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A looming crisis: How India can balance its water demand and supply across sectors?

Whether the resurgence of the more-than-a-century-old Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or reports of depleting water reservoirs, fair water allocation needs attention as it is an important lever for ensuring water, food, and livelihood security. Water cannot be thought of in a silo in India, especially since it is critical to our food and energy needs.


In 2020, while India’s domestic sector required 54,000 billion litres water, the agriculture sector needed 14 times more—776,000 billion litres. According to estimates by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), the agriculture sector will account for 87% of India’s water demand by 2030. This will inevitably stress our limited water resources. Disputes between competing water sectors such as agriculture and industries could also become mainstream.

The food, land, water and energy sectors are critically interlinked, and action on one of these sectors without careful consideration of the trade-offs in the other sectors could lead to detrimental impacts. The impacts of such one-track policies during India’s Green Revolution, such as power subsidies for groundwater irrigation in Punjab and Haryana, are still visible.

These states have seen severe groundwater depletion and soil subsidence. The Indian government in 2019 reported that power subsidies to the agricultural sector are in the range of Rs 80,000-91,000 crore. Minimum Support Prices (MSP) have also traditionally incentivised water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane. Even now, unregulated irrigation practices and indiscriminate use continue to deplete groundwater levels at an alarming rate. CEEW estimates that the cost of inaction towards improved agriculture water management could be to the tune of Rs 48 trillion in 2030 and Rs 138 trillion in 2050.

We recommend three steps to improve India’s water security to strengthen its food systems in the coming decades. First, governments, especially in the states should scale up improved on-farm irrigation and water practices. Technologies and practices such as precision agriculture, including micro-irrigation and mulching, and policy reforms like water auditing and volumetric pricing are critical. Based on our analysis, if such practices are adopted, almost 20-47% of irrigation water can be saved in 2030 and 2050 respectively. India is already promoting such efficient irrigation practices through the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana’s Per Drop More Crop scheme. In fact, by 2022, 7.2 million hectares of agricultural land were brought under micro-irrigation.

Last year, the G20 Leaders’ Summit committed to building more sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture and food systems by “accelerating innovations and investment”. Investments, innovations and incentives for improved irrigation and water management in agriculture will be crucial to scaling up sustainable practices. Second, food, land, water and energy policies should integrate the nexus at all stages—design, implementation, monitoring and impact evaluation.

An independent body within the government could guide the planning process of schemes and policies administered by nexus-relevant ministries like the ministry of jal shakti, ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare, ministry of new and renewable energy, ministry of petroleum and natural gas, and ministry of power. While the need for this is critical at the national level, states could also assess their requirement based on efficiency of existing mechanisms.

For instance, Odisha has already institutionalised a state department called the Planning & Convergence Department that coordinates and synergises efforts of various schemes and policies for efficiency and nexus integration.

The Composite Water Management Index, developed by NITI Aayog in 2018, also acknowledges nexus linkages that measure progress not just in the water sector but also interlinkages with related sectors like food and energy. Safeguarding critical inputs of food production like land, energy and water by considering their interactions is paramount for the agriculture sustainablility and consequently food security of India.

Third, scale up community-managed groundwater practices to make this critical resource sustainable. As climate change disproportionately increases the vulnerability of water, the need for a shift in attitude from consumption to conservation is crucial. This will ensure that India secures its already over-exploited groundwater resource that sustains 62% of India’s agricultural irrigation. Updated and localised datasets to keep track of the status are also crucial.

India’s central scheme called Atal Bhujal Yojana is a step in this direction, whereby planning for water security and necessary data are to be collected at the gram panchayat level by the community. One of the major responsibilities of this scheme is to train the village community to develop water security plans. Such community participation in groundwater planning has shown promising results in the past and scaling it up through government schemes is a favourable step.

India’s success in ensuring food security by 2030 will largely depend on its approach to managing water. Understanding water as a part of a nexus while drafting and amending policies will be key to a water and food-secure future.

By Kangkanika Neog & Ekansha Khanduja

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