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Prospects for agricultural water management

Water resource availability is replete with severe uncertainties. Frequent severe droughts and floods are not uncommon. There is a need to produce as much as 325-350 million tonnes of food grains by 2025 to meet the food, feed, fodder and fibre requirements of India. To meet this estimate of food grain requirement it is assumed that the overall irrigation efficiencies will be 50 percent for surface water systems and 72 percent for groundwater systems, compared to the present level of 35-40 percent, and that the national average food grain production yields are expected to increase to 3.5 tonnes/ha for irrigated areas and 1.25 tonnes/ha for rainfed areas, compared to the present levels of 2 tonnes/ha in irrigated areas and 1 tonne/ha in rainfed areas. In the wake of the development of large-scale irrigation facilities, there were several serious problems related to the degradation of soil, water, and environment, which threatened the sustainability of agricultural production. These include:

  • land availability for agriculture is extremely limited;
  • a total of 8.53 million ha is subject to waterlogging;
  • land degradation of over 22.5 million ha is caused by floods, water and wind erosion;
  • the per capita availability of water resource is expected to reduce to 1 335 m3/year by 2025;
  • no irrigation development has taken place in the Brahmaputra basin, which has 60 percent of India’s water resources;
  • agriculture in India will face stiff competition for water from other sectors. By 2025, agricultural water withdrawal is expected to fall to 70 percent of total withdrawal, against 90 percent at present;
  • irrigation tanks have been neglected and most have become non-operational; and
  • continued extensive pollution of water bodies, both from point and non-point sources, has deteriorated the quality of available water resources, further depleting usable water

The important issues that need to be addressed immediately, to overcome these constraints, and to achieve sustainable development and use of water resources to ensure the targeted food grain production of 325-350 million tonnes by 2025 the include:

  1. considering precipitation as the primary renewable water resource;
  2. undertaking effective steps for the speedy completion of ongoing major and medium irrigation projects where large investments have already been made without appreciable physical achievement. Rehabilitation and modernization of old irrigation works is of utmost priority;
  3. reorienting irrigated agriculture to produce more with less water;
  4. providing incentives to farmers that adopt water-saving devices and scientific irrigation scheduling;
  5. combatting waterlogging and salinity build up in irrigation command areas;
  6. combatting unsustainable use of groundwater;
  7. inducing scientific management of water resources in drought prone areas;
  8. directing all efforts towards ensuring access to safe drinking water for all;
  9. pricing irrigation water in a way that will cover at least the O&M charges of providing the service. The water rates shall be linked directly to the quality of service provided;
  10. increasing participatory irrigation management and transfer of the management of water distribution system to stakeholders, spreading water use literacy among stakeholders through training programmes, and providing water at cheaper bulk rates to WUAs;
  11. ensuring environmental protection of water resources by meeting environmental flow requirements, environmental management of river systems, and prevention of pollution to groundwater bodies and conservation of wetlands.

To intensify research and development (R&D) efforts to seek ways to improve water-use efficiency, both location specific field studies and analytical studies should be implemented to develop systematic decision support systems for planning and implementing real time operations in the irrigation systems. These measures would allow growing multiple crops under limited water supply, using modern tools such as medium range weather forecasts, and modern irrigation methods.

Efficient water management in agriculture could fulfil the future food needs of India because of several comparative advantages. The most common strengths and opportunities for increasing food grain production, through improved water management include:

  • high average annual rainfall as compared to many other countries;
  • irrigation infrastructure is the largest in the world;
  • total cropped area is the second largest in the world;
  • widely varied climatic zones –from temperate regions suitable for horticultural crops, flowers, to tropical regions suitable for cereals, oilseeds and pulses, with ample sunshine for over 11 months of the year;
  • vast alluvial tracts of the entire Gangetic plains, the fertile deltaic regions of major rivers such as the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri, which are endowed with rich water resources, possess excellent potential for food production;
  • India has the world’s third largest fertilizer industry;
  • the large National Agricultural Research System (NARS) comprises 87 national institutes and research centres, 81 all-India coordinated research projects and 29 agricultural universities; and
  • there is ample scope for realizing the full yield potentials for most crops.

Uncommon opportunities, which are high technology innovations that are likely to be developed in the future are:

  • membrane technology for wastewater treatment and desalinization at low cost, thus increasing water availability to agriculture;
  • biotechnology: low water requiring crops, high yielding plant varieties that are most environmental friendly, plants that are salt tolerant or drought tolerant, plants with pest resistance (reduces pesticide pollution), hyper toxin accumulating plants to remove soil toxins;
  • microbial technologies for wastewater treatment for agricultural reuse;
  • increase in yields of rainfed agriculture; and
  • separating heavy metals and other toxins from soil and water.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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