India is a water-stressed country. Going by the current rate of population growth and consumption trends, India, by as early as 2050, could be a water-scarce country. That means, if this prophecy of doom comes to pass, there will be less than 1000 cubic meters of water available per person in a year.
This scarcity of water poses a severe existential challenge to humanity in general. But it presents an all the more grave and immediate threat to regions like Marathwada that rely on agriculture.
Water is fundamental to agriculture. The sector consumes about 80 percent of the total renewable water resources in India. What this means is that, given its irrigation needs, a scarcity of water will hit farming the hardest. Agriculture contributes 15 percent to India’s economy and supports the livelihoods of two-thirds of the country’s population. The scarcity of water to meet basic irrigation needs could have devastating and far-reaching consequences.
Marathwada is just one well-documented example. Many more regions, once fertile food bowls, are at risk of drying out. The growing population and the resultant need to produce more food are in turn further depleting water resources.
It’s a vicious circle and breaking agriculture out of it, through water conservation and management, is vital. But how do water conservation and a water intensive practice like farming fit together? The answer to striking this contradictory balance lies in micro-irrigation.
What is micro-irrigation?
Only half of India’s cultivated farmland is irrigated. Yet, the predominant use of out-dated and inefficient flood irrigation methods means a lot of water is lost to leakage, seepage and evaporation. In fact, less than a third of the water used in flood irrigation directly benefits the crop, with the rest wasted.
Micro-irrigation cuts out such wastage, improves water efficiency and boosts farm productivity and thereby prosperity.
There are primarily two major micro-irrigation practices adopted in India – drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation. Drip irrigation uses a network of pipes to deliver water directly to the root zone of a crop while the sprinkler method uses sprinklers to simulate rainfall and irrigate a patch of farmland.
The irrigation method is determined by different crops and their differing water needs. While drip irrigation is naturally more efficient than sprinkler irrigation, which inevitably does result in a loss of water to evaporation, both methods are vastly more beneficial compared to traditional flood irrigation methods.
The table below highlights the tangible benefits that result from the adoption of micro-irrigation compared to traditional flood-irrigation:
Parameters Benefits over Flood Irrigation
Water savings 30% - 40%
Productivity improvement 10% - 30%
Reduction in Electricity consumption 20% - 40%
Reduction Labour requirement 30% - 50%
Reduction in Fertilizer & Nutrition consumption 30%
As the table highlights not only does micro-irrigation save water and improve water use efficiency, but also enables farmers to improve the productivity and quality of their crop and cut down on costs by reducing electricity, fertilizer and nutrition consumption, and the labour required.
There are further benefits to adopting micro-irrigation beyond the quantifiable ones highlighted above. To begin with, micro-irrigation can free a farmer from the vagaries of the monsoon. Crops can be irrigated when they need to be and with the right amount of water thereby avoiding over-irrigation.
Micro-irrigation also helps preserve soil quality – where flood irrigation tends to wash away soil or results in salination which harms the soil rendering it barren over a period of time, micro-irrigation helps maintain soil fertility.
The targeted nature of the water delivery also limits the growth of weeds and protects crops from diseases. Furthermore, it can be implemented in uneven or hilly terrain, making previously uncultivable land fit for farming.
The potential for adoption of micro-irrigation is vast. Despite its obvious benefits micro-irrigation is an underutilized method with a majority of farmers still reliant on traditional but out-dated flood irrigation methods.
According to estimates micro-irrigation can potentially be adopted on 45-70 million hectares of farmland in India. Currently, only 7-10 percent of that potential has been realized but with awareness growing and government efforts to support the technology, the adoption of micro-irrigation is set to receive a major boost.
The opportunities and benefits of micro-irrigation are not lost on policymakers. For instance the government of Maharashtra – the state in which Marathwada is located – is making a major push to introduce drip irrigation for water-intensive crops, like sugarcane, in the next three years.
Companies and business houses, too, are taking the lead. I can’t speak for others in the space, but our EPC business has been a micro-irrigation pioneer in India. Our products, which include drip and sprinkler-irrigation systems, are assisting farmers in this journey, moving us closer to our vision of boosting farm prosperity by equipping farmers with cost-effective technology.
The joint effort by government and industry is helping overcome the lack of awareness and misconception about its cost that has held back the spread of micro-irrigation and is spurring its adoption.
We need to keep up this concerted push. Time is still on our side. We must work to transform parched farmland back into the prosperous food bowls they should be. Our future rests on it.