Water for Food

Understanding agricultural water use in North India

November 11, 2015
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About the author:
Jimmy O’Keeffe is a PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, London. His research focuses on modelling and understanding the small- and large-scale impacts of agricultural water use in part of the vast Indo-Gangetic Plain in India. Jimmy is working with Nick Brozovic, director of policy, and recently spent several weeks in Lincoln to further his research. We asked him to tell us about the main water issues in his field area, and also to reflect on his experience in working with smallholder farmers in India.

Understanding agricultural water use in North India
More than 200 million people are crowded into Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most densely populated state, and the overwhelming majority of whom rely on farming for a living. UP is one of India’s leading agricultural producers, annually contributing about 25% of the state’s GDP (UNDP, 2013). Most farming in India looks very different to what we’re used to in the developed world. Over the last 100 years, however, some aspects of Indian agriculture, particularly irrigation, have advanced at a breathtaking pace, largely as a result of improved technology. At the turn of the 19th century, canal systems, carrying water from the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to farmers across the North Indian plains, greatly improved agriculture and the lives of many farmers. However this only served those who had access to the canal network, leaving many farmers literally in the dust. In addition, farmers at the head of the canal systems generally fared better, receiving a more reliable supply of water than farmers at the tail ends. Great advances in Indian agriculture came with the advent of the abstraction pump, both diesel and electric, which allowed farmers to tap into the vast groundwater reserves in the aquifers underlying the Ganges plains (Shah, 2008). Now, farmers outside the reach of the canals had access to irrigation water and for many, rainfed irrigation became a thing of the past. In years of poor monsoon rains farmers could buffer the impacts of drought using groundwater, saving and improving the yield of crops that otherwise would have been lost. Even farmers who had access to canals now had an additional water source to rely on when canal water was late or insufficient for their irrigation needs. This agricultural revolution has led Utter Pradesh from a drought- and famine-prone state to one of food self-sufficiency (Jewitt & Baker, 2007).

Despite the tremendous benefits of irrigation improvements, the advances have also caused considerable degradation of India’s water resources. For the most part, India has no restrictions to using groundwater; as long as you have a well that can reach the water table, you can use as much water as you want. In some cases, even the electricity used to pump the water is heavily subsidized, and this is a great benefit for farmers are wealthy enough to afford electric pumps. Poorer farmers and those without an electricity connection are limited to more expensive diesel.

Most farmers today in Uttar Pradesh irrigate using tube wells, and since the beginning of India’s Green Revolution in the 1970s, the number of wells has increased dramatically. According to the 2013 Statistical Abstract of Uttar Pradesh, there are more than 9 million private tube wells, separate from any government boreholes or hand dug wells, tapping the vast monsoon-fed aquifers. While water resources are depleting across North India as a whole, there is little research about water use and its impacts at a local level.

With no pumping restrictions, enormous demand, and affordable access to groundwater, large scale groundwater pumping has led to extreme water stress across much of north India (Rodell et al., 2009). This includes Uttar Pradesh, where about 80% of all water used is directed toward irrigation. Here, the groundwater levels have been dropping at an alarming rate, with farmers often reporting an annual water level reduction of 0.5 metres or more. It takes more time and energy to reach groundwater at deeper levels, making it more expensive to irrigate, and further burdening India’s smallholder farmers, many of whom are already struggling to make a living from the land. Water is the lifeblood of rural India, but its limited supply is not well understood.

Figure 1: Map of my main study areas including the locations of the field interviews
carried out during field work.

My dissertation research is part of larger project that involves universities in India and the United Kingdom, including IISc Bangalore, IIT Kanpur and Imperial College London. Over the last few years, I’ve been studying the irrigation practices of farmers in four districts in Uttar Pradesh. The districts investigated include Sitapur and Sultanpur, to the north of the Ganges River, and Jalaun and Hamirpur in a more drought-prone region in the south of the state (see Figure 1). My field work involved 200 farmer interviews, with 50 in each of the four districts. Gathering detailed information on the ground is a vital part of developing better ways of managing water in the future. Field interviews provide a fantastic way of achieving this knowledge, as interviews reveal, for example, how much farmers pay for irrigation and the volumes of water used, as well as the reasons behind the practices adopted. Without talking with farmers, it’s impossible to understand the decisions they face and how daily and seasonal decisions about irrigation are actually made. It is also important to remember that the farmer is the expert and has a much better understanding of their environment than any visiting researcher. In my study area, the farms themselves are less than 2 ha on average. They are generally extremely well kept with the land often tilled, planted and harvested by hand. Just like farmers anywhere else in the world, Indians make the best use of whatever resources they have, although the way in which they use these can vary a lot. For example, farmers in Sitapur apply the most water per tonne of wheat produced (1017 m3/t), significantly more than farmers in any of the other three districts (Sultanpur 219 m3/ha, Hamirpur 429 m3/ha, Jalaun 320 m3/ha). Despite this, wheat yields in Sitapur are the lowest of the four at 4.3 t/ha with those in the other districts averaging 7.3 t/ha each. The cost of irrigation is lowest in Jalaun, less than half of any of the other districts. While soil type plays a role, this is largely due to water source, as a large proportion of farmers have access to cheap, and sometimes free, canal water. Interestingly Hamirpur, located next to Jalaun, with similar soil types, has the highest cost of irrigation, highlighting the fact that in a relatively short distance conditions can change considerably.

Carrying out field work in India can be challenging. The locations are remote, the roads are often rough and dangerous and suitable guides can be difficult to find. Surprisingly, I found the most straightforward part of the fieldwork was conducting an interview itself since most farmers were extremely happy to answer my questions. Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest regions of India with one of the country’s lowest literacy rates, something that is particularly evident in rural areas. Contacting interview participants before reaching a site was virtually impossible, so the best way to find interviewees was to approach them in the field with an interpreter. Understandably farmers were generally pretty surprised when we appeared in their fields, and sometimes half of the village turned up to find out what we were doing. When I directed questions to a particular farmer, ten others responded with their own opinions!

As a water resource scientist, it’s easy to come up with desk-based solutions to real world problems. But without understanding water use practices on a local level, the chances of success are small. To create innovative, yet realistic and sustainable ways of managing water resources in the future, we must first understand how, and why farmers use water the way they do, and the best way to do this is to speak to the farmer.


– Jimmy O’Keeffe (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial
College London)

I would like to acknowledge the support of the NERC Changing Water Cycle (South Asia) project: Hydrometeorological feedbacks and changes in water storage and fluxes in Northern India (grant number NE/I022558/1).

Jewitt, S., & Baker, K. (2007). The Green Revolution re‐assessed: Insider perspectives on
agrarian change in Bulandshahr District, Western Uttar Pradesh, India. Geoforum, 38(1), 73–89. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.06.002

Rodell, M., Velicogna, I., & Famiglietti, J. S. (2009). Satellite‐based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature, 460(7258), 999–1002. doi:10.1038/nature08238

Shah, T. (2008). Taming the Anarchy: Groundwater Governance in South Asia. New Delhi: Routledge.

UNDP (2013). Uttar Pradesh: Economic and Human Development Indicators. Retrieved from http://www.in.undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/uttar_pradesh_factsheet.pdf




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