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How to ride out the storm

A micro-irrigation system backed by ideal farm practices is the answer to increasing productivity with less water, writes Kunal Bose.

ht view Updated: Jun 01, 2014 21:08 IST

That climate will remain in a state of flux is a given. The fallout of global warming will be periodic extreme heat and drought, as was experienced by the United States and some other food-exporting countries in 2012, sending food prices close to record levels. At the same time, many countries, including China and India will experience heavy rains and floods from time to time, damaging food production.

Even then, scores of governments are still not ready to take action to mitigate the situation on the specious grounds, that forecasts by scientists about the impact of global warming lack precision. In the meantime, the world is experiencing pervasive water shortages resulting from rises in temperature. No wonder as the weather is turning increasingly difficult for normal crop-growing, world food production fell short of consumption in as many as six of the past 12 years.

Many countries had to run down their food inventories to worryingly low levels to meet demand and control inflation. The United Nations has given warnings that global grain reserves are so dangerously low that extreme weather-related production setback in major food-exporting countries could further reinforce ‘hunger crisis’.

Food crops are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Rice in particular has a great thirst for water, accounting for use of nearly a third of the earth’s fresh water, the per capita availability of which is shrinking in many countries, including India.

Population growth, unhindered extraction of groundwater, which is an open-access resource, by the farm sector and lack of progress in groundwater recharge and water harvesting, have reduced per capita water availability in India to an agonisingly low 1,000 cubic metres from 4,000 cubic metres in 1951. Dwindling water resource makes it a herculean task for the country to chase an annual farm growth rate of 4%.

The global challenge is to provide food for a world population that is forecast to grow to 8.3 billion by 2030 and further to 9.1 billion by 2050. To feed the extra mouths and also to satisfy minimum calorie requirements, food supply in the first instance will have to be up by 50% and then by 70%. This should be seen in the context of Oxfam’s warning that key staple prices are likely to double in the next 20 years. If this comes true, then the ranks of 1 billion poor, including 200 million children going to bed hungry every night, will swell. The world’s poor are required to spend up to 80% of their income on food. Food price inflation, as is seen in India and elsewhere, is raising the level of undernourishment at an alarming rate. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described it as the crisis of civilisation.

President of Washington-based Earth Policy Institute Lester Brown says as unabated rises in food prices are causing unrest in a growing number of places “armed aggression is no longer the principal threat to our future. The overriding threats to this century are climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages and rising food prices.”

Thanks to a good monsoon, India’s foodgrains production in 2013-14 rose 2.81% (264.38 million tonnes), leaving comfortable food inventories with government agencies at close to 70 million tonnes. But the comfort food stocks are offering at this point will disappear if the country experiences the El Nino weather pattern this year. This will have the twin effect of the country receiving below normal rains during the June to September southwest monsoon and swathes of farmland coming under a serious drought spell. A below normal monsoon will be particularly bad for growing rice, soybean and maize and it will also hit the production of cash crops like sugarcane, cotton and jute. Indian agriculture, accounting for 14.1% of GDP, remains highly rain-dependent.

Around 60 million hectares of 142 million hectares of net cultivated area has the benefit of irrigation. Globally renowned ‘waterman’ Bhavarlal Jain says: “In our irrigation infrastructure planning, we haven’t considered that the country has only 4% of the world’s water resource, while it has to feed 17% of its population. Because of this oversight, we are overwhelmingly dependent on traditional flood irrigation system where due to high levels of water seepage and evaporation losses, the irrigation efficiency is at the most 40%.

Compare this with micro-irrigation system (MIS) where efficiency level ranges from 75% to 90%.” The country’s farm sector accounts for 83% of fresh water use, thanks largely to flood irrigation, which also leads to much wastage of nutrients. The 2012-13 Economic Survey admits that our “irrigation efficiency is low for both surface and ground waters”.

In spite of benefits like economy in water use and high land productivity embedded in MIS and in demonstration in Israel, where it all began, and in the US, it is only recently that India started encouraging farmers to install drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, depending on crops.

MIS is now in use in 6.5 million hectares of farmland. The system is making it possible to grow varieties of food and cash crops in arid and semi-arid lands. From Maharashtra to Karnataka, a growing number of cane planters are switching over to MIS to achieve productivity gains of over 100% besides reducing water use by half.

In the case of winter rice, MIS replacing flood irrigation will cut water use by as much as two-thirds. MIS, backed by ideal farm practices, is the answer to growing more with minimum water as the weather is now prone to delivering nasty surprises.

Kunal Bose is a former Financial Times correspondent
The views expressed by the author are personal