Optimizing the use of water in agriculture

March is a rather important month for agriculture enthusiasts as we observe March 22 as world water day. This year again, I observed a lot of conversations on social media on this topic- highlighting the need to use water efficiently. Many startups shared their solutions while academicians and policy makers deliberated on how to make the ecosystem more robust.

Farmers, the world’s greatest users of water, recognize the need to conserve water, especially in the face of a rising population and climate change with prolonged droughts and extreme temperatures. Agriculture uses three times the amount of water it did 50 years ago, and by 2050 it will need a further 19 percent. Since agriculture uses 70% of the fresh water available across the world, it is only justified that we must be most worried about how to use water efficiently.

Over the last few years, as climate change has taken its toll on the globe, we rely more and more on groundwater which has led to our water table falling at the rate of 13 ft. per year. Another big challenge for Indian agriculture is that the average rainfall has decreased by 20% since 1958 adding to the stress on water availability in India. If the situation persists, there will be a drastic increase in the number of people competing for food and water. Even currently, worldwide 66% of the population faces water scarcity for at least one month in a year and in India 80% of people lives in such conditions.

In India, 50-55% of the population is dependent on agriculture. We hence need to find sustainable solutions to feed our growing population and use water efficiently. In another blogpost- ‘Exporting water’, my colleague Mr. Pushkal  Upadhyay mentions that our agricultural practices consume about 92.6% of the fresh water available annually. Each crop that we produce, export and waste uses water. For example, in 2014-15, India exported 37.2 lakh tonnes of Basmati rice which alone used 10 trillion litres of water! This compels us to ask ourselves if we are using dwindling natural resources efficiently or not.

Most of the water loss is due to unsustainable agriculture practices or natural processes such as flood/furrow irrigation, evaporation, excessive irrigation resulting in salt accumulation in the soil, contamination of rivers/lakes, cultivation of unsuitable crops etc. We have long known the reasons, but we have not been able to quickly adapt to the long known solutions- simple steps which make huge impact in water management:

Water Management = Crop Management

Farming must not only be dependent on climatic conditions, water efficient agricultural methods must be practiced too. Drip Irrigation is one such example. Farmers in world, today are conserving water in a number of ways, such as using herbicides and herbicide-tolerant biotech crops, which allow for no-till farming so soil doesn’t need to be turned over and can retain moisture. With no-till farming, farmers can increase soil moisture content by as much as 24 percent.  From 1996 to 2013, biotech crops in Brazil saved more than 35 billion liters of water.

From 2012 to 2022, they are expected to save an additional 169 billion liters of water – enough to meet the water needs of nearly 4 million people for 10 years. Water conservation not only helps farmers produce more food with less water, it can help them cut costs. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that if the agricultural sector improved water efficiency by just 10 percent, farms could save upwards of $200 million per year. The way forward is to use agri-innovations which consume less water and also retains soil moisture.

So through efficient management of water, seed innovation and by collaborating across the chain, we can see the huge difference it would create

Watch our video for more ideas.

By Dr. Pankaj Bihani, Scientist, Mahyco