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  • India needs an adaptive and integrated strategy on water and food security to combat potential impacts of climate change

    4 February 2009

    In India, agriculture is the largest user of water, using more than 80% of usable freshwater, and a large proportion of the population derives its livelihood directly or indirectly from it. As concerns over water scarcity have mounted, accentuated by possible impacts of climate change like a general reduction in the quantity of available surface water and unanticipated alterations in the hydrological cycle with an increased severity of droughts and floods, there is a growing realisation that water resource management focused on food security is urgently needed.

    The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in consonance with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in a seminar" Adapting to Climate Change: Strategies for Water and Food Security in India" focused on some of the possible adaptive strategies to counteract climate change in Indian agriculture, with special reference to water and food security.

    The seminar held in the sidelines of the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) 2009, deliberated that in the face of growing water demand from non-agricultural sectors of the economy, India should come up with strategies that aim to safeguard the interests of socially and conomically weaker sections of the population in scenarios where the absolute scarcity of water is increasing at a higher rate than before. Some strategies would enhance and conserve supply while making water use in the Indian agricultural sector more efficient while others would help forecast climate change events and assist people to cope or recover in the event of their occurrence.

    Delivering the opening address Dr R K Pachauri, Director General TERI and Chairman IPCC, said, "Apart from the fact of its occurrence, knowledge about the phenomenon of climate change is incipient, particularly in relation to water and food security. While efforts at mitigation are ongoing, these are unlikely to bring a halt to climate change let alone reverse it in the short or medium term. In anticipation of its potential threat to human lives and livelihoods, therefore, it is relevant to explore the various ways in which communities and countries can adapt to climate change depending on the particular hydrological and ecological contexts in which they find themselves."

    According to the UNDP's Human Development Report 2006, the predictability of water supply and sustainability of water-based ecosystems are crucial dimensions of water security. In the case of agriculture, water security implies the need to maintain adequate water supplies to meet the food and non-food needs of a growing population through efficient irrigation, water conservation and other strategies designed to carefully manage the demand, supply and use of irrigation water.

    Agriculture, water and poverty are inherently linked. It is highly likely that the rising water insecurity from climate change will mainly affect the poorest and most vulnerable by further limiting their access to the diminishing quantity of water available for domestic and productive purposes. Apart from affecting agriculturalists, water scarcity will also have a deleterious impact on agriculture-related activities like animal husbandry and fisheries. Often, these activities as well as several domestic users and small-scale producers outside agriculture depend on irrigation systems for their water. Therefore, water for agriculture ensures not only food security but also livelihood security in a more general sense, for a large number of landless men and women.

    Experts from SDC and TERI deliberated that almost all strategies have aspects that are social, institutional, technical or financial, and thus require holistic assessment and implementation. Some of these strategies exist already but may either need to be implemented or else brought to the forefront of our awareness. Others may be innovative programmes, whether original or primed for upscaling or replication in the Indian context.

    In India, the recent National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) reiterates the commitment towards developing a multi-pronged, long-term and integrated strategy for achieving key goals in the context of climate change. Two of the eight sector-specific missions within it deal with the different aspects of water meant for agriculture, namely the National Water Mission (NWM) and the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA).

    Of the issues under the ambit of the NWM, those that apply to water for agriculture include the management of surface water resources, regulation of groundwater, upgradation of storage structures and drainage systems, conservation of wetlands, wastewater eclamation, equitable access, and regulatory structures for basin level management. Likewise, the NMSA has outlined four key areas, namely, dryland agriculture, risk management, access to information, and biotechnology.

    The list of possible strategies to ensure water and food security is long but can include such activities as conducting "water audits" of rural households with different resource endowments; safeguarding local knowledge and institutions that are conducive to good crop and water management; combining these with scientific knowledge and practices so they are mutually beneficial; evaluating optimal irrigation water tariffs and subsidies, with a regional focus; legislating and implementing controls over energy use in agriculture; enabling better access to agricultural credit and contingency measures for climate change-related disasters like crop insurance policies; developing climate-resilient crop varieties, adaptable to either flood or drought situations; developing or instituting engineering, institutional and biotechnological innovations that allow the sparing use of irrigation water, the decentralisation of agricultural water supply (preferably to the household level) and the safer use of wastewater in agriculture; carrying out long-term, basin-wide planning to address climate change impacts as well as short-term planning for disaster management and relief; using modern information technology for improving crop productivity; developing incentive structures for water-neutral or water-positive technologies; and, not least, establishing functioning structures and mechanisms for the regulation of agricultural water use.

    While concluding and giving the vote of thanks Mr. Francois E. Binder, Country Director, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) said "It is hoped that deliberations from this seminar will promote better comprehension of adaptive measures for climate change in agriculture and come up with specific policy recommendations for the NWM, the NMSA and other National Missions concerned. Keeping these in mind, SDC and TERI will continue to collaborate with the relevant line ministries and organisations to ensure that the requisite inputs feed effectively into the planning and implementation processes of the National Missions".

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