Water management – Critical for Indian Agriculture

With climate changes resulting in erratic and unpredictable monsoons, the pressure on available water resources is increasing. To address this, Sehgal Foundation has promoted water conservation techniques and sustainable agriculture practices which have resulted in increased farm productivity and better access to food for the growing population.

Rainfed agriculture occupies about 51% of country’s net sown area and accounts for nearly 40% of the total food production. In rural India, water scarcity is the most obvious shared link between poverty, hunger, and disease. Water scarcity causes crop loss, low yield, poor quality, and an increase in abandoned acres. Water, as the most critical input in agriculture production, is often the limiting factor in semi-arid areas. Climate change, pollution of freshwater, and loss of wetlands is further adding to the water problems. Soil erosion due to water and wind contributes more than 71% of land degradation (GoI 2001). Inefficient water use also leads to environmental degradation via water logging and induced salinity. Improved irrigation efficiency is needed. Over 85% of natural wetland areas are already lost, and 75% of the land surface is significantly altered, reducing the ability of earth’s ecosystems to support a sustainable water supply. Water use has been increasing by 1% per year over the last forty years.

Obatti kere tank in Kolar, Karnataka, overflowing naturally after desiltation

Since 1940, public investment for irrigation in agriculture has been high in India (30%), Mexico (80%), and China, Pakistan, and Indonesia (50%). Despite these huge investments and subsidies, irrigation performance indicators are falling short of expectations for yield increases, area irrigated, and technical efficiency in water use. Approx. 60% of water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted (FAO 1990). A water shortage is also a crisis for wildlife. Agriculture uses the largest amount of freshwater (70%). Rivers are running dry and water tables are falling rapidly. Forty percent of the world’s grain harvest is produced on irrigated land; therefore, a water shortage will surely become a food shortage in the near future.

At present, 2,400 million people depend on irrigated agriculture for jobs, food, and income. Over the next thirty years, an estimated 80% of additional food supplies required to feed the world will depend on irrigation (IIMI 1992). At the same time, irrigated agriculture is expected to produce much more in the future while using less water than it uses today. This water dilemma—to produce more in a sustainable way with less water—implies a need for demand-management mechanisms to reallocate existing supplies, encourage more efficient use, and promote more equitable access.

The problem is clear and the answer is difficult. We need to grow less rice, sugarcane and other water intensive crops and be more efficient with irrigation systems. We need to return to traditional, low-water crops. According to the State of Indian Agriculture Report 2011–2012, even a rise of 5% irrigation efficiency can increase the irrigation potential by 10–15 million hectare. Long-term water management and conservation greatly depends on the local community’s ability to sustainably maintain its water resources through behavioural change. We must promote water-smart attitudes and behaviours among rural communities.

 SMSF Interventions

Sehgal Foundation works together with village communities in water-scarce regions to secure and sustain local water supplies, help villagers improve sanitation, and manage wastewater in schools, homes, and villages. The foundation team promotes grassroots, community-led development initiatives in key program areas. The Water Management Program focuses on improving the quantity and quality of water and water delivery systems in the community. The Agricultural Development Program promotes sustainable farming practices by empowering women farmers, increasing water conservation efforts and improving crop productivity. The Local Participation and Sustainability Program builds awareness and skills of individual citizens and village-level institutions in order to encourage the community’s active participation in their own development. All programs support the empowerment of women and girls who have long been disadvantaged. Community leaders and individual citizens are provided with knowledge, skills, and confidence to combat the poor conditions and inadequate delivery of services that afflict many rural areas.

Sehgal Foundation, since 1999, has implemented agricultural and water interventions in 1959 villages across twelve states so far in India, including Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Maharashtra.

Water management initiatives

The increasing water scarcity, due to drought, dry wells, and low levels of water table, is reducing irrigation and crop yields. To mitigate water scarcity and water-related health concerns, the Sehgal Foundation team applies technologies designed to secure and sustain local water supplies for drinking, as well as for household and agricultural purposes. The team works with rural communities to build water harvesting and conservation structures, such as check dams, construction of new and deepening of existing ponds, desilting and rejuvenation of tanks, building recharge wells, laser levelling land, using sprinkler/drip irrigation, etc. For our approach to be effective in managing water sustainably, we must include indigenous peoples as stakeholders and rights holders, taking inspiration from their skills, values, and holistic perspectives.

Because more than half of the agriculture in India is rain-fed, available water must be well managed to meet the agricultural demand for an increase in food productivity. With climate changes resulting in erratic and unpredictable monsoons, the pressure on available water resources is increasing. To address this, Sehgal Foundation works with farmers, promoting the use of sprinkler and drip irrigation, and helping individuals and communities build low-cost water storage tanks for rainwater. Water conservation techniques and the demonstration of sustainable agriculture production have resulted in increased productivity for farmers and better access to food for the growing population.

Table 1: Water management interventions of Sehgal Foundation

S. No. Water harvesting and conservation structures/interventions Numbers
1 Check dams 86
2 Nallah bunds 74
3 Ponds/Tanks development and rejuvenations 120
4 Recharge wells 421
5 Soak pits 2,210
6 Soak wells 217
7 Drip and sprinklers (in acres) 1,525
8 Laser levelling (in acres) 4,983
9 Zero tillage (in acres) 6,374
10 Farm bunding (in acres) 514
11 Farm bunding (Meters) 55,959
12 Community water tanks 38
13 Roof water harvesting in schools 183
14 WUGs/TUGs formation 41
15 Awareness sessions with WUGs/TUGs 187
16 Capacity building and awareness sessions with communities 3,646

S M Sehgal Foundation, under a CSR-supported partnership project, undertook the initiative of revitalizing this tank in Kolar district of Karnataka. For the last forty years, the village tank was not storing much water due to heavy silt and reduced water storage capacity. Kere Habba (lake festival), an annual celebration of traditional tanks, had long been forgotten in many villages, including Kempesandra, a village in Malur Taluk of Kolar (Box 1). The tank desiltation and rejuvenation work was carried out under the guidance of a Tank User Group (TUG) formed for facilitating the project and executed by S M Sehgal Foundation with financial support from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Box 1: Villagers revive Kere habba, a lake festival, after forty years in Kempasandra village of Kolar

Kere Habba (lake festival), is usually an annual celebration of traditional tanks in Karnataka. The festivities celebrate the importance of lakes. However, the celebrations have long been forgotten in many villages, including Kempesandra, a village in Malur Taluk of Kolar, Karnataka, for the last forty years, because the village tank was not storing much water, owing to heavy silt and reduced water storage capacity.

However, this year brought renewed hope as tanks were brought back to life. The tank desiltation and rejuvenation work carried out in Kempesandra village resulted in increased water storage tank capacity and multiple water fillings. For more than two weeks, locals saw tanks brimming with water. Tanks helped to recharge the groundwater of the village as well as increase the surface water availability.

Seeing plenty of water in Kempesandra village, people were motivated to revive the age-old tradition and celebrate kere habba in the KG Halli Panchayat. The tank desiltation and rejuvenation works were carried out under the guidance of a Tank User Group (TUG) formed for facilitating the project executed by Sehgal Foundation with financial support from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Kere habba celebration

Kere Habba is a community festival and a symbol of water sufficiency in the village, expressing unity. The entire village gets together for and prayers (pooja), dancing, and food. Men and women, including elders in their nineties, were seen dancing to a local band. The day-long ceremony of kere habba included a villager making the rounds of the entire village, carrying a huge lamp made up of rice flour on his head. Village women revered the lamp, which was brought to the tank as a massive gathering followed. Nobody in the village cooked in their homes as a community kitchen arranged lunch for everyone, which is generally a vegetable pulao.

The lamp is typically kept inside a decorated raft constructed locally and released onto the tank water, which is followed with a collective pooja by villagers. A couple of goats/sheep are cooked in the evening, and the whole village enjoys the local dishes such as ragi mudda, sambhar, rice, etc.

In Kempasandra, more than 200 people gathered on the tank during the occasion, including villagers, a few local leaders, and relatives from nearby villages. People were thrilled and amazed to see the results of the tank desiltation. Villagers wholeheartedly extended their thanks to Sehgal Foundation and The Coca-Cola Foundation for their wonderful work to desilt and rejuvenate the Kempesandra kere tank, which has proved to be a model tank for tank development in the region.

Salahuddin Saiphy and Subhashini G, S M Sehgal Foundation

Change is required in India’s water management to combat the looming crisis of climate change

Indian agriculture is highly prone to the risks due to climate change; especially to drought, because two thirds of the agricultural land in India is rain-fed, and even the irrigated system is dependent on monsoon rain. Flooding is also a major problem in many parts of the country, especially in eastern parts, where frequent flood events take place. In addition, frost in the northwest, heat waves in central and northern parts, and cyclones in eastern coast also cause havoc. The frequency of these climatic extremes is increasing due to the increased atmospheric temperatures, resulting in increased risks with substantial loss of agricultural production.

What we need to change in India’s water management to combat the looming crisis of climate change:

  1. Improve the efficiency of irrigation systems.
  2. Restrict the cultivation of rice, sugarcane, maize, and other water-guzzling crops where the surface water resources are absent and groundwater withdrawal exceeds the annual recharging rate, as in the last five-year averages.
  3. Ban the use of groundwater for irrigating water-guzzling crops (or else we end up in exporting our water in the form of rice, sugar, etc.).
  4. Promote traditional farming practices and staple crops especially in rain-fed agriculture zones.
  5. Make micro irrigation, like drip/sprinkler systems, compulsory for all crops wherever feasible.
  6. Withdraw subsidies on free electricity.
  7. Incentivise the use of water-efficient devices and practices.
  8. Provide better pricing and procurements support for water-efficient traditional crops.


Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers’ Welfare, Annual Report – 2020-21, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India, Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi




Salahuddin Saiphy

S M Sehgal Foundation

Email: s.saiphy@smsfoundation.org


Recently Published Articles

Women-led farm initiatives

Women-led farm initiatives

By using organic farming methods, developing connections with markets, generating income, and enhancing their own...


Call for articles

Share your valuable experience too

Share This