Water and Sustainable Agriculture

By Divya Veluguri & GV Ramanjaneyulu

Krishna & Subol Naik in Medinipur, WB practice integrated farming that makes efficient use of water

India is consistently ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change (Eckstein, 2017). Various reports indicate that the country will be facing higher instances of droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, likely resulting drinking water scarcity, reduction in agricultural production and food insecurity. 

Water management and water security in India go hand in hand with agricultural production practices. Over 50% of the country today is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood and about 60% of agricultural area remains rain-fed (MoAFW, 2016). Water availability, for the predominantly agrarian rural parts of the country is the primary source of and constraint to livelihood, a necessity for production of both crops and livestock. 

63% of irrigation in India today is dependent on groundwater, and the rest on surface water sources like canals and tanks (MoAFW, 2016). Nearly 90% of groundwater extracted in the country is used for irrigation, compared to just around 10% that is used for domestic and industrial purposes. However, groundwater continues to meet over 80% of the domestic water use requirements in both urban and rural areas (CGWB, 2017). India today is the largest groundwater extractor in the world, fast depleting its reserves. States like Punjab and Haryana, the largest producers of food grains, are also most at risk due to exploitative groundwater use. Per the Central Ground Water Board report of 2013, Punjab extracted 149% of its annual recharge capability, with less than 20% of its aquifers declared “safe” for use (Veluguri, 2019). 

Given this, efficient water budgeting and water management practices are the need of the hour and agriculture, as the largest consumer of fresh-water resources in the country, must be centre stage. There has been a consistent shift in cropping patterns over the years towards highly water-intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane, which together consume about 80% of irrigation water (NABARD, 2018). Despite scarcity of water resources, irrigation practices in the country remain largely inefficient. 

Large scale projects like inter-linking of rivers and construction of large dams, besides the well-documented adverse environmental impacts, remain highly expensive and, many times, practically unviable affairs (Harsha, 2019). Thus, a shift towards sustainable water use calls for a shift towards micro-irrigation practices, reliant on small scale storage of rainwater and watershed-level management, paired with a shift towards sustainable production practices and cropping patterns. 

This also includes deliberate selection of crop varieties and planning of production areas based on local and regional resources constraints. Crops like pulses and oilseeds (India being a net importer for both, relying on imports to meet nearly 70% of its cooking oil requirements) will go a long way towards providing food security in the country, while also promoting water and livelihood security and natural resource conservation. 

Biodiversity in all its components (genes, species, ecosystems), increases resilience to changing environmental conditions and stresses.  Genetically diverse populations and species rich ecosystems have greater potential to adapt to climate change. Use of indigenous and locally adapted plants and animals, i.e., selection and multiplication of crop varieties animal species locally adapted and resistant to adverse conditions is essential (FAO 2002).

Climate change adaptation for agricultural cropping systems requires a higher resilience against both excess of water (due to high intensity rainfall) and lack of water (due to extended drought periods).  A key element to both problems is soil organic matter, which improves and stabilizes the soil structure so that the soils can absorb higher amounts of water without causing surface runoff, which could result in soil erosion and flooding further downstream.  Soil organic matter also improves the water absorption capacity of the soil during extended drought. While intensive tillage reduces soil organic matter through aerobic mineralization, low tillage and the maintenance of a permanent soil cover (through crops, crop residues or cover crops and the introduction of diversified crop rotations) increases soil organic matter.  A no- or low-tilled soil conserves the structure of soil for fauna and related macropores (earthworms, termites and root channels) to serve as drainage channels for excess water. Surface mulch cover protects soil from excess temperatures and evaporation losses and can reduce crop water requirements by 30 per cent. Thus organic/ecological farming can increase soil organic carbon, reduce mineral fertilizer use and reduce on-farm energy costs (Ziesemer, 2007). 

A broad range of agricultural water management practices and technologies are available to spread and buffer production risks.  Enhancing residual soil moisture through land conservation techniques assists significantly at the margin of dry periods while buffer strips, mulching and zero tillage help to mitigate soil erosion risk in areas where rainfall intensities increase.  The inter-annual storage of excess rainfall and the use of resource efficient irrigation remain the only guaranteed means of maintaining cropping intensities (FAO, 2007).       

The negative impact of ruminants through emission of greenhouse gas emissions can be addressed through changes in animal husbandry including ruminant diets and animal stocking ratios to avoid methane emissions.  Effective waste management in the form of biogas, etc. can also reduce the emissions in the form of methane.

Sustainable Agriculture (ecological farming/organic farming/Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA)/Non-Pesticidal Management/System of Rice Intensification (SRI), etc.) approaches are now acknowledged for the wide set of ecological and economic benefits. (Ramanjaneyulu, 2012). These approaches lead to effective water management, building ecological and economic resilience and broadly support mitigation and adaption to climate change. 

Various AID partners and programs like Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Telangana, Service Center in Bengal, Women’s Initiative in Andhra Pradesh, Sustainable Agriculture Program in the Sunderbans are working to promote sustainable agricultural and water management practices in the most vulnerable parts of the country. 


(Divya Veluguri is a Research Associate at the Harvard School of Public Health with a focus on sustainable agriculture. She has been an AID volunteer for 10 years)

(Dr Ramanjaneyulu is an agriculture scientist and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a long time partner of AID)


CGWB (2017). Annual report central ground water board Central Ground Water Board

Eckstein, D., Künzel, V., & Schäfer, L. (2017). Global climate risk index 2018. Germanwatch, Bonn.

FAO (2002) Biodiversity and the Ecosystem Approach in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Proceedings of Satellite event on the occasion of the Ninth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome 12-13 October 2002

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) (2007) Adaptation to Climate Change in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Perspective, Framework and Priorities, report of the  interdepartmental Committee on Climate Change, http://www.fao.org/nr/climpag/pub/adaptation_to_climate_change_2007.pdf

MoAFW (2016). Agriculture statistics at a glance 2016. New Delhi:Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare.

Ramanjaneyulu GV (2012) Adapting Smallholder Agriculture to Climate Change in IDS Bulletin Volume 43 Number S1 July 2012 Institute of Development Studies Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK

Veluguri, D., Ramanjaneyulu, G. V., & Jaacks, L (2019). Statewise Report Cards on Ecological Sustainability of Agriculture in India. Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai.

Harsha, J. (2019). Ageing Large dams and Future Water Crisis. Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai.

Ziesemer Jodi (2007) ENERGY USE IN ORGANIC FOOD SYSTEMS, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 

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