The ongoing drought conditions in India have affected 256 districts in 10 different states and more than 300 million people. Another figure quoted by the Minister of Rural Development and Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation stand at 313 districts in 13 states. Acute water scarcity/stress in many parts of the country has resulted in severe distress in many ways, including loss of crop, farmer suicides and rural-to-urban migration. The situation is so precarious that the Supreme Court (the apex court in India) has also stepped in to direct the Central government to declare the drought as a humanitarian disaster, and set up a consolidated fund and national response force to deal with drought conditions.


While much analysis has been carried out linking the drought to climate change, investigating its socio-economic implications and exploring policy options to tackle the problem, a more inclusive and holistic approach towards addressing the issue needs to be brainstormed and put into action. The water-energy-food (WEF) nexus approach could potentially put the issue in perspective and help offer a few solutions.


The natural and human factors


The nexus approach towards understanding and tackling resource issues emerged primarily in the wake of the food and energy crisis in 2007-2008. Since then, the nexus approach has been adopted to analyse a number of insecurities connected to water, energy, food and climate, especially with a focus on human security. In a country like India, rising population and growing prosperity are already putting unsustainable pressures on the available resources. The changing climate and poor natural resource management are compounding the stress.


A deficit of 14 percent in rainfall during the Southwest monsoon in 2015 with some regions recording a deficiency of over 40 percent, the drought-like conditions had been aggravated by the El-Nino phenomenon – linked to climate change. However, this alone cannot be blamed singularly for the water crisis that the country is in the middle of. As experts observe, a good monsoon this year cannot resolve India’s long-term water woes. Whether it is unregulated groundwater extraction for irrigation or water wastage in urban areas; whether it is diversion of river water for different purposes or the lack of investments in storage systems; whether it is unsustainable cropping patterns or pricing of energy and agricultural commodities – the range of factors that have contributed to the drought is extensive, clearly pointing towards the nexus operating at all levels.


The fast-depleting groundwater


In a country where 80 percent of the water is consumed by the agricultural sector and 65 percent of the agricultural land is irrigated by the groundwater and 84 percent of the net increase in irrigated area is on account of the groundwater in the last four decades, a large proportion of the problem could be resolved by fixing the poorly managed agricultural sector (particularly farming practices) that is critical for food security. Moreover, it indicates the need for focussing beyond surface water management and addressing the more important groundwater crisis.


The genesis of this crisis can be traced back to the Green Revolution of the 1960s when the country’s policy and epistemic communities, in order to raise agricultural yields multi-fold and make India food secure, as well as to support rural and low-income farmers, took to massive cultivation of high-yielding crops (mainly cereals), mostly employing flood irrigation (that uses relatively low levels of technology and labour). Flood irrigation has been criticised heavily for its contribution to water wastage through evaporation, run-off, soil erosion, leaching of fertilisers and so on. Eventually, water resources are over-exploited and wasted as yields do not increase proportionately to water usage. In the subsequent years, flood irrigation has given way to drip and micro irrigation in many parts of the country but in the drought-hit areas, the former practice has not been completely abandoned and in many cases, the former is still more popular, as in Maharashtra


The flawed cropping patterns


Maharashtra is a leading sugarcane producer, one of the most water-intensive crops and its cultivation is primarily rain-fed, unlike in Uttar Pradesh (another major producer) where it is irrigated. The state has been reeling under severe drought for the past few years due to inadequate rainfall. The farmers have been forced to depend to a great extent on groundwater (using tubewells and borewells that pump water to the surface) to sustain yields, even at a time when drinking water is scarce.


Karnataka’s (not far behind Maharashtra in terms of sugarcane production) story remains the same. Ironically, the government policy of promoting the cane industry (by reducing duties in comparison to other crops and by providing incentives for exports, free/subsidised water and electricity) so far has led to its cultivation replacing other crops such as ragi and jowar with more and more farmers opting to plant it. Similarly, rice – another water-intensive crop but one of the staple crops of India – is being grown in regions (the Punjab-Haryana belt) that have depleting water tables. This brings to light the inherent irony in the farming practices followed in the country, especially in terms of cropping patterns, wherein water-intensive crops are grown and promoted in regions (to this day) that have historically been drought-prone.


Where water, energy and food meet


Even more importantly, large tracts of land that were earlier being used for cultivating food crops are now being diverted to cane – that not only feeds the sugar industry but is increasingly being seen as a source of biofuels that could cater to India’s move towards greening its automotive industry by introducing flexible-fuel vehicles. The country has previously unsuccessfully experimented with jatropha, a plant promoted by the government to produce bio-diesel. A move towards flex-fuel at this stage will therefore have to take into consideration the ground realities including water shortage and persisting food insecurity in the country, even if it is a good step towards maintaining energy security and mitigating climate change.


Talking about energy security, one must not forget that although the agricultural sector consumes 80 percent of the country’s water resources, India’s burgeoning industry’s water demands have also grown exponentially. Consequently, the water crisis has adverse implications for not only the industry, but also energy security. The sugar industry in the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra that enjoys high political patronage (cutting across political lines – the reason why no restrictions were put on it for long), could now be forced to use only recycled water so that drinking water is not diverted to running sugar mills. The Maharashtra government has also announced water cuts for all industries. The state’s power sector is also hit as many thermal and hydroelectric plants are either shut or are being run at well below capacity.


Options for India on the domestic front


India has to overhaul its water policy and implement policies that take into account water footprint of crops and not merely traditional choices. This does not imply that India must refrain from growing rice, sugarcane and other water-intensive crops. A staple crop like rice should be grown in regions that receive sufficient rainfall like eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Similarly, it has to relook into its food trade policy that is tilted towards heavy water consumption – such as India exports sugar but imports pulses – when the country’s climatic and soil conditions better suit cultivation of pulses. This is caused largely by the lopsided policies of the government, including (in comparison to rice and sugarcane) poor procurement/stockpiling, lower import duty, lower subsidies (on electricity, water and irrigation), and inadequate post-harvest storage facilities.


Additionally, energy policies linked to the agricultural sector have long been criticised due to their unsustainable nature, with the government granting heavy subsidies on electricity, resulting in unregulated energy use and groundwater extraction (using pumps) by the farmers. Economists have recommended a gradual phase-out of subsidies on power and water (accompanied by support for low-income households) as well as a crop-neutral incentive structure so that water intensive crops do not get an upper hand on account of them being high-yielding or lucrative in the short-term.


India’s options at the international level


Globally, the discourse on WEF nexus has grown over the years, especially owing to the highly interconnected nature of the international economy. The water crisis in India has not only national or regional implications but global ones. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has also accused India of distorting trade time and again. Although India cannot give up stockpiling or subsidies in a jiffy, it has to come up with a strategy with the rest of the international community that integrates the three sectors – water, food and energy – through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic initiatives, without impinging on the poor’s rights and interests.


India also cannot afford to adopt climate-friendly energy practices at the cost of its water and food security. Thus, while it enters into bilateral and multilateral arrangements (as mentioned in the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution [INDC]), to enhance the use of biofuels, it has to work out a formula that ensures that the country’s areas assigned for growing food crops are not encroached upon as well as crops like sugarcane are not grown in drought-prone regions.


Most importantly, the nexus approach underscores the need for the international community to invest huge amount of resources in the farming sector in order to make it more sustainable, especially in the development and deployment of advanced technology (irrigation, crop varieties etc) that prevents a future crisis. The Paris Agreement does not make a mention of agriculture but clearly emphasises its relevance through food security, food production and so on. Countries such as India can certainly take the lead in adapting agriculture (and to an extent reducing the sector’s emissions) but cannot do so unless financial resources are pooled in to establish mechanisms and make them effective in the long run. At this stage, India’s priority should be to resolve its inherent contradictions and loopholes to be able to influence international policy and decision-making on addressing these issues.


[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.