Water-Agriculture-Livelihood Security in India

For Indians, the very mention of the word “Punjab” conjures up visions of lush green fields, rich alluvial soils and water aplenty. Punjab has for years been the breadbasket of India, and since the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, it has taken on an even greater role in feeding the nation. Comprising a mere 1.57 percent of India’s total geographical area, today the state of Punjab produces 12 percent of India’s 234 million tons of food grain, and nearly 40 and 60 percent of the wheat and rice that buffer the nation’s central pool for maintaining food stocks. Today, however, Punjab’s agricultural success is threatened by unsustainable irrigation practices and a rapidly dropping water table.

"The Columbia Water Center was one of the original core partners of the PepsiCo Foundation’s Water Portfolio a decade ago, which I was fortunate to co-create. At the time, it was the largest grant by the Foundation to a single grantee, which brought interest in the collaboration from many stakeholders, both internal and external. Dr. Lall and the team at the Columbia Water Center did not disappoint! The partnership not only provided over 4,000,000 people with access to safe water, but proved innovative models of predictive water allocation, and demonstrated the impact that can result when world-class academic rigor, private sector support, and an enabling policy framework by government work together in unison.”
Dan Bena, Former Head of Sustainable Development, PepsiCo Global Operations, Professor (Hon) and Trustee, Glasgow Caledonian University

The Columbia Water Center is working to promote climate change adaptation and water sustainability while improving farmer livelihood and food security in three key regions of India: Gujarat, Punjab and Bihar. Development and implementation of a public-private partnership to provide modern extension services to farmers for climate and market informed crop choice and irrigation improvements to improve water productivity, income and climate risk management.

CWC and the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) are collaborating on field research in Central Punjab to explore the practical implications of whether water use in rice-wheat cropping can be reduced to achieve sustainable groundwater use even if electricity subsidies and procurement policies are not changed, and if large-scale contract farming can promote crop diversification and introduce crops that are not as water intensive, independent of policy changes. By working directly with farmers and agro-corporations to develop and test scalable solutions for saving water in agriculture, these institutions are exploring the practical implications of both questions.

Surveys indicated farmers were concerned with the increasing costs of deeper well drilling and pump replacement, as well as poor energy reliability. They are willing to pay more to get reliable electricity and to adopt water saving technologies that can reverse groundwater depletion.

Initial research helped to establish a link between high water use and guaranteed state-subsidized rice-wheat procurement. Grain farmers used large quantities of water and produced a less lucrative crop. Farmers who planted vegetable crops that provide essential micronutrients were able to generate much higher incomes without using as much water.

Through structured field tests, our researchers sought to identify one or more technologies or practices that could save water in rice cultivation and that were attractive to farmers. The application of inexpensive soil moisture sensors was shown to be the most successful of all the tested approaches so the CWC project team is recruiting farmers to scale up this strategy. Farmers are rapidly adopting the use of soil moisture sensors and are being provided climate, weather and market price forecasts to support their decisions on crop choice and irrigation.

Chart: Conceptual decomposition of the factors contributing to the groundwater depletion in Punjab from Green Revolution policies

The preliminary impacts of the CWC strategy show that water use could be cut as much as 33% by the use of soil moisture sensors averaged across all 7,000 farmers engaged over the course of the project—including non-adopters. The potential savings from scale-up of soil moisture sensor application state-wide are 615 million kWh/year of electricity and 3.55 million liters of water per hectare per year. This sustainable agriculture practice could also save Rs 2,500 ($50M), over 70,000 tons carbon, and would meet the drinking needs of well over 150 million people each year.