It is a frightening scenario in India. I have just returned from ESOF2012 in Dublin, UK, where the famous rain, kept us indoors for most of the day. There seemed to be no dearth of water and one was soaked if you went out unprepared. Then I come home to India where the monsoons seem to have played truant and so our water supplies in the reservoirs across the country have depleted to alarming levels. According to figures which have been released by the CWC (Central Water Commission) the situation is precarious because the monsoon has delivered normal rainfall to only one-third of the country. The total deficit so far this season is 22%, but rainfall has been 40% below average in key crop-growing areas in the north and northwest. India's 84 important reservoirs are filled only to 19% capacity, which is 41% lower than last year.
Sitting in at a session at ESOF 2012, where the discussion was on whether we can feed 9 billion people by 2050 or will we starve, the focus by several speakers was on the availability of water in the developing world and that it is in the developing world, where the bulk of the 9 billion will be. Bill Davies a water expert from Lancaster University and Jonathan Jones from the John Innes Institute, UK, spoke about the key challenge of how to enhance food production in the face of limiting water supply.
Bill Davies spoke about his experience in China where there is excessive use of water for growing of rice the staple crop. “ One kg of rice needs 2500 litres of water to be grown and China has even depleted its ground water table so where does it go now? One third of fresh water is used in irrigation,” he said, “ so if there is less water we must learn to use less,” he said. He talked about manipulating root growth characteristics of the rice plants and he has experimented successfully with watering one furrow and leaving one furrow dry, thereby saving water and still keeping the crop yield stable.
Jonathan Jones echoed the use of less water and also using geneticlly modified (GM) crops which he believes is the answer to the food crisis which will hit our planet with the current system unsustainable system of agriculture. Both scientists felt the transference of science to the field level is necessary for smart agriculture. With a combination of science and agriculture they say man has hope, to feed the projected 9 billion population, which will cover our planet by 2050.
In India, the reservoirs are filled by harvesting of the monsoon rains from June to September. The storage in the Bhakra dam, which irrigates the bread basket states of Punjab and Haryana, is barely 22% of capacity, down from 48% at the same time last year, forcing the Bhakra Beas Management Board to cut water supply by 10%. This will hit paddy and coarse cereals sown in these two states. Depleted reservoirs and weak rainfall can hurt winter planting, because fields would have inadequate moisture and crops sown after the monsoon, depend almost entirely on water flowing out of reservoirs.
The planet is at a crucial time of its existence, when rain water harvesting has not only to be maximised, but it also has to be carefully and judiciously used and it is scientists like Jones and Davies who travel to educate the farmer at the grass root level, to understand the need for smart farming practice.
Marianne de Nazareth
(The writer covered ESOF 2012 as a Robert Bosch Fellow)