Rice Is Adding to India’s Water Woes – Give Other Crops a Chance
India could reduce the water it uses for irrigation by a third and simultaneously address its persistent malnutrition problem if it replaced its rice crop with more nutritious and less thirsty cereals, a study of irrigation-water use over 43 years has found.
The suggested replacements for rice are maize, finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum, all of which consume less water per tonne and are more nutritious.
In a first, scientists juxtaposed this potential water-saving from an alternative cropping pattern with the nutritional gains that would follow from growing more nutrient-dense and less water-intensive cereals.
These findings are significant considering that India today faces the worst water crisis in its history and continues to battle iron and zinc deficiencies.
The study, ‘Alternative cereals can improve water use and nutrient supply in India’, was published on 4 July 2018.
While the common belief is that urbanisation and industrialisation are the reasons for the falling groundwater levels across India, over nine-tenths of groundwater is extracted for irrigation, IndiaSpend reported in November 2016.
Roughly one-third (34%) of the 632 cubic kilometre (cu km) of water that India used to grow cereals in 2009 came from various irrigation sources, the new study said. Rainfall accounted for the rest.
Just over half (53%) of Indian women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years) were estimated to be anaemic – a result of iron deficiency – in the fourth National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, IndiaSpend reported in November 2017. More than a third of the Indian population is zinc-deprived, we reported in September 2017.
Now it appears a solution is at hand to reverse these deficiencies while achieving water security and livelihood security for farmers.
Using Less Water for Irrigation is Key to Environmental Sustainability
India’s cereal production increased 230% between 1966 and 2009, according to this new study, whose credit goes to the vast improvements in irrigation infrastructure across India.
This fall expresses both the expansion of the irrigated area and the decline in average rainfall in recent decades, Ashwini Chhatre, co-author of the present study and associate professor of public policy and academic director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, told In diaSpend.
Average rainfall declined from 1,050 mm in the kharif (monsoon) season of 1970 to less than 1,000 mm in kharif 2015. Similarly, in the winter cropping or rabi season, average rainfall declined from roughly 150 mm in 1970 to about 100 mm in 2015, IndiaSpend reported in June 2018 based on the findings of a new NITI Aayog study.
“Protective irrigation is vital to insure farmers [growing] alternative cereals against dry days and dry spells during the monsoon, both of which are now established outcomes of climate change,” said Chhatre.
How Foodgrain Subsidy Has Added to Water Stress and Nutritional Deficiencies
Cereal consumption and cropping data show that the shift towards rice-wheat consumption and cropping has intensified since the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
This dietary shift is typically believed to have been demand-led, as wheat is seen as superior to millets and sorghum, and the cereal preferred by the more affluent Indians.
This study, however, showed that the shift is significantly supply-driven, reflecting “a substantial influence from the country’s Public Distribution System”, the food security programme for low-income households.
This is an important factor which has been contributing to the persistent rise in nutrient deficiencies”, stated the study.
Chief minister NT Rama Rao’s promise of rice at Rs 2 per kg in 1982 in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh changed the dietary preferences of the last two generations, from millets to rice, without any commensurate improvement in health.Ashwini Chhatre, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Academic Director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad
This could be followed by the decentralised procurement of the crops by the government for supply to these schemes.
“At present, we only incentivise the growing of water-intensive crops because those are the only crops we procure,” he said.
This study has also found that swapping rice for an alternative cereal would not entail a fall in production, which could have implied a shortage of food grain.
Swapping rice for sorghum in 31 rice-growing districts in Madhya Pradesh and in 14 districts in Maharashtra would produce a higher yield, it added.
Also Read : Karnataka promotes millets as healthy diet
Decentralising Nutrient Production Would Protect from Local Climate Shocks
In becoming key producers of rice and wheat for the country, these states have also become the largest sources of agricultural water demand.
The irrigation needs of wheat–a rabi crop–have driven 69% of the increase in demand for water for agricultural purposes.
Also Read : Kharif crop sown over 115.9 lakh hectares
Consequently, replacing the rice grown in the northern grain belt alone with alternative crops would deliver substantial water saving.
“About half of total water savings from replacement would come from just 39 districts, most of which are in Punjab and Haryana”, Chhatre said.
Changing the cropping pattern across India would effectively decentralise nutrient production, thereby reducing the impact of local climate shocks such as droughts or floods to national grain production, Kyle Frankel Davis, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, USA, as well as a NatureNet Science Fellow at The Nature Conservancy, told IndiaSpend.
While India has done well to prioritise calorie production to avoid widespread hunger but considerations like nutrition and environmental impacts cannot continue to be side-stepped if the country wants to achieve better health for all and environmental sustainability,Ashwini Chhatre, associate professor of public policy and academic director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad
(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. This article first appeared on IndiaSpend and has been republished with permission.)