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Growing more crops with far fewer drops

Growing more crops with far fewer drops

Afast growing economy is a thirsty economy and India is no exception—with the country’s water supply already under great strain, India must reassess its consumption to meet escalating demands for water to produce food and energy.

Business-as-usual water practices cannot remain the same in India as the economy and its demand for freshwater grows over the coming decades. With an astounding 75% of freshwater already used for agriculture in India, there isn’t much room to increase water use. Indian agriculture faces the challenge of growing many more crops with far fewer drops.

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As part of a fast growing and fast urbanizing economy, Indian consumers will demand more food, especially more meat, over the coming decades. It takes much more water to “grow" meat than to grow wheat. As India expands both its population and its middle classes, this will mean more water will be needed for farming, if current practices stay the same.

In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects that in the next 20 years, farmers—including those in India—will need to increase production on aggregate by as much as 70-100% to meet future demands for food, as the world generally gets wealthier. India’s fast growing demand for energy will also add to the country’s growing water demands.

The International Energy Agency estimates that, to meet energy demand by 2030, India will need to expand its energy sector by 400Gw, which is the current combined total power generation of Japan, South Korea and Australia.

The energy sector is surprisingly thirsty. While much has been made in climate discussions of the potential fossil fuel emissions related to India’s growing energy use, less attention has been given to a much more immediate and practical problem: how to find the freshwater needed to enable India’s growth in energy demand.

For richer or fast growing economies, the energy sector can use as much as 40% of all freshwater withdrawn as part of the power generation process. Analysis suggests that, across Asia, under business-as-usual approaches, growth in energy and industry to 2025 will demand an alarming 76% more freshwater than these sectors currently use today. This pattern holds true for India.

In the coming decades, how can India balance a sharp increase in demand for freshwater for energy with a sharp increase in demand for more freshwater for agriculture? At the same time, how can India also manage the increase in demand for water from fast growing urban and industrial areas, or indeed the need to improve basic water and sanitation services to the poorest?

The problem, however, is that India’s freshwater security is already in a parlous state. Today, more than half of the groundwater in India is being extracted faster than it can be replenished. If current patterns of water management continue across India, it is possible that by 2025 more than a quarter of the country’s grain harvest could be at risk from groundwater depletion, with groundwater shortages verging toward critical in up to 60% of India’s watersheds by that date.

This challenging scenario would be played out at exactly the same time as India would need more, not less, water for food production and more, not less, water for energy generation. Water security could become a brake on India’s economic growth. Social and political costs could also be high.

In addition, if monsoon patterns become more unpredictable, and floods and prolonged hot spells become more common, an increasingly variable climate would multiply the risks associated with managing India’s future water needs.

The story painted above is drawn from multiple sources: from UN organizations, scientific investigations and expert institutions such as the IEA (International Energy Agency). Unfortunately, while there is plenty of hydrological analysis on India, it is not readily available in one place or in digestible formats, so that decision-makers can easily act upon it.

In fact (and this is the case for many countries, not just India), no clear fact-base on the supply-to-demand gap for freshwater across agriculture, energy, industry and municipal sectors to, say, 2030, yet exists for key river basins or states. This means that it is hard for decision makers to easily weigh up the various practical options on offer for managing future water needs in the economy and then to decide upon (and execute) a strategy with impact. Business-as-usual tends to prevail, and the storm clouds of a looming water crisis continue to build.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Initiative is designed to help address some of these challenges. Over the next 15 months or so, it will:

• Develop clear and comprehensive analyses on the exact water supply and demand challenges facing some key states, sectors or river basins in India to 2030.

• Identify the technological options available to close the supply-demand gap; their investment costs and economic benefits.

• Provide a network of expertise and experience from across stakeholders in development agencies, foundations, NGOs, scientific organizations and companies to help governments discuss their water management options and develop robust solutions in the form of projects, programmes, policy suggestions and partnerships.

The work is designed to leverage the public, private and expert sectors in India to support governments in their water reform strategies. To do this, the Forum’s Initiative is working closely with partners such as the Confederation of Indian Industry, the National Planning Commission and state government officials, with agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation, and with a wide range of expert organizations, NGOs and Indian companies such as Hindustan Construction Co. Ltd. In fact, once the analysis is developed, the aim is to catalyse Indian-led business-government-expert groups to develop practical, Indian-devised solutions to the problem. Leading international companies with a strong presence in India such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, Syngenta, The Coca Cola Company, Unilever and others are also providing both their global expertise as well as their Indian knowledge networks to help the process.

As an example, the work will identify through its analysis the sorts of low-cost options that exist to improve demand management and water use efficiency in agriculture (such as no-till farming, reductions in over irrigation, rice intensification) and then, through public-private consultation and discussion, devise for governments the best ways of scaling up projects and programmes to implement these options, drawing on best available knowledge from farming organizations, foundations, NGOs, academic experts and businesses. In this way, governments at the national and state level can access best-in-class thinking for their water reform strategies.

A number of workshops have already been held over the year to start developing this work. A meeting will take place at the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi to review progress and plan activities for the year ahead.

The reason for this unprecedented alignment of NGO, business, academic and other stakeholders to help support India’s officials to address their water challenges is clear: a robust and well-managed plan that links the water, food and energy sectors will not only help strengthen and grow India’s economy over the coming decades, it will also make the economy more resilient to the various resource security challenges it could otherwise face. Drawing together skills and resources from across the public, private and civil society sectors to help government officials avoid a serious water crisis is a sound, long-term investment strategy in India’s economic and social future.

Dominic Kailashnath Waughray is senior director, head of environmental initiatives,World Economic Forum.


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