India’s deepening water crisis at the heart of farm protests

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Every year, Swarn Singh sows rice in his fields, knowing that the thirsty crop is draining northern India’s Punjab of its groundwater. But Singh says he has no choice, adding, “We’d rather plant crops that need less water”.

The 32-year-old farmer and school teacher lives in Ransih Kalan village in the state’s Moga district, where green fields surrounding its wide roads and large houses belie the reality that the region is among India’s most parched and its once-prosperous agricultural system is now broken.

India’s water crisis looms over an agrarian crisis that has been brewing for decades. At its heart is a conundrum: The government has been subsidising the cultivation of rice in northern India, but such water-intensive crops have dramatically lowered the groundwater table.

Every third house in Ransih Kalan – a community of nearly 3,000, less than 100km from India’s border with Pakistan – bears flags supporting thousands of farmers hunkered down outside New Delhi since November to protest three laws Prime Minister Narendra Modi says will modernise agriculture.

Singh says his village’s farmers agree changes are needed but fear these laws will only make matters worse, leaving them at the mercy of big corporations. The laws don’t address the region’s water crisis. But Singh said that if guaranteed prices for all crops were to become a legal right, farmers would shift away from thirsty crops.

Home to a fifth of the world’s population, India has only 4 per cent of the world’s water. But the country is the largest extractor of groundwater in the world, with 90 per cent used for agriculture.

Nowhere is the water shortage more pronounced than in Punjab, where India’s government encouraged cultivation of wheat and rice in the 1960s and has since been buying the staples at fixed prices to shore up national reserves.

Wheat was a traditional crop, along with mung beans or peanuts, said Singh’s father, Bhupinder Singh, 62. But he and experts say a pound of rice needs up to 2,273 liters of water – and irrigation canals couldn’t supply enough as more farmers switched to the grain.

Farmers turned to well water. When the government started providing free electricity to run well pumps in 1997, Punjab rice raising rocketed – from 500 square kilometers in 1975 to 31,000 square kilometers.

But groundwater levels plummeted as underground pumps proliferated, with more than 1.2 million by 2012. And a 2017 federal report warned that the state of 27 million people would exhaust its groundwater by 2039.

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