Importance of water management for sustainable agriculture and future

Dr. Sudarshan Dutta

By Dr. Sudarshan Dutta – Lead Agronomist, India, Agoro Carbon Alliance

Water is an essential need for human existence. However, with the increasing population, India is facing a severe water crisis, particularly in some densely populated regions. The causes of which are unplanned and unregulated exploitation of the depleting natural resource. Alongside the depletion and insufficiency of freshwater resources, we must also consider other issues that cause water table depletion – such as climate change, rising surface temperatures, and shifting precipitation patterns. On the other hand, melting snow covers and ice sheets and increase in the frequency of flooding and droughts and similar other extreme events are adversely affecting Indian agriculture as a whole.

Water is undeniably one of the most crucial inputs for agriculture. With growing concerns about the depletion of water resources, the demand for sustainable water management in agricultural activities is rapidly increasing. And when it comes to bridging the agricultural production gap, every drop count. According to agricultural scientists, farmers in India use sometimes more than 25 times the amount of water needed to grow paddy. Improper irrigation methods and misconceptions are the major reasons for the unnecessary overuse of this scarce resource. This creates a serious need for the sustainable use of irrigation water in farming.

Let’s look at critical usages of water in farming and some key ideas for sustainable water management.

Few critical usages of water in farming

The agriculture sector in India consumes about 80-90% of water. And 80% of water is consumed by just three crops — rice, wheat, and sugarcane. In Maharashtra, for example, sugarcane, a water-intensive crop, takes up only 4% of the cropped area but consumes over two-thirds of irrigation water, that is 60%. Apart from that, rice grown in India is a water guzzler, as farmers use a whopping average of 15,000 litres to produce one kg of paddy. Since paddy is a water guzzler, its cultivation significantly impacts groundwater recharge, as one kilo of rice requires more than 5,000 litres of water.

Furthermore, with rice being one of the staple crops, a significant amount of rice (Basmati and other types) is exported from India; therefore, the water used in that which crosses India’s borders must be accounted for. According to a study based on data from 2006 to 2016, India exported an average of “26,000 million litres of water” annually.

On the other hand, we can observe the water table going down in Punjab and Haryana. A report released by the World Economic Forum in January 2020 highlights the overexploitation of groundwater due to subsidies on electricity provided to the farmers in Punjab. The report further states that the state’s rice production alone requires more than three times the amount of water Punjab receives during rainfall.

Important strategies for sustainable water management

Promoting Efficiency in Water Usage

The mantra of the existing public policies for irrigation water is “more crop–per drop.” Considering that Indian agriculture consumes 78% of total freshwater resources, it is critical to saving water efficiently to increase food production for a growing population.

Furthermore, government programs promoting micro-irrigation practices have been localized in a few states covering 7.7 million hectares of micro-irrigation, 95% of which are concentrated in ten states. Micro-irrigation should proliferate to larger crop areas; its potential extent of use in India is estimated at 69.5 million hectares. However, to reach the considerable micro-irrigation potential, it is critical to push for a shift from a supply-based to a demand-driven system.

Besides this, suggested production techniques and agronomic practices like Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), Direct-Seeded Rice, conservation agriculture, furrow irrigation, etc., are often advocated strategies for maximizing irrigation water efficiency for crops such as rice without compromising yield.

Adopting Sustainable Water Management Technologies

For high-value crops, precision irrigation models, variable-rate drip irrigation, and other micro-irrigation systems are increasingly gaining acceptance in India. Besides this, increased information and communication technology, advanced soil moisture monitoring devices, and remote sensing promote smart irrigation systems. The deployment of water conveyor pipes and underground pipelines in canal irrigation has been proven to enhance the efficiency of water usage. The most critical step here is to educate farmers about the need for sustainable water management and the economic and environmental benefits that come with it.

Policy Incentives

It has been noticed in some states that a subsidy-based approach has led to aggressive and environmentally unfriendly farming methods that are unsustainable. While there is a variety of alternative approaches that can be used, it is equally critical to put in place sustainable policy frameworks that produce appropriate infrastructure while also benefiting the economy and the environment.

Additionally, “the ongoing World Bank-supported project titled “PaaniBacho, PaiseKamao” (save water, earn money) could provide practical insights into future governmental policy to solve alarming situations. Farmers, above all, need water for irrigation rather than free electricity, as sustainable water management has the potential to double farmers’ income.

As demonstrated in some regions of India, designing a system in which the cost and burden for efficient water use can be distributed to different stakeholders through Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) of resources may prove to be a better governance model. The use of volumetric pricing for irrigation water has also been successfully tested. Also, treated, purified wastewater is being utilized to irrigate farmlands in some urban and peri-urban areas. However, scaling-up these measures would require a well-defined policy framework and structural challenges.

In addition, farmers can benefit from carbon credits with optimum and sustainable water uses. There are well-defined protocols where farmers can get the benefit of additional income through carbon credit by using irrigation water and associated technologies more efficiently.


Cost-effective and efficient water management can lead to a sustainable production system for long-term food production and economic security. So, considering the gravity of the situation, the change must begin right now.

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