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7-min read

In Deep Shit: Climate Change is Forcing Indian Farmers to Grow Food in Sewage Water

Low rainfall, combined with a critical depletion of groundwater resources in Haryana, has forced farmers to use dirty, untreated sewage water to try and irrigate their crops.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:September 16, 2019, 4:37 PM IST
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In Deep Shit: Climate Change is Forcing Indian Farmers to Grow Food in Sewage Water
Illustration by Mir Suhail. (News18)

Covering Climate Now on News18.comThis monsoon in rural Haryana, the pleasant earthy smell of rain was replaced with the unmistakable stench of untreated sewage. “The farmlands of Ambala smell,” says Malkit Singh, a rice and sugarcane farmer.

From the first week of June, till September 11, the state saw only 244.9 millimetre of rainfall — a 39 per cent deficit from the normal of 402.4 millimetre. At the same time, excessive rains upstream of rivers in the state triggered flood alerts.

But the deficit, combined with a critical depletion of groundwater resources in the north-Indian state, has forced farmers to use dirty, untreated sewage water to try and irrigate their crops.

“Farmers use dirty sewage water coming out of the Ambala cantonment area out of desperation. Groundwater level is extremely low here, because of which the government has put a ban on installation of more borewells. How will the farmer grow paddy, which requires the field to be flooded close to 26-27 times?” he asks.

The 58-year-old lives near Ambala with his family of five, which includes two children and a grandson. He was one of the many beneficiaries of the ‘green revolution’ of the 1970s that catapulted the state to the forefront of India’s bid to make itself self-sufficient in terms of food production. Water-intensive crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane were grown by utilizing new technologies.

Today, Haryana, despite occupying just 1.5 per cent of India’s total landmass, accounts for 15 per cent of its total agricultural produce, with 96 per cent of the state’s arable land under cultivation. But farmers like Malkit Singh are fast realising the ‘green revolution’ is eroding.

Poor produce has burdened the second-generation farmers with a loan of more than Rs 30 lakh from banks. The low income means he and his brother share a single tractor for the six acres of farm land. Inevitably, he finds himself depending on seasonal, migrant labourers for harvest.

‘The Farm Paradigm Needs an Overhaul’

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as early as 2025, half the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. If temperatures continue to rise, rainfall will increasingly become a sum of extremes: either long, dry spells or dangerous floods combined with crippling water shortages.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation released a report on drought preparedness during the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) that said severe multi-year droughts had increased water crisis and food insecurity in south Asia, with nearly 330 million people impacted by drought in 2015-16.

In India, the questions of water, drought and climate change are intrinsically linked to agriculture. As Dr Mihir Shah, former member of the Planning Commission and water conservationist points out, agriculture uses up 90 per cent of India’s fresh water.

Describing the plight of Indian farmers as an “unprecedented existential crisis, which has an inextricable link with water policy”, he says explains, “During the Green Revolution, we incentivised farmers to grow water-intensive crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane, which take up 80% of irrigation water. This farm paradigm needs an overhaul. Water cannot be left to engineers and hydrogeologists alone. It needs agronomists, river ecologists, social mobilisers and water managers to come together.”

For a farmer, questions of judicious use and climate change are far less important than the immediate need to feed his family, says Rakesh Kumar Bains, president of a farmers’ representative organisation in Haryana, the Bharatiya Kisan Union.

“When it doesn’t rain, a farmer digs for water. He continues digging until he finds water. He doesn’t care about how much water is left. He has to feed his family, get out of debt. A free source of water for this farmer is a gold mine,” he says.

But the ‘gold mine’ has long gone. A 2017 report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), India’s apex water monitoring agency, found that 78 out of 128 blocks across 22 districts in Haryana were ‘over-exploited’ or ‘dark zones’ – where pumping of groundwater has already exceeded 100 per cent.

Since 2013, when the survey was last conducted, these ‘dark zones’ have increased by 12. This misuse of groundwater, scientists and experts point out, can primarily be attributed to the increase of paddy farming in the state —a rise of seven times in just 50 years.

The state also has the dubious distinction of having the least forest cover in the country at just 3.59 per cent, as per the Forest Survey of India 2018.

An official of the Haryana Pollution Control Board, who didn’t wish to be named, explained that the state’s policies over the last three decades looked at land “purely as a resource to monetise”. “If you look at the forest cover loss, all of that land has been sold off for real estate development. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Haryana is running out of water, because we have destroyed all the sinks through which water would percolate back into the soil. Instead, we take and we take and we take — without understanding the risks. The result: farmers suffer, and soon, everyone else will too.”

Farmers like Sanju Gudeyana in Yamuna Nagar, around 200 from Delhi, find themselves trapped in a vicious circle of scrounging for the last drop of water deeper and deeper in the increasingly degraded land.

“We have to add 10 feet pipes to the borewell annually. For a farmer who is struggling to make ends meet, an investment of Rs 1-2 lakh in water infrastructure is a cost he has to make up for in his produce,” he says. This extra cost then forces farmers to use dirty water to try and irrigate their crops in the search for higher yields.

‘No one noticed, what I was trying to tell’

In 2010, at the Second National Ground Water Congress, Professor CP Kumar at the National Institute of Hydrology laid down an explicit warning of the direct impact of climate change on groundwater and its recharge. “As a direct consequence of warmer temperatures, the hydrologic cycle will undergo significant impact with accompanying changes in the rates of precipitation and evaporation,” he said.

The Congress was first created under the aegis of the Union Water Ministry in 2007 to provide a platform for the formation of a policy framework for water issues. Almost a decade later, Kumar is unhappy with the government, and disheartened at the irrelevance of his efforts to build a discourse on climate change.

“No one noticed what I was trying to tell. In the academia, we keep publishing papers. And the government keeps referring to our work. But, there is no action at the ground level,” he says.

An official of the Jal Shakti Ministry, formed recently by the Narendra Modi government by merging the erstwhile ministries for water resources and drinking water and sanitation, who was present at the Congress, added that Kumar’s bitterness isn’t without cause.

“More often than not, climate change was looked at as a tangential issue. Development was the real focus, development measured in GDP and high-rises — at any cost.”

Kumar added, “The government launched the Jal Shakti Ministry to tackle the water scarcity, and harvest and conserve it. This action was taken late. But as they say in Hindi: jab jaago tabhi savera (better late than never).”

Similar warnings are being expressed right now. Take for instance, agribusiness specialist Dr Prakash Bakshi, who is also a former chairman of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. He has voiced concern of the impact of waste water for irrigation on food.

“Dirty water may contain chemicals that destroy both the soil and the crop. Sometimes bad water weakens the roots, but if it affects the soil, then the farmer is doomed as the damage could be permanent. In bigger cities, sewage treatment is done in a manner that water becomes re-usable for agriculture. The filth is converted into bio fertilizers. But, what about smaller cities and towns?” he asks.

According to a study done by the Central Pollution Control Board of India in 2017, the water of the Yamuna river is contaminated because of the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which in turn contaminates the vegetables grown along these floodplains – running along Delhi and Haryana.

A CPCB official told News18, “This is a problem across north India. There are heavy metals in the water and they end up in your food.” With the report, the apex pollution control board discouraged the farming along these floodplains. But not much has changed.

The key issue, Kumar argues, are the poor water policies. “For a long time, both in India and elsewhere, governments were obsessed with the glaciers melting because climate change was physically visible in rivers and reservoirs.” However, today when the threat from climate change is more real than ever, there is a lot of uncertainty on the study on climate change, he added.

“Models that various institutions and countries adopt give us varied results. We are unable to move in one direction because our local demands, or the effects of climate change, differ.” The unimaginable problem, Kumar notes, is this: data available on climate change varies a lot even at the slightest of change in the latitude or longitude. The downscaling of this global data for application at the local scale causes the models of study to differ.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. This is the first story of the series.

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