture along with aging supply infrastructure could lead to huge supply-demand gaps in many basins with currently planned crop choices.

Till the early 1970s, most of the policy mediations in India focused on supply solutions for dealing with increased water demand. These included the construction of large dams, inter-basin transfer of water and small-scale solutions such as rainwater harvesting and other rural development policies. In Gujarat, for example, watershed development programs were implemented to alleviate poverty and respond to increased water demand in arid and semi-arid regions of the state. Watershed development programs were enacted in hopes that agricultural development in both rainfed and semi-arid regions of India would improve by capturing scarce water resources and managing the soil and vegetation.

Although successful in many semi-arid parts of Gujarat and western Madhya Pradesh, the program has not been as successful in other areas due to a lack of understanding of hydrologic conditions and poor infrastructure management; thus, they have not alleviated the problems of rural irrigation development and WUE. In some cases, these policies have exacerbated water scarcity, forcing a shift from supply-side to demand side management to address water availability and water use.

Availability of water in India

India roughly receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic meters of rainfall every year. Regrettably, only 48 per cent of rainfall ends up in India’s rivers and aquifers. A dearth of storage procedures, lack of adequate infrastructure, and ill trained water resources officials ensure that only 18 – 20 per cent of the water can be utilized. The availability and demand for water resources in India show sizeable variations from region to region. Breakdown of current water supply and demand in aquifers and river basins show that water scarcity is due to two major reasons, namely, inefficient and inequitable use of and distribution of water; and excessive irrigation development.

Nearly ninety per cent of the Indian population lives in areas with some form of water stress or food production deficit. There is a high dependency on some aquifers for production of grain to match shortfalls in river basins that are typically used for surface water based irrigation. In Gujarat’s semi-arid northern region, one of the most intensively irrigated regions in India, water availability is a concern because groundwater irrigation contributes more than 90 percent of the overall livelihoods of the farmers.

Usage of water: Urban and rural divide

Growing demand from the ever emergent urban and industrial sectors, and concerns for the environment is likely to reduce the share of water withdrawn for irrigation causing a reduction in food production for the growing population. Groundwater used for irrigation has increased from about 40 per cent of the net irrigated area in the 1960s to about 57 per cent in the late 1990s. Much of this expansion has occurred in water-scarce river basins resulting in increasing the groundwater overdraft in many aquifers. As a result, the expansions of groundwater irrigation, and its sustainable management have become critical for future water management.

Groundwater uses about 44 percent of the total volume of water used for irrigation but contributes nearly 60 per cent of India’s irrigated area. For example, in northern Gujarat, excessive withdrawal of groundwater for irrigation is causing massive declines in water levels throughout the region and depleting aquifers faster than they can recharge. According to the Central Ground Water Board, the rate of decline in water levels ranged from 0.91 metres below land surface to 6 metres below land surface during a twenty-year period from1980 to 2000. Although, groundwater wells are easily accessible for farmers to use for crop productivity, groundwater use is unregulated and therefore used without maximizing WUE for distribution and long-term crop production.

Water governance issues and institutional arrangements : Rural India perspective

In India, designing applicable institutional strategies to allocate scarce water and river flows has been an enormous challenge due to the complex legal, constitutional, and social issues involved. The water sector has been grappling with hyper-poor performance and worsening of infrastructure for irrigation with much of the culpability falling on the current institutions in place. There is little agreement about appropriate institutional arrangements and criteria for successful institutional design.

A wide range of institutional arrangements has evolved over the last few decades to use and manage the increasing demand for irrigation in India. For example, in India most state governments practice a Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM approach) defined by a system of participation of the farmers as beneficiaries with a loose joint role in management of the irrigation system. But there is wide variation in the number of Water User Associations (WUAs) set up in different states (ranging from more than 10,000 in Andhra Pradesh to less than 100 in Bihar). With the PIM initiatives in place, in some cases partial autonomy was given to WUAs to jointly manage either primary or secondary canals. In some cases, a chosen group of farmers or a committee collaborates with the irrigation department. In yet other cases, full autonomy is given to farmers to manage the irrigation management system.

The success of institutional designs such as PIM are contingent upon collaboration of institutions, such as the central or regional, on different levels to operate and maintain an efficient irrigation system. In India, however, infrastructure in most rural farming areas has remained largely unmaintained and there is an emerging gap between the irrigation potential created and the potential utilized – a prime culprit being the inefficient use of water for agriculture. Specifically, WUAs were formed without adequate institutional support and training services for farmers (resulting in low standards of operation and maintenance) and many WUAs do not employ staff to carry out the basic functions of water management, maintenance and record keeping resulting in poor service delivery. This inefficiency in water use and lack of performance in irrigation are signals to reform the institutional mechanisms currently in place.

Recommendations for governance reforms and institutional restructuring

A comprehensive multidisciplinary effort is necessary to enhance the efficiency of institutional reform and therefore help the agricultural sector maximize efficient water use and distribution.

The worth of the know-how of the hydrological cycle is fundamental to solving a variety of water management problems. For long-term institutional change, a basin or watershed perspective needs to be maintained. A key feature of decentralization should be an increasing importance being attached to river basin or watershed irrigation management. Basin WUAs can be designed and formulated on hydrologic rather than on administrative boundaries. Understanding and interpreting the hydrology is important for water management institutions and/or subsequent reform because it allows for an integrated approach to management as well as for resolving regional water allocation conflict. There is a latent need to incorporate more scientific data measurements, data management, and dissemination to improve long-term WUE beyond basic administrative institutional reform. Scientific data collection and monitoring (including field reconnaissance) should be undertaken before reform is considered both during management implementation and within consistent intervals post-reform. Some of these data collection efforts should include:

  1. Groundwater-level measurements and monitoring in existing wells to determine water-level fluctuations in shallow aquifers
  2. Canal flow measurements by obtaining periodic measurements of discharge (the quantity of water passing a location along a canal)
  3. Periodic measurements of precipitation (could be monthly, quarterly, annually)

Another point that need wider acceptance is the time-scale variability of various natural (hydrologic) processes. For example, in the case of rainfall, effects such as water-level increases in rivers at various intervals can be observed, since in large basins, change can be days, weeks or months. Individual cases for WUE can also vary distinctly. In some cases, hydrologic changes occur very quickly such as during flash floods or short period rainfalls when the effects appear immediately and water levels in aquifers and rivers have dramatic changes. In these situations, measurement training to effectively help deal with irrigation management, particularly distribution, will be necessary.

Third, for small-scale irrigation users, a contractor from the village should be used for repairs and other maintenance issues. This will create a sense of ownership and belonging among the users, improve maintenance of the infrastructure, bring financial discipline, cost recovery, better regulation and overall sustainability. This also alleviates the financial burden of the government in terms of subsidies and manpower reduction. The most efficient method of accomplishing the contracting method is to give incentives leading to water use improvements in the first year as this policy requires minimal technological investment for reducing overall water use. The contractor would then incorporate WUAs into the management of the irrigation operation. This is a cost effective way to maintain efficient functioning of irrigation systems and can lead to better performance without additional investment.

In order to implement PIM by reforming existing institutions in India, governments must understand that the primary goal is to increase water use efficiency and how to measure its success. Therefore, to assess the efficacy of the transfer of irrigation management to WUAs, the performance of the irrigation system must be measured. Some of the criteria could be to measure the maintenance expenditure per metre of the canal and the changes in water fee collection. Also it should be assesses as to what extent, water fees covers the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs.

Central governments or irrigation departments should also promote training for WUAs, assign the roles and responsibilities to different actors, and extend technical support towards management of the irrigation system. Although this involves transaction costs, in the long run this would vastly improve the efficiency and sustainability of the irrigation system. If farmers were convinced that the associated benefits of their participation exceed the costs, they would extend their active cooperation and be willing to pay the irrigation charges provided they are assured of dependable supply.

If institutional reform measures are undertaken in areas where any management system does not exist, then two additional performance indicators could be taken into consideration. First, dependability of irrigation interval can be tracked that would determine whether the interval between irrigations is either planned (such as in a planned irrigation rotation regime) or dictated by the crop’s soil moisture status. This indicator allows irrigation planners during reform projects to determine whether a crop is contributing to inefficient use of water based on the environmental conditions of the region. Second, water delivery efficiency should be measured at main canal intakes and offtakes to the tertiary unit. This value changes based on the season (monsoon or drought) in which it is measured.

The complication in dealing with agricultural WUE, governance and institutional reform requires technical expertise at various levels of management. This includes not only individual capacities but also institutions with sufficient strength and independence to guarantee rigorous work. Some characteristics to take into account when deciding upon reform possibilities in India include the construction cost of a water distribution system having exclusive regional characteristics.

Also, the environmental impacts of actions will have to be addressed. Achieving these changes involves better collaboration between the technical and environmental community on the one hand and farmers on the other. This allows for a more unbiased evaluation of the needs of the Irrigation Management Board (IMB), Distributary Stations and WUAs, and calls for a formal advisory group that includes all parties – particularly farmers so that their rights to political action are not compromised in making decisions regarding water distribution, fee collection, water use, and other efficiency targets. Such collaboration cannot be imposed from above, but will have to be designed based on particular local characteristics and more microscopic bottom – up set up.

Improved water usage efficiency is the need of the hour as India does not have sufficient water per capita. In this situation, India would need a participative action plan to ensure that enough water is available for agricultural purpose without sacrificing sustainability. It is necessary that necessary steps are taken in right earnest as further delays could severely jeopardize Indian farm sector and food security.

Ritwajit Das & Natalia Zorba | The writer is an International Consultant on Environment and Sustainable Development Policies and Natalia Zorba is a Sociologist from National Pedagogical Dragmanov University, Ukraine