We all know that planet earth has more water than land but sadly just about 3 per cent of the Earth’s total water is fresh water and over two third of that is in glaciers. That makes it about less than 0.5 percent of our fresh water available in lakes, ponds and rivers.
Each time I visit the US, I get amazed by the enormous natural resources that the country is endowed with. Roughly over a quarter of surface fresh water is within the geographical boundaries of the US. It’s a treat to watch the immensity of the Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. One of the many reasons that make it what it is.
India is naturally endowed in its own ways but unfortunately we are dependent largely on ground water, it is not a coincidence that India has the highest ground water withdrawalin the world. Over two third of India’s agriculture is ground water dependent, so is its industry and households. It is therefore a no brainer to envisage that water conservation will emerge as the biggest development challenge for us.
The entire agriculture lifecycle from farm to food requires enormous quantities of water. Current estimation indicates that in India, agriculture accounts for almost 80 percent of the water withdrawals and that puts an extra need to go for efficient food consumption.
Water, therefore, by far remains the most critical component of food security. On the face of it, we have enough water to address our needs, but we need to account for billions of people living in areas that face acute water scarcity and are pushed further into the poverty cycle.
Water sustainability calls for a holistic approach from a producing more with less, significant policy changes to having multiple local, state and nationwide solutions. Interstate water disputes do not help. More often than not our conversations are acerbic, fault-finding and unilateral. This can be a good strategy if we have completely given up hopes and looking to pass the blame.
What is a better option? To be on the winning side without getting any credit or to be on the losing side, looking for someone to pass the blame. Myopic victories are short-lived and it is common sense that if you call me a culprit, you are leaving a very little room for me to collaborate.
Water has to be at the centre-stage of an honest and meaningful discourse. We have very little data that can establish the exact amount of ground water withdrawal across aquifers. Most of the natural water storage is encroached upon, we have no choice but to rejuvenate them, India’s water storage is underground and it is therefore critical to go for extensive rainwater harvesting and watershed projects.
It also calls for an efficient water management across the entire agricultural production chain and investment in technologies that improves industrial efficiencies, creation an ecosystem that ensures the optimization of water usage by citizens. We need to take a hard look at crop efficiency, competitive
ecological advantage for growing one crop versus another and growing it at one place over another. Similarly building industrial parks at one place versus other and relook at unabated rampant industrialisation.
There’s no better time to begin this discussion than now when parts of India have been facing severe water scarcity in recent times, partly because of insufficient rains. But, India loses most of its annual rainfall as it drains into the ocean. Currently, the country can only store the equivalent of about 30 days of rainfall as against almost 900 days in river basins of the more developed economies such as USA.
India’s surface-water storage capacity needs strategic intervention as it can change the way, we as a nation are able to cope with drought or seasonal imbalances in water availability. Indian dams can store about 200 cubic meters per person, that is 1/5th of what China can store and a mere 4 per cent of the USA. The problem is further compounded by the fact that we are the second most populated country in the world.
Let’s now look at the implications of water scarcity on food security. In 1996, the World Food Summit defined food security as existing when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. The right to food is a human right that essentially protects the right for people to feed themselves in dignity –a right affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
For this to happen, sufficient food needs to be available. However, India is still grappling with the challenge of access to adequate food, especially in the rural areas. Production of food is heavily dependent on access to natural resources, including water. When people have better access to water, they tend to have lower levels of undernourishment. Since water is a fundamental to food security and poverty reduction, prudent water management can impact the socio-economic development of a society.
Water is a natural resource and that makes every individual equally responsible for its effective management. However, empowering communities to understand water management techniques could go a long way is its conservation. According to a United Nations report roughly 30 per cent of the food produced worldwide (1.3 billion tons) is lost or wasted every year. Producing 1 kg of rice, requires an astounding about 3,500 litres of water.
Sustainable access to safe drinking water leads to lower risks for malnutrition and it is a complex scenario that may not have any quick-fix. Food and nutritional security are a global issue and needs synergic public private partnerships, long-term commitments and strategic investments.
Greener and sustainable food production will require innovative technologies that can produce food with high nutritional value yet consumer lesser water. Efficient irrigation strategies will not only improve crop yields but encourage recycling of drainage water, improve crop protection, reduce post-harvest losses and ultimately create more sustainable produce.
The challenges are staring us in the face and we know the solutions. It’s time we all join hands to achieve a future that is achievable and is worth achieving!
Ishteyaque Amjad is Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications,