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India’s Water Crisis and the WEF Nexus

The ongoing drought conditions in India have affected 256 districts in 10 different states and more than 300 million people. Another figure quoted by the Minister of Rural Development and Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation stands at 313 districts in 13 states. In many parts of the country, acute water scarcity and water stress have created severe economic and social distress, including the loss of crops, farmer suicides and rural-to-urban migration. Indeed, the situation is so precarious that the Supreme Court (the apex court in India) has stepped in to direct the central government to declare the drought a humanitarian disaster and to establish a consolidated fund and national response force to deal with the drought conditions.

Whilst much analysis has been carried out linking these drought conditions to climate change, through the investigation of socio-economic implications and exploring potential policy options to tackle the problem, a more inclusive and holistic approach towards addressing the issue needs to be brainstormed and put into action. The Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus approach could potentially put the issue into perspective and help offer solutions.

The natural and human factors

The nexus approach towards understanding and tackling resource issues emerged primarily in the wake of the food and energy crisis in 2007-2008. Since then, the nexus approach has been adopted to analyse a number of insecurities connected to water, energy, food and climate, especially with a focus on human security. In a country like India, rising population and growing prosperity are already putting unsustainable pressures on available resources. A changing climate and poor natural resource management are compounding the stress.

In 2015, the El-Nino phenomenon induced drought-like conditions with a 14 percent deficit in rainfall during the southwest monsoon period, which is linked to climate change. Some regions even experienced rainfall deficiency of over 40%. However, this alone cannot be blamed for the water crisis that the country is experiencing. As experts observe, a good monsoon this year cannot resolve India’s long-term water woes. Whether it is unregulated groundwater extraction for irrigation, water wastage in urban areas, diversion of river water for different purposes, lack of investments in storage systems, unsustainable cropping patterns or the pricing of energy and agricultural commodities – the range of factors that have contributed to the drought is extensive. This clearly points towards the nexus operating at all levels.

The fast-depleting groundwater

In a country where 80 percent of the water is consumed by the agricultural sector, 65 percent of the agricultural land is irrigated by groundwater and 84 percent of the net increase in irrigated area is on account of the groundwater in the last four decades, a large proportion of the problem could be resolved by fixing the poorly managed agricultural sector (particularly farming practices) that is critical for food security. Moreover, it indicates the need for focussing beyond surface water management and addressing the more important groundwater crisis.

The origins of this crisis can be traced back to the Green Revolution of the 1960s when the country’s policy and epistemic communities took to massive cultivation of high-yielding crops (mainly cereals), mostly employing flood irrigation that uses relatively low levels of technology and labour. The aim was to raise agricultural yields multi-fold and make India food secure, as well as to support rural and low-income farmers. Flood irrigation has been criticised heavily for its contribution to water wastage through evaporation, run-off, soil erosion, leaching of fertilisers and so on. Eventually, water resources are over-exploited and wasted as yields do not increase proportionately to water usage. In the subsequent years, flood irrigation has given way to drip and micro irrigation in many parts of the country; but in the drought-hit areas, the former practice has not been completely abandoned, and in many cases, such as in Maharashtra, the former is still more popular.

The flawed cropping patterns

Maharashtra is a leading sugarcane producer, one of the most water-intensive crops and its cultivation is primarily rain-fed, unlike in another major producer state Uttar Pradesh where it is irrigated. The state has been reeling under severe drought for the past few years due to inadequate rainfall. The farmers have been forced to depend to a great extent on groundwater to sustain yields, using tubewells and borewells that pump water to the surface, even at a time when drinking water is scarce.

Karnataka’s story – not far behind Maharashtra in terms of sugarcane production remains the same. Ironically, the government policy of promoting the cane industry, i.e. by reducing duties in comparison to other crops, by providing incentives for exports, and free or subsidised water and electricity, so far has led to its cultivation replacing other crops such as ragi and jowar with more and more farmers opting to plant it. Similarly, rice – another water-intensive crop, but one of the staple crops of India – is being grown in regions (the Punjab-Haryana belt) that have depleting water tables. This brings to light the inherent irony in the farming practices followed in the country, especially in terms of cropping patterns, wherein to this day water-intensive crops are grown and promoted in regions that have historically been drought-prone.

Where water, energy and food meet

Even more importantly, large tracts of land that were earlier being used for cultivating food crops are now being diverted to cane – that not only feeds the sugar industry but is increasingly being seen as a source of biofuels that could cater to India’s move towards greening its automotive industry by introducing flexible-fuel vehicles. The country has previously unsuccessfully experimented with jatropha, a plant promoted by the government to produce bio-diesel. A move towards flex-fuel at this stage will therefore have to take into consideration the ground realities including water shortage and persisting food insecurity in the country, even if it is a good step towards maintaining energy security and mitigating climate change.

Talking about energy security, one must not forget that although the agricultural sector consumes 80 percent of the country’s water resources, India’s burgeoning industry’s water demands have also grown exponentially. Consequently, the water crisis has adverse implications for not only the industry, but also energy security. The sugar industry in the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra that enjoys high political patronage (cutting across political lines – the reason why no restrictions were put on it for long), could now be forced to use only recycled water so that drinking water is not diverted to running sugar mills. The Maharashtra government has also announced water cuts for all industries. The state’s power sector is also hit as many thermal and hydroelectric plants are either shut or are being run at well below capacity.

Options for India on the domestic front

India has to overhaul its water policy and implement policies that take into account the water footprint of its crops and not rely merely on traditional choices. This does not imply that India must refrain from growing rice, sugarcane and other water-intensive crops. A staple crop like rice should be grown in regions that receive sufficient rainfall, such as eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Similarly, India should re-examine its food trade policy that is tilted towards heavy water consumption. Currently, India exports sugar and imports pulses, when the country’s climatic and soil conditions would better suit the cultivation of pulses. This scenario is caused largely by the lopsided policies of the government, including (in comparison to rice and sugarcane) poor procurement or stockpiling, lower import duty, lower subsidies (on electricity, water and irrigation), and inadequate post-harvest storage facilities.

Additionally, energy policies linked to the agricultural sector have long been criticised due to their unsustainable nature, with the government granting heavy subsidies on electricity, resulting in unregulated energy use and groundwater extraction (using pumps) by the farmers. Economists have recommended a gradual phase-out of subsidies on power and water (accompanied by support for low-income households) as well as a crop-neutral incentive structure so that water intensive crops do not get an upper hand on account of them being high-yielding or lucrative in the short-term.

India’s options at the international level

On a global scale, the discourse on WEF Nexus has increased over the years. This is especially due to the highly interconnected nature of the international economy. The water crisis in India has not only regional and national implications, but also global ones. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has also repeatedly accused India of distorting trade. Although India cannot instantly give up stockpiling or subsidies, it has to develop a strategy with the rest of the international community that integrates the three sectors of water, food and energy through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives, without impinging on the rights and interests of those in poverty.

Additionally, India cannot afford to adopt climate-friendly energy practices at the cost of its water and food security. Thus, while it enters into bilateral and multilateral arrangements, as mentioned in the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), to enhance the use of biofuels, it has to work out a formula that ensures that the country’s areas assigned for growing food crops are not encroached upon as well as crops like sugarcane are not grown in drought-prone regions.

Most importantly, the nexus approach underscores the need for the international community to invest huge amounts of resources in the farming sector in order to make it more sustainable, especially in the development and deployment of advanced technologies (irrigation, crop varieties etc.) that may prevent a future crisis. The Paris Agreement does not mention agriculture, but clearly emphasises its relevance through food security, food production and so on. Countries such as India can certainly take the lead in adapting agriculture and to an extent reducing the sector’s emissions. But they cannot do so unless financial resources are pooled in order to establish mechanisms and make them effective in the long run. At this stage, India’s priority should be to resolve its inherent contradictions and loopholes to be able to influence international policy and decision-making on addressing these issues.

[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India