Research News

Columbia Water Center: Achieving “More Crop and Income Per Drop” in India

2009-06-15

The Columbia Water Center (CWC), a research unit of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, is involved in a wide range of international, interdisciplinary efforts to sustainably manage the most critical resource for land-dwelling life on Earth: fresh water. Largely due to exponential population growth, increased energy use, urbanization and the fallout of short-sighted water management planning during and after the “green revolution” in India in the 1950s and ‘60s, this country that is home to over one billion people – most of whom still live in extreme poverty – has become a major area of focus for the CWC.

The water problems affecting India, which are not unique to the region, but are highly magnified, include the overuse and degradation of critical supplies for human consumption, food production, ecology and industrial needs.  Additionally, in many communities, especially the developing world, we lack adequate financial, technological, and institutional resources to ensure that water can be accessed, stored and distributed to meet these diverse needs.  Complicating these problems are climate change, population growth and shifts in development patterns in the region and across the globe. 

The CWC’s current India projects studies water consumption among the country’s farmers and educates them on crop-choice patterns, collaborating with companies to implement advanced irrigation technologies to improve efficiency. The India project is also exploring ways by which policy changes on energy subsidies can be effected to continue to provide financial support for irrigation pumping to farmers while improving their water use efficiency.

To help foster the interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge on this project, the CWC hosted a conference this spring called Water Security in India, which brought together participants from the CWC’s India Office, Indian water agencies, industry experts, renowned economists, hydrologists and climatologists.  The event was co-hosted by the Asia Society, which also launched its report on water security in Asia that the CWC and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs helped draft. The proceedings can be found at: http://www.water.columbia.edu/?id=india_conference

According to the conference abstract, “India faces the most serious resource and environmental challenge in the modern era “due to its “aquifer depletion and inefficient water use.” To address this, the conference and resulting collaborations seek to “[d]evelop and demonstrate strategies to achieve increases in agricultural income in India while promoting sustainable water development and management… through analytical and field research, the development and testing of specific proposals jointly with others in academia, the public and the private sectors, and through the articulation of an informed debate as to the key options that are identified as potential strategies identified.”

Aided by a generous and visionary three-year, $6 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation, CWC is working on this and other groundbreaking projects around the world. Upmanu Lall, CWC director and Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering sees this as a landmark project that will help set directions for how water and food security can be achieved in the 21st century while providing an engine for rural development.

Lall says, “Most of the world’s water is used for agriculture. Often, the water use efficiency in agriculture is low. Investment in improving this efficiency is also low. This is due in part to limited capital available to farmers, in part to lack of information, and in part to lack of opportunity to recover the investment due to inadequate market access for the crops that are grown, and the high risk associated with climate variability during production and market prices on harvesting. The CWC is using a systems approach to analyze and address multiple aspects of these problems in each of the countries where work under this project is being done.” 

Included in this project are major contributors to the academic discourse of water management techniques and the advising of the Indian government. For instance, Kapil Narula, director of the India office of CWC, is the author of a forthcoming article which has been selected for oral presentation at the World Water Week to be held in Stockholm in August, 2009. The article, titled "Working trade-offs in complex water situations in India," focuses on the large roles that agriculture and industry play in the development and growth of the country, their often conflicting demands, and how these affect local water concerns, and proposes a Decision Support System that can integrate natural and human systems.

While the CWC was only established in January of 2008, associate director Tanya Heikkila points out that “we have made tremendous headway in establishing an interdisciplinary center that brings together groundbreaking research on the problems of water scarcity and allocation.  Working in diverse places around the globe, from local to international scales, helps us understand the commonalities we face with global water crises while also learning about the diversity of solutions available to solve water crises, from which we can all learn.”

For more information about the CWC, please visit their website and blog, Water Matters @ Columbia.

If you would like to be added to the CWC mailing list, please send an e-mail to watercenter[at]columbia.edu with the word ”subscribe” in the subject line. You can also sign up for the mailing list at www.water.columbia.edu.