How The ‘Land of 5 Rivers’ Is Facing Water Scarcity
Growing up in a family who earned their bread through agriculture in Punjab, I’ve had first-hand experience on how India’s most fertile state, Punjab is on its way to become a desert.
Punjab is a north-western Indian state which is also known as the ‘breadbasket’ of India due to its tremendous output of food commodities to India.
Punjab, before partition with Pakistan, was called ‘Panj-Aab’ which means ‘The Land of Five Rivers’ as five rivers flowing through this single state. But this land of rivers in on its track to become one of the most water scarcities regions in India. And the water problem of this state has to do with one of the most common occupations amongst the people of Punjab i.e farming.
4.20 million hectares of the land in Punjab are contributed towards agriculture. Punjab is known to have one of the fertile lands in India which makes it a suitable place for agriculture. Punjab exports a vast variety of crops nationally and internationally some of which include wheat, rice, barley, potatoes, sugarcane, sunflower, and many more.
So Why Does The State Stills Pumps Out Millions Of Gallons Of Water Every Year?
Rice is cultivated at a very scale in Punjab. Transplantation is the most common method used for the plantation of rice crops in Punjab. The process begins with the sowing of rice seeds in a nursery, where a large number of rice seeds are sown over a small area of the field. The nursery has to be watered every alternate day and the water consumption during this process is comparatively very less.
But the whole scene changes when the seedlings are to be planted in the fields from the nursery. The fields where the seedlings are to planted are kept flooded with water for around 2–3 days while the land is made soft for plantation using a rotavator. The plantation is done by manual labor in the majority of the cases and the rice field is to be kept flooded till the seedlings have grown enough to survive a day without water.
Now, imagine the whole process taking place on around 4 million hectares of land and the amount of water that would be required for the rice plantation every year.
Punjab has a vast amount of water at the surface i.e through the rivers that is available for agriculture but it can’t be used. Punjab has a very poor canal system that has lead people to install their own tube-wells in their fields.
According to the data from Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) the body which manages the biggest hydroelectricity project in Punjab, constructed on the banks of one of the rivers in Punjab, Beas, suggests that the Bakhra dam is almost at 150 feet higher than its normal levels just because Punjab does not have a well-developed canal system to bring that river water to use for irrigation.
The use of tube-wells in Punjab is one of the major factors in the depletion of groundwater in Punjab. Tube-wells in Punjab are unregulated, a person can install a tubewell at any place that suits the person. There are over 1.4 Million submersible tube-wells all around Punjab and that’s alarming!
There’s no electricity cost, which means that a farmer does not pay even a single penny for the electricity consumption by the tube-well. The agriculture electricity is state-sponsored.
So Why Aren’t The Canals Re-Constructed?
The installation of tube-wells took place around the mid-1960s during the ‘Green Revolution’ aiming to make India self-sufficient in food production. After the installation of tube-wells, canals were just not that of good use as compared to the tube-well.
Canals used to have a fixed amount to time for which the water would flow and if a person’s turn to irrigate their field was at midnight, then the person has to stay awake the whole night till the person’s fields were being watered.
The government took various steps to revive the canal irrigation but failed. The land devoted to canals were filled up with soil and were brought to agriculture purposes by the farmers themselves. The government at that time didn’t pay any heed to this matter because it wasn’t the most concerning case at the time as the state of Punjab was also going under a revolt.
As there are no official records of the land allocation to the canals, in the majority of the cases, no-one actually knows where the canals once were. Also, farming is the sole occupation of the majority of people in Punjab and you couldn’t just expect them to give away their lands for the construction of canals that the people know would take years to complete and be fully operational.
The Concern’s Real…
From 1982–87, the water table in Central Punjab was falling an average of 18 cm per year. That rate of decline has inclined to 42 cm per year from 1997–2002, and to a staggering 75 cm during 2002–06. Water tables are now falling over about 90 percent of the state, with Central Punjab most severely affected.
If surveys are to be believed, then it is estimated that Punjab would run out of groundwater by 2030 and for a state with such a huge majority of the population dependent on agriculture as the only livelihood, it’s extremely concerning!
103 of Punjab’s 138 groundwater blocks are considered to be in the over-exploited category, according to CGWB.
The Columbia Water Center Project
The Columbia University’s Water Center is collaborating with The Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) on field research and implementing new modern techniques that would solve the water problem in Punjab by not having much adverse effect on the farmers.
The project is also aimed at the crop-diversification in Punjab and also implementing water-efficient crop-growing methods and patterns that would decrease the consumption of water during the crop’s plantation.