Water and Agriculture

NO WATER, NO LIFE. NO BLUE, NO GREEN.

It sounds so simple. H20 – two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. This substance also known as water, is one of the most essential elements to health and is so important that your body actually has a specific drought management system in place to prevent dehydration and ensure your survival. Water might be everywhere, but one must never take it for granted.

Water is the ultimate gift made to mankind. We cannot imagine life without it. Water is beyond everyone’s imagination. As the Hindus deemed it, water is the elixir of life. They had given water the status of a tatva or element of life. Water makes up 70% of our body and no life can be imagined without it. It is the most versatile liquid and the universal solvent and the most useful liquid. Though there is an abundant availability of water on earth, the water that we use, the freshwater availability is only 2.5 percent of all water on earth and the accessibility of this fresh water for usage is only 1 percent. The rest of the water is too salty to use and inaccessible.

India’s water abstractions per capita are 140 m3 per person.

It is very important that we do not overexploit the resources, especially water resources. Overexploitation can have serious repercussions. These repercussions can also be disastrous to the common man. The repercussions that we may face in the future are-

  • Pollution – Plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and imbibe chemicals from the soil with water and shed them as non-harmful nutrients in dead parts. If there were lesser water, plants would not grow well and pollution will thrive.
  • Imbalanced ecology – Ecosystems of many animals will cease to exist. All ecosystems depend upon water for their existence and if water is depleted to a very little quantity, the biodiversity would be greatly affected.
  • Socio-Economic Marginalisation – As the quantity of water available as fresh, usable water will decrease, there will be very little left over that will get accumulated in the hands of the rich and wealthy. This leaves the poor without any chance to survive, as they will be completely deprived of water. History is a witness to this as, when the disease rinderpest spread in Africa, over 80% of the cattle population died, succumbing to the disease. Whatever was left, was taken over by the rich landlords and the colonisers. The farmers and the herders were badly affected and were sucked into the traps of slavery. It was these people, who were taken as slaves to the United Nations of Africa. These farmers were first economically marginalised due to lack of resources and then, as they became slaves, they were socially marginalised.

We all know the essentiality of water, but let us not forget that the food we eat is equally essential. Food provides us all the necessary nutrients and energy. The food we take and eat for granted, come from a lot of toiling and hard work. It needs many materials for growth, the primary being water. Agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use. The food we talk about is not just vegetative, but also from poultry and animals.

Crops require a lot of water to grow, for instance, let us take the case of rice, the major staple crop of the World. More than 50% of the world’s population looks up to rice as staple food. Rice is a crop that needs to be half submerged in water during its growth time and this requires a lot of water. Large tracts of farmlands are flooded with water through irrigation to grow rice. It is only then that we get the best quality of rice. Approximately 4250 litres of water is required to grow a kilogramme of rice (Source – http://www.lenntech.com/water-food-agriculture.html. Approximate figure varies according to variety.). This not only includes the water for its growth, but also the one through which fertilizers and pesticides are spread, the water needed in industries for producing these fertilizers and other agricultural implements. Though not all farmers use modern day techniques for growing rice, the variation in figures is not very high.

Other staple foods that the majority of the world depends on are wheat and maize. For a kilogramme of wheat, we need 1654 litres of water and for maize; we need 900 litres of water. So anybody in the world should think thrice before wasting a farmer’s efforts and the effort made by nature to recycle the water in the hydrological cycle. Do not waste the food, think before you waste food. Think of all those people who starve due to water scarcity in the world or the people who are affected by poverty.

Let us now, take the case of beef, the meat that we acquire from cattle. Beef is eaten worldwide and is popular with many cuisines. But, have you ever wondered how much water goes into getting this? A source says that about 16000 litres of water are needed to get a kilogram of beef. This includes the water consumption by the cattle, the water consumption by the crop that is fed to the cattle and the water needed to clean the cattle and to maintain a shed for them.

Beef is not the only product that we arrive at from the animals. Another major product that we get from the cattle is milk. India is among the largest producers of milk in the world. It takes a minimum of 200 litres of water to produce one litre of milk.  In the year 2012, 127.3 million tonnes of milk was produced in India. This means that we used 25, 460, 000, 000 tonnes of water for the production of milk. We get this milk in different forms. We get it in the form of fluid milk, clarified butter i.e. ghee, butter, curd, partially dehydrated condensed milk, milk powder, etc.

The water needed for these is mainly acquired from nearby water bodies and the ground table, but as the demand of the growing population is increasing, the rate at which the water resources are exploited is very high.  If there was any less water, we would not have been able to meet such high demand and let us also not forget that we have to feed a very large population that is food deprived. Hence, this is not a sustainable model.

Agriculture too has a huge impact on the water available to us. When we irrigate the lands, a kind of link automated filtration system gets started. This filtration system is nothing but phytoremediation. The plants absorb water and take in all the contaminants. These contaminants are stored in their dead cells and are removed periodically. These are then taken care of by Saprophytes, who feed on these dead cells and make them less damage causing.

Since a long time ago, we have noticed that rainfall patterns are linked to climate and weather patterns. We have also concluded that the climate and weather patterns affect the rainfall in a place. In India, the monsoon winds arrive from the south-west regions. They go all the way to the Himalayas and pour all the way. Then, they retreat through the south-west, again pouring all the way. But now, they carry very little water and the rains in the south-west side of the country are very little. The factors affecting rainfall in India are-

  • The differential heating of the landmass of Asia and the Indian Ocean.
  • The existence of Himalayan ranges and the Tibetan Plateau.
  • The occurrence of heavy light snow over the Tibetan Plateau.
  • The existence and circulation of upper jet stream.
  • The El Niño Factor.

The climatic changes have vast effect on rainfall and hence, agriculture. Let us take the case of El Niño. El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. El Niño and La Nina have a great effect on India’s rainfall. El Niño causes droughts and after the pain, nature sends La Nina to wash over its sins and bring rain. This is all periodic, but the patterns of El Niño and La Nina have not been correctly placed yet. All that we know is that El Niño comes between every 3 to 7 years and the La Nina follows it closely, coming 1 to 2 years after the El Niño strikes. This information is not well communicated to the farmers.  For the people, these come unexpectedly and cause major weather changes. There are unexpected floods and unexpected droughts. The global warming has different effects on and is effected by El Niño. El Niño contributes to Global Warming and as Earth becomes warmer, there are disruptions with the cycles and it will be difficult for us to study them.

These heavily affect the cropping procedures of the country as the majority of farmers in India depend upon rainfall for farming. Any changes in the rainfall patterns can bring heavy losses to the farmers. In cases of El Niño, there is very little rainfall and so, the crop will not turn out nice and well. The crop will not meet the demands of the people and they will not be able to pay back the loans that they might have taken. In the case of the La Nina, there are floods and the farmers’ crops are all washed away with the huge amount of water. This is quite some bad news for the farmers.

As the temperatures rise, the water availability in higher latitudes will be more and the water availability in the lower latitudes will lessen. As the temperatures will be very high, the inverse will be the rain. There will be very little rain and there will be widespread water scarcity.

As we now know, rice crop needs a lot of water. It needs over 3000 litres of water so that the plant does not have to compromise on its nutritional factor, i.e. the nutrients such as carbohydrates and proteins. If it does not receive enough water, the plant will not grow properly. Now, as the availability of water is under a serious threat, spending so much water on a single crop would not be affordable and is an ill advice. People will have to look up to other crops such as wheat and maize. Only the rich will be able to afford rice. Wheat and maize are quite water efficient. The wheat crop needs only 1.3-kilo litres of water for its growth and can be grown in the winter season.  Next, maize is, even more, water efficient. Maize crop needs only 0.9-kilo litres of water.

Also, water is needed to acquire dairy and meat products. To take a simple example, we need about 10000 litres of water for a hamburger, which is among the world’s most favourite fast foods.

Any compromise on the nutritional quality of food cannot be tolerated. We still have about 2-3 million people who are suffering from malnutrition. Malnutrition can lead to some serious and fatal diseases. We must first look at getting these people out of their state of malnutrition and it would only be a fool’s brain that would think of putting more people into the shackles of malnutrition.

We all have seen yet, that a lot of water is required for agricultural processes. There are three sources of water, rain, surface water (includes sources such as rivers, lakes, ponds etc.) and ground water (water present below the earth’s surface). All this water is used for irrigation for the plants. But, have we ever wondered that what happens to the 2,880 cubic kilometres of water that is used for agriculture annually? (Data for 1990, http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/lectures/freshwater_supply/freshwater.html). Let us see what happens to the water used for irrigation, after agriculture –

  • Transpiration – Transpiration is the giving out of the water through leaves’ stomata. A large proportion of water is given out through transpiration.
  • Evaporation – When fields are irrigated, a lot of water is lost to evaporation and never reaches the plants.
  • Ground seepage – Unused water seeps into the ground.

To ensure that this problem does not arise, we must use sustainable farming methods. We must adopt methods such that chemical implements are efficiently used and no eutrophication is ensured. Take a look at this table for instance-

Amount of virtual water per food per country in m3/ton

 

USA

China

India

World Average

Rice

1903

1972

4252

3419

Wheat

849

690

1654

1334

Corn

489

801

1937

909

Chicken

2389

3652

7736

3918

Milk

695

1000

1369

3340

Cottonseed

2535

1419

8264

3644

 

The data that we see is metric cube of water used for every tonne of the product produced. As we can see, the amount of water that India uses in each case (except milk) is above the world average. Countries like USA and China beat us by using modern farming methods that we are not able to provide to the farmers in India. India and other countries alike must start adopting sustainable methods so that the precious water we have is not wasted and we can reach out to people who are deprived of it.

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6 Comments » for Water and Agriculture
  1. Suraj Gupta says:

    Very nice article. Lots of good info.

  2. sasaanka says:

    Good work and keep It up!????

  3. Kaushik says:

    Super essay. Great language. All the best and waiting for your next.

    • Carrie says:

      LOL! Yes, I do. I’ve left inserts in before and nothing got clean. It was awful. Yo1;28#u7&re supposed to use 2 table spoon of detergent per full load but the scent, as far as I know, isn’t meant to linger as a lot of lingering scents are what cause build up and diaper rash.

  4. Audel says:

    Yup, that’ll do it. You have my apnoiceatirp.

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