Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Water Scarcity Compounds India’s Food Insecurity
A woman carries firewood in Gujarat on Aug. 6, 2012, as others rest under a tree after they migrated because of a water shortage. Reuters photo: Ahmad Masood
Since India’s independence, the mammoth task of feeding its hundreds of millions, most of whom are extremely poor, has been a major challenge to policymakers. In the coming decades, the issue of food insecurity is likely to affect almost all Indians. However, for the poorest amongst us, it could be catastrophic. India ranks 65 of 79 countries in the Global Hunger Index. This is extremely alarming.
In the past few years, uneven weather patterns combined with over exploited and depleting water resources in various parts of India have wreaked havoc on food security, particularly for small and marginal farmers, as well as the rural poor.
The recently launched Global Food Security Index (GFSI) estimates that in 2012, there are 224 million Indians, around 19 percent of the total population, who are undernourished. The same report also estimates that while the Indian government has various institutions designed to deal with the impact of inflation on food prices, it only spends 1 percent of agricultural GDP on research to build food security for the poorest. Overall, India ranked 66th on the GFSI. It is estimated that one in four of the world’s malnourished children is in India, more even than in sub-Saharan Africa.
Water insecurity, further exacerbated by climate change, is arguably the most important factor for India’s food security. India’s total water availability per capita is expected to decline to 1,240 cubic metres per person per year by 2030, perilously close to the 1,000 cubic metre benchmark set by the World Bank as ‘water scarce’.
Factors such as increasing usage, poor infrastructure, and pollution have led to a decline of water quantity and quality in India. Climate change, meanwhile, is expected to cause a two-fold impact.
One, increasing temperatures have hastened the rate of melt of the Himalayan glaciers, upon which major Indian rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra depend.
Second, the effect of climate change on monsoons in India will cause them to become more erratic, arriving earlier or later and lasting for shorter, more intense periods of time. India’s farming communities depend overwhelmingly on the monsoon, as their cropping patterns are built around it. The combined effect of climate change and over exploitation is violating the water cycle, degrading aquifers and eroding ground water resources.
Over 50 percent of agricultural land in India depends entirely on groundwater. In North and Northeast India, where perennial rivers (rivers that have water year round, i.e. glacier fed rivers in India, such as the Ganges) sustain the agricultural land, have to deal with issues such as flooding caused by climate change impacts such as speedier glacier melt and erratic monsoons.
Meanwhile, farmers in states in West and South India, where rivers are seasonal, have to depend heavily on rapidly depleting groundwater resources.
The worst affected by this type of water-fuelled food insecurity are the small farmers of India. Estimates suggest that between 1995 and 2010, over 2,50,000 farmers in India, mostly from states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, killed themselves. Most of these farmers were drowning in vicious cycles of debt caused by failed monsoons and increasing droughts.
Responses to this crisis, including the National Action Plan on Climate Change, lay out various solutions and intended interventions, but most focus on the long term. To secure the future of India’s water resources vis-à-vis its agriculture in the future, it is important that certain steps be taken immediately. First and foremost, authorities will have to remove the mindset that water is an endless resource and the solution to water woes is simply a further development of India’s fast depleting groundwater.
Indeed, Dr. Mihir Shah, co-Founder, Samaj Pragati Sahayog (SPS) and member of the Planning Commission of India has stated that the ‘era of further water development may be over’ and emphasized that we have to urgently introduce more efficient water management. In this regard, promotion of irrigation efficiency will be crucial in the future.
Systems such as drip irrigation and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to farmers across India will be essential. It will also be necessary to promote water conservation methods such as rain water harvesting, which has been successful in urban India, in villages as well.
At the same time, reducing inefficiencies and water wastage through conveyance losses will require governmental and NGO support in actions such as replacing faulty pipes and pumps. Hence, India needs to invest on improving its water productivity, and any capacity to produce more food like rice with less water will be an important contribution to sustainable water and food security.
In short, India is facing a bleak future of becoming water scarce and painfully food insecure. How exactly are the country’s hundreds of millions, who depend entirely on agriculture for their livelihoods, as well as those that depend on agriculture for their food needs, to make ends meet?
Delaying this issue is simply not an option for India as this could lead to increased instability, poor human development and enhance inter-generational poverty. India needs to ensure food security through sustainable development and create resilience amongst the most vulnerable in the country: the poor.