Agricultural crop substitution can bridge rural and urban water needs

Cropping pattern in Maharashtra over the past 40 years has shifted towards water-intensive crops like sugarcane (Image: Terry Sunderland/CIFOR)
Cropping pattern in Maharashtra over the past 40 years has shifted towards water-intensive crops like sugarcane (Image: Terry Sunderland/CIFOR)

With 85 percent of water being utilized for agriculture in India, a gradual shift in agriculture towards water-intensive crops have exposed the country to an increased threat of water crisis. The erratic nature of monsoons adds to this exposure and calls for judicious use of water resources, especially in the dry regions. Another factor contributing to this water stress is the rapid increase in urbanization. India’s urban population is expected to grow from 410 million in 2014 to 814 million in 2050 rendering urban water supply as a critical challenge. Cities across India have started to run out of groundwater, and more than 100 million people are estimated to be affected by 2022 (NITI Aayog, 2018).

One such state, facing a perennial threat of water scarcity is Maharashtra. Every year, especially during the summer, the newspapers are bursting with news about the Marathwada and Vidarbha region in Maharashtra that faces an acute water crisis. The dams are often reaching their dead storage levels to serve the increased water demand of the region. In the first event of its kind in 2016, the drought-hit Latur region was supplied drinking water through a special train “Jaldoot” operated by the Indian railways, supplying 25 lakh litres of water. 

According to a report by the Water Supply and Sanitation Department of Maharashtra, the urban population in the Marathwada region is projected to reach 12.06 million in 2050, an increase of 140 percent from 2011 numbers. This growing population poses a continuously compounding challenge of supplying water.

On the other hand, cropping pattern in Maharashtra over the past 40 years has shifted towards water-intensive crops like sugarcane. The development of dams has been central to this shift, as sugarcane development has been concentrated in the heavily irrigated command areas. The strong policy support system makes it lucrative for the farmers to grow these crops, which have led to plummeting groundwater levels as well as an increased dependence on irrigation.

Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business has conducted a study to shed light on the potential of using crop substitution as a mechanism to save substantial amounts of water. According to a recently published study, the average blue water crop water requirement (CWR) to grow sugarcane in Maharashtra is 670 mm, which is, the depth of water required by sugarcane to grow optimally. The CWR for wheat is 637 mm, while, for millets and soyabean is 20 mm and 95 mm, respectively.  Therefore, with millets and soyabean requiring much less water, a switch from water-intensive crop like sugarcane or wheat to low water-intensive crops like millets or soyabean would result in significant water savings.

The study estimates the water savings in the command areas of major dams of Maharashtra with various crop switching scenarios from high water-intensive crops to low water-intensive crops. As the state with most dams, Maharashtra has vast existing dam infrastructure with 3200 dams spread across, which can be utilized in capturing the saved water from crop switching in two ways: (a) the water saved in the catchment areas will be additional water that would flow to the reservoirs, hence, increasing the reservoirs water level, (b) the water saved in the command areas is the water saved that would not have to be released from the reservoir.  This additional water can then be utilized for bridging the water supply gap in currently underserved rural and urban areas.

Additionally, such a scenario of water savings also promises to inform the development of new water infrastructure. Moving away from a legacy emphasis on dams, there should be a focus on supply infrastructure to those rural and urban settlements that can avail of the water saved through crop substitution. Our results enable the identification of such areas, as well as the potential water savings.

The study maps the command areas of major dams in Maharashtra to their respective talukas, which is the area of analysis. The crop-wise total water requirements are calculated based on the cropping pattern in the area of analysis, using the water requirements of each crop obtained from the FAO. Further, the revised total water requirements are determined with various scenarios of crop switching from a high-water intensive crop to a low water intensive crop using different proportions of the area of analysis.

For example, a 10 percent area under sugarcane is switched to 10 percent soyabean in kharif season and 10 percent jowar in rabi season. The difference between the current total water requirement and water requirement based on various scenarios gives us the water savings in the command area of the dam. This additional water saved in the command area is the water that would not have to be released from the reservoir, thus, increasing the water levels of the reservoir. This water can be utilized to meet the water demands of urban areas nearby.

The results show that at least 18 talukas and 15 cities and towns would benefit from minimal crop substitution of water intensive crops with seasonally less water-intensive alternatives. These also include large cities such as Kolhapur, Pune, Rahuri and Baramati. Based on the study, in command areas where the predominant crop is sugarcane, a mere 10 percent substitution of sugarcane with seasonal millets would result in water saving of 4.45 TMC (or 63,059,267.12 cubic meters). The agriculture area that would undergo substitution amounts to approximately 16,000 hectares.

Case study of Pathri

To further elucidate the potential of the undertaken study, we look at a case study of Pathri city in Parbhani district of Maharashtra which is a Municipal Council with a total population of 46 thousand. Pathri has a current water supply of 51.5 lpcd (litre per capita per day) based on estimates from Centre for Water and Sanitation, CEPT University, vis a vis the Bureau of Indian Standard of 135 lpcd, resulting in a gap of 83.5 lpcd. With our analysis of the command areas around the city of Pathri, we find that a switch of approximately 3.11 percent of agricultural area (203 hectares) under sugarcane to soyabean in kharif and jowar in rabi would fill this gap for the city of Pathri. Similarly, a switch of approximately 2.25 percent of agricultural area (171 hectares) under wheat to jowar in rabi would fill this gap and make the town water sufficient.

The opportunities represented through the case study of Pathri are heterogeneous; for example, switching some crops would lead to higher savings than others, switching crops in certain areas would be easier than other areas, etc. The water savings estimated through this methodology are substantial, despite the conservative assumptions.

The crop switching at the farmer level may be facilitated through a change in the incentive structures for the farmers. The strong public policy support system and incentive structure that discourages people from growing crops other than sugarcane must be revamped in favour of low-water intensive crops.

To this end, Water Users Associations (WUAs) can act as the central agencies to target, involve, mobilize and empower the farmers. Any incentive structure to motivate the farmers to switch crops from high to low water-intensive crops can be designed at the level of WUAs as they share the same irrigation systems. Additionally, a novel instrument that can be explored to incentivize crop switching is a reverse auction or giving bonuses to communities for water savings. Moreover, there is an urgent need for mobilizing public opinion around crop switching.

The water saved can also be utilized for various purposes such as the expansion of existing rainfed irrigation infrastructure, or for protective irrigation in areas with prolonged dry spells to safeguard the farmers in the command area against crop failure and famine.

Some of the secondary benefits include; equitable distribution of water, improvement in virtual water exports, crop diversification, nutritional improvements due to the crop diversification, and more water available for drinking purposes to both rural and urban areas. The water savings would help facilitate agricultural equity in terms of expansion of the command area and inclusion of additional farmers in the irrigation network.

India is one of the biggest virtual exporters of water with rice among the top five commodities exported by India. Despite water being an extremely scarce resource in India, we are exporting water which is hidden in the production process of water-intensive crops. This trend puts immense pressure on domestic water sources. A study by researchers at Anna University, Chennai, published in the journal ‘Groundwater for Sustainable Development’, found that India exported 26,000 million litres of virtual water on an average every year between 2006 and 2016. A gradual movement toward low water intensive crops would enable us to influence the food export policy by reducing dependence on crop and livestock products with high virtual water footprint.

Certain policy support and regulation would enable the implementation of crop switching. An irrigation database or monitoring system maintained by each state at the disaggregated level, with data on actual water usage, crops grown, utilization of irrigation systems would enable monitoring of water activities.

This dataset would also enable the authority to include groundwater extraction in the water savings calculation which is difficult in the current scenario due to lack of information on its usage. Additionally, an independent regulatory authority of the state such as Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) in Maharashtra can be made responsible for the extraction and regulation of various water resources.

In solving India’s problems of bridging water demand in urban and rural areas, a methodological paradigm shift is the need of the hour. Solving complex problems of such magnitude demands concerted efforts across institutions managing water resources in India. Through this article, we have tried to lay out one such possibility of solving India’s rural and urban water crisis.


Sakshi Singh is a Research Associate at Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Her research interests include topics around water resource management, agricultural cost and production, and wildlife conservation.

Shamil Khedgikar is a Research Associate at the Indian School of Business. He has pursued his Masters in Regional Planning from Cornell University and his Bachelors from School of Planning and Architecture Delhi. His research interests include public policy evaluation and development of digital technologies for data-driven policymaking.

Arun is a Research Associate at the Indian School of Business. He holds a master’s degree in Geoinformatics from TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. His research interest includes the application of remote sensing and geospatial techniques in understanding environmental change.