Lifeline for livelihoods

Water is not just a naturally available ‘commodity’, waiting to be privatised. It is a collective resource and a prime driver for every source of life, for sustainable livelihoods, cultures, and landscapes. Access to safe water has a direct bearing on productivity and health of human and animal populations.

We are rapidly moving towards water crisis, with increasing and conflicting demands –drinking, agriculture, health, sanitation, construction etc. In a country like India, the issue is seriously compounded with growing populations, multiplying needs and unabated wastages and pollution.

India sustains nearly 17 per cent of the world’s population but is endowed with just four per cent of global water resources. About 50 per cent of annual precipitation is received in just about 15 days in a year. Leakage and inefficiencies in the water supply system waste nearly 50 per cent of usable water.

The ground water level is declining at the rate of 10 cm per year. Over 70 per cent of surface water and ground water resources are contaminated. The estimated ‘Water Gap’ for India by the ‘2030 is an alarming 50 per cent. (TERI discussion paper, 2014) (see also Box).

Improving water use efficiency in farming

Irrigated agriculture is the predominant consumer of water resources. Unconstrained use of water under water scarce regions is resulting in the deepening of water tables, environmental degradation, and also affecting soil quality. Agricultural land-use practices in general exert a major influence on ground water quality. Cropping choices determine the extent of water used in farming.

Adoption of climate resilient agronomic practices, appropriate crop choices and crop management practices go a long way in influencing the water use efficiency. It is a well known fact that crops like paddy and sugarcane are water guzzlers, whereas millets require much less water and hardy crops.

Incorporating watershed-based planning and appropriate crop choices increase the scope for in situ moisture conservation and improve biodiversity. Watershed projects introduce sustainable land management practices to encourage land use as per people’s needs and to ensure full participation of watershed users in the development and management of common properties. (Abhijit Mohanty, p.6; Mohan Dangi, p.15).

Water use efficiency can be increased by using technological approaches too. Simple techniques that are usable by communities go a long way in saving and conserving water used for crop cultivation. Innovation is the key necessity. For example, successful trials of an irrigation technology have been conducted that provides assured moisture directly to the plant root zone. It combines tradition with modernity. Buried traditional clay pots harvested rainwater which is supplied to each plant from a overhead tank through pipes. The effectiveness seems to be based on supporting gradual wetting of the soil rather than abrupt provision of water in ‘concentrated’ loads, thus enabling water saving, better absorption, microclimate and microbial activity in the soil. (K S Gopal, p.9)

Equipped with innovative approaches that cut down water consumption, farmers in Nidhan village of Madhya Pradesh have started looking for ways to grow two crops in a year. The village has been guided by the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra in their efforts to undertake water use efficiency in agriculture. (Amita Bhaduri, p.30).

The communities of Krishna Dehariya village in Madhya Pradesh are not only able to meet the current water requirement of the village but are also prepared to meet future water demands without affecting ecology. Besides crop productivity and income increases, there has been some significant changes on the social front too, for instance, increased enrolment of girl children in schools who were busy fetching water earlier. The villagers informally changed the name of village as “Krishna Dehariya” after achieving water self-sufficiency, even making a request to the District Collector to change in revenue records. (Ranchitha Kumaran, p.35).

Banking on indigenous knowledge

Traditional tribal farming communities have an invaluable wealth of indigenous knowledge about managing scarce water to grow crops. (Abhijit Mohanty, p.6). Kenis or sacred wells and Surangas reveal the ancient knowledge and wisdom of tribes of Wayanad in water conservation and sustainable utilization of perennial water sources. (Unnikrishnana Nair, p.23). By renovating traditional water harvesting structures like khadins and nadis, farmers in Barmer have proved beyond doubt that rain-fed farming, even with minimum annual rainfall in the 200-250 mm range, can contribute to the food security and enhance the quality of life of the people. (Ravdeep Kaur, p.20).

Community management is the key

Water usage practices have specific connotations based on local culture and practices, whether it is for domestic use or agriculture. Better and more efficient management requires the involvement and participation of local communities. Local level community institutions ensure proper regulation, minimize wastage, and enhance efficiency and these need to be nurtured.

However, the most basic belief system required seems to be to recognise that water is for common good. To revive this, a consultative process involving the local community, professional inputs and expertise, and persistent efforts in the field, is required. (Ravdeep Kaur, p.20). The deeper the process the more effective it is. This is illustrated by the farming community in Rajha village in Nepal through good governance mechanisms.(Ganesh Dhakal, p.12). Again, a community drive to revive wells resulted in water security for longer periods and sustained increase in rural incomes in Sawna macrowatershed area near Udaipur. (Mohan Dangi, p.15). Strong local institutions are critical for social transformation (Ranchitha Kumaran, p.35).

Supportive policies with shift in approach

There is a need for shift in approach in water resource management – from purely engineering works to systems that incorporate traditional practices, local materials and are manageable and maintainable by local communities. The local community need to be involved at all stages of discussion, planning, implementation and maintenance.

Clear policy guidance and focused local action are required to make better use of scarce water resources. The National Water Policy (NWP 2002) gave emphasis for the first time to ecological and environmental aspects of water allocation. Also, food and energy policies do influence the way the water is managed. For instance, eliminating guarantee prices or subsidies for the cultivation of highly water-intensive crops (like paddy rice or sugarcane) in water-scarce areas will greatly aid resource management.

Inspiring examples

There are inspiring examples of indomitable human endeavours guiding communities and bringing lasting changes. For instance, beginning in 1985, traditional water harvesting was revitalised and local rivers were transformed from ephemeral to perennial. (Rajendra Singh, p.26). Similarly, all her working life, Elizabeth Peredo has been engaged in defending human and environmental rights, aiming to “contribute to people living in harmony with each other in a world of solidarity, with respect for life and nature, using art, analysis and activism.”.

These examples should motivate us and enable us to move beyond individual short term interests towards long term community concerns. Its time for collective thinking and action.


S Vijay Kumar and Girija K Bharat, Perspectives on a Water Resource Policy for India, October 2014, TERI Discussion paper.

Water Facts

Did you know that by 2025, water withdrawals are predicted to increase by:

– 50 percent in developing countries

– 18 percent in developed countries

Did you know that by 2025:

Did you know that by 2025:

–  1800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity

–  two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions caused by water scarcity


Water footprints

Did you know that we need: 

Did you know that we need:

–  13 litres of water for a tomato

–  25 litres of water for a potato

–  35 litres of water for a cup of tea

–  70 litres of water for an apple

–  75 litres of water for a glass of beer

–  120 litres of water for a glass of wine

–  140 litres of water for a cup of coffee

–  170 litres of water for a glass of orange juice

–  184 litres of water for a bag of potato crisps

–  200 litres of water for a glass of milk

–  2400 litres of water for a hamburger

(source: IFAD)


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