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Food and Agriculture

Is India on Track to Beat the Perfect Storm?

The marginal farmer who depends solely on rain irrigation needs water, agricultural and energy innovations the most. Three farmer families help each other to plough their small farms and seed them as monsoon arrives in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh. Credit: Manipadma Jena / IPS

NEW DELHI, Aug 12 2019 (IPS) - “The Perfect Storm” was a dire prediction that by 2030 food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources together with climate change would threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration from worst-affected regions.

It is a term coined a decade back in 2009 by Sir John Beddington, the United Kingdom’s then Chief Scientific Adviser. But in 2019 the prediction seems to be a real possibility—particularly for developing countries.

The current drive for a food- and nutrition-secure world, as well as the vision of feeding an estimated global population of 10 billion in 2050, is held hostage today by the unsustainable nexus between agriculture, water and energy. This is all further exacerbated by the climate emergency upon us.

“We have, over the years, tended to overuse both water and energy in agricultural operations, practices that are now at odds with the challenges due to the emerging changes in hydrology and the increasing global concentration of greenhouse gases,” says Ajay Mathur, Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute, India.

“Those of us who work on water issues in (the global) South understand that there have been decades of mismanagement of our land, water, energy and ecosystems due to poor policies, whose effects are now being compounded due to climate change,” adds Aditi Mukherji, Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute.

India’s alarming water shortages are now real as are the prolonged droughts in its central region and on-going apocalyptic flooding in several states. Each disaster leaves its own damaging impact on food production back to back.

Problems in each of the farm, water, and energy sectors are being addressed in India through policies, schemes and innovations but there is a need for greater focus on their interconnectedness to solve real world water, energy and food issues, according to Mukherji who is the coordinating lead author of the water chapter of the 6th Assessment Report team of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Policies for reducing water distress in agriculture, for example, have to focus on all fronts –ensuring that food procurement policies are revised to incentivise low water consuming crops, that agricultural energy policies are tweaked to provide smarter incentives for lower groundwater extraction, and that water policies encourage decentralised solutions like water harvesting and water efficient agriculture,” she says.

And again “solutions for groundwater overexploitation problems are often found in the regions’ energy policies, including in the ever-increasing potential of renewable energy,” Mukherji says.

In India and other middle and low income economies, women are stewards of family food security. Increasingly, off- grid solar power is helping them provide better. A tribal woman feeds a 2 horsepower miller run by rooftop solar at Male Mahadeshwara Hills in Southern Karnataka. Courtesy: SELCO India

Clean energy to the rescue of food producers 

Ravi Naik’s tiny two-acre farm is in Shattigerahalli village in the Western Ghats of India’s southern Karnataka State. If any of his relatives come to visit, they trek through two kilometres of dense forests. Come monsoon, they’d find a formidable hill stream in fierce flow, barring their way. Grid electricity has not reached this remoteness, and the 56-year-old small farmer had no choice but to grow the Areca nut which requires less water but also fetches low prices at market.

Naik wanted to grow the remunerative banana but there was no way he could afford the extra irrigation with his kerosene-fed pump which already cost him over seven dollars a month.

But one day he encountered a solar technician from SELCO India, a local solar energy enterprise in Karnataka, who was installing an inverter. Naik narrated his woe. SELCO scouted and found a perennial pond close enough for a small ½ horsepower solar-powered pump to sufficiently draw irrigation for Naik’s banana plants.

Not only did Naik’s income double, thus easing his pump loan payments, the nutritious fruit always grows in abundance and has become his three-year-old grandson’s favourite snack. 

His farm is self sufficient and “clean” now. He no longer dreads the fossil fuel price swings on the black market, where he previously was forced to purchase fuel from.

To break the nexus Mathur suggests, “the promotion of energy efficient solar pumps, together with the purchase of excess electricity by the grid (from mini-grids), provides an opportunity to install micro-irrigation facilities, to mitigate climate emissions and provides a revenue stream for farmers to invest further in technology …energy efficiency is the first-step in ensuring that solar-based electrification is cost effective”. Mathur was recently appointed to the new International Energy Agency’s Commission for Urgent Action on Energy Efficiency.

While science and innovation have much to offer for water, energy and food security, these must be backed by institutional policies and political leadership to identify pathways to overcome a plethora of inter-connected challenges, according to Mukherji.

A 10 mega watt solar power plant set atop irrigation canals in Vodadara, Gujarat provides clean energy to thousands of farmers in the western Indian state. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Dire consequences already on us 

The World Resources Institute‘s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released last week clearly indicates that India’s policies are not geared for current challenges it is already facing. The Atlas ranks India 13 among 17 countries that are facing “extremely high” water stress, almost close to Day Zero conditions. The research warns that potentially dire consequences can be triggered more often in India even during short dry shocks when demand outstrips supply, owing to its population which is three times that of the remaining 16 countries on the stressed list.

“South Asia is one of the world’s most highly populated regions with high levels of poverty and malnutrition alongside its rapid economic development. It is also a global hotspot due to huge demands for food, water and energy in a context of severe climate change impacts,” says Jim Woodhill of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

“From experience we know that food (and water) insecurity can be a trigger to societal unrest and even revolution. In such a populous region (as South Asia) it is critical that socially just and environmentally sustainable solutions are found to the challenge that the water, food, energy and climate nexus presents,” says Woodhill, who is the Food Systems Advisor for South Asia Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio at DFAT. 

Woodhill’s stand on South Asia was backed by United Nations findings in 2014. The U.N. had warned the Indian sub-continent may face the brunt of the water crisis where India would be at the centre of this conflict due to its unique geographical position in South Asia. It indicated shared river basins in the region may pit India against Pakistan, China and Bangladesh over the issue of water sharing by 2050. Indus River, Ganges and Brahmaputra basins are crucial for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.

Already river water sharing between several Indian States is seeing prolonged disputes both legal and political.

“Systems of weak governance are at the heart of the problem. A focus on generating and distributing wealth is no longer enough – we must add the dimension of how to respond to climate change. Science, new forms of decision making, and citizen engagement must go hand in hand,” says Woodhill adding, “Experience worldwide is showing how competition for land and water resources is intensifying, driven by increased demand from agriculture, the energy sector and industry. In South Asia the potential scale of the human tragedy of not moving fast enough down a path of sustainability and climate resilience, is immense.” 

Australia’s Crawford Fund annual conference in Canberra over Aug. 12-13 examines the available evidence as to whether the “storm” is still on track to happen. Or whether scientific, engineering and agricultural innovation the world over, and progress in the farmer’s field in India and in other vulnerable countries, have indeed lessened or delayed the impact of the unsustainable nexus between agriculture, water, energy and climate change.

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