Growing population and shrinking water resources has become crucial concern for South Asia while dealing to combat food insecurity.” More crop per drop “is the new mantra to achieve sustainable food production in the region in the context of climate change and increasing urbanisation. The economy of South Asian countries is primarily agrarian which again is dependent on monsoons. With countries like Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal having just 13.79, 26.33 and 28.75 percentage respectively of total land area as agricultural land, the pressure to produce maximum per unit of land area is of paramount concern (Table 1). 

Except Maldives, where the major crop is coconut, all other South Asian countries have primarily cereal based cropping systems with rice and wheat being major staples. Except Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, the cereal productivity is below 3000 kg/ha in rest of the South Asian countries. Higher productivity is linked to higher seed replacement rate, better varieties, irrigation and other soil management practices. Of these, irrigation is a critical input which decides the productivity of crop. For example, in Bangladesh, rice production increased considerably due to irrigated Boro rice which coincides with summer and accounts for 55% of the total rice production in the country. Irrigation was the significant component along with high yielding varieties and fertilizers in the Green Revolution which took India’s cereal production to higher levels.

Of late the stress on water resources has been increasing day by day as more and more water has been extracted for irrigation purposes. This has to be seen in the context of climate change wherein South Asia is expected to experience floods, rise in temperature and droughts as per the IPCC 5th Assessment Report of 2014. Given the agrarian economy of the region, these climate vagaries will have implications on water resources and food production systems. Thus sustainable water management is the key to ensure food security of the mounting population. 

This article attempts to look at the various challenges in South Asia with respect to water management and proposes some strategies and policy recommendations to address those concerns from a broader perspective taking into consideration of the learning from different parts of the region from the work done by CUTS International.

Issues and challenges in water resource management

Predominance of rice- wheat cropping system in South Asia has put pressure on both surface and ground water resources in the region. The choice of crops to be grown should be based on agro-climatic conditions prevailing in the location, but quite often farmer’s expertise, availability of labour and market support play a decisive role in this. In Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, the traditional crops used to be cotton and wheat. But in the recent past more and more farmers have shifted to sugar cane cultivation because of the advent of sugar mills. Similarly, government procurement of rice and wheat in India has given an assured market for these crops and hence grown widely even in the semiarid regions of India (1) .

Furthermore, the cereal based cropping systems of the Indo-Gangetic plains in South Asia was supported by well-developed canal irrigation systems in the past. Over the years, due to negligence and poor maintenance of these canals, farmers have switched to ground water resources. The failure of big irrigation projects is mostly due to siltation of reservoirs/canals and lack of regular repair and maintenance of the irrigation infrastructure. Poor cost recovery mechanisms and inactive Water User Associations, diversion of water from the head end of the canal for both agricultural and non-agricultural uses have also contributed to the dearth of surface irrigation systems and have deprived the tail end farmers (2) .

Another major concern regarding groundwater exploitation is the populist policies of power subsidies.; the classic example being the state of Punjab in India. Free electricity has induced indiscriminate exploitation of ground water for irrigation. As the ground water level went down farmers started using submersible pumps with higher capacity to draw water from deeper areas. In Pakistan, the farmer has to bear the cost of drawing cable from the line to the tube well whereas in India the State Electricity Board bears this cost. Where electricity is not subsidised farmers resort to use diesel pump-sets. However, subsidies on fossil fuels, has benefited smallholder farmers in Bangladesh without over-exploiting water resources unlike the energy subsidies in the form of cheap electricity in the drier parts of India (3) .

Introduction of water-saving technology in rice production is an efficient method to keep the underground water table in a safe zone. Instead of flood irrigation, alternate wet and dry (AWD) methods of irrigation can be used. In addition, surface water should be reserved in ponds and small rivers in the rainy season and used for Aman rice cultivation, especially at the flowering stage. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has developed rainwater harvest technology for rainfed Aman cultivation during the flowering stage to mitigate drought (Biswas, 2014). This kind of conjunctive use of water is also recommended for the dry zone area which comprises about 70% of the land area of Sri Lanka to improve the livelihoods of those who are dependent on agriculture (4).

Agricultural practices like System of Rice Intensification (SRI), double transplanting , direct seeding of rice and laser leveling make efficient use of irrigation water. Zero tilled wheat crop following rice is also getting popular in parts of Bangladesh, India and Nepal. However, such practices have to be promoted widely by state and civil society organisations for the benefit of the farming communities. Any efforts to improve the efficient use of water would have implications in energy saving as well. Axial flow pumps, micro irrigation techniques and solar pump sets are also energy efficient irrigation equipment. Small, mobile diesel engines that are demountable and can be used for a range of applications, including powering pumps for irrigation, have increased food production and economic returns to farmers (5). 

As of now, the success of these practices are localised that too with progressive farmers and it needs to be scaled up. Capacity building and awareness generation of farmers is crucial to achieve this. 

Policy Implications 

1. Small and marginal farmers of South Asia are vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Most of them either face drought or floods almost every year. Given the complexities of the water, energy, food nexus, it is important to develop a comprehensive contingency plan with adequate policy support so as to build the resilience of the farmers.

2. To begin with, there is a need to strengthen the research on hardy, climate resilient nutritious crops like millets and pulses. Varieties catering to the need and taste of farmers will find a place in their cropping system. Proper value addition will create a demand of value added products from these crops thus enhancing its market value. Based on local demand and preferences, pulses and millets should also be included in the Public Distribution System paving way for procurement by government. This may cause a change in the water intensive cropping system.

3. Revival of existing surface irrigation system will definitely cut down the dependency on ground water resources for irrigation. Proper cost recovery mechanisms would lead to better maintenance of the canals. An innovative example can be taken from the irrigation project of Barind Multipurpose Development Authority (BMDA) at Godagari Upazila of Rajshahi district reserves the river water in a canal and the farmers take the water as per their requirement by using a prepaid card with a prepaid meter. After the specific time of the farmer, the machine gets shut down automatically.

4. Better governance of surface water system can also be envisaged through participatory irrigation management. As of now the Water Users Association are inactive in most places mostly due to faulty implementation.

5. Rational pricing of electricity for agricultural purposes through metering would check the exploitation of groundwater. In other words, a major shift in the outlook of government policies regarding ground water management is necessary. The Sub Soil Conservation Act of 2009 in Punjab, India is a commendable step as it regulates the transplanting of paddy beyond a notified date which comes in June. It needs to be seen if such regulation is necessary for ground water management in boro rice cultivation as it is solely dependent on groundwater irrigation.

6. Water saving technological interventions like laser leveling zero tillage, solar pump sets and axial flow pumps and micro irrigation require capital investments. Hence capital subsidies on these machineries would make them accessible to small and marginal farmers. Moreover, these machineries can also be made available to farmers through farmer cooperatives/ producer companies. Custom hiring is another option which is widely adopted in many parts of the region. Agro-service centres at local level will take care of service delivery and maintenance and repairing of these machineries.

7. Capacity building of farmers on water saving technologies and practices is essential to improve water use efficiency. Strengthening of extension services by government and civil society organisations is inevitable to spread awareness among farmers. Progressive farmers can act as change agents in this respect as mostly, informal social networks enabling farmer to farmer learning were found to be more effective than training and demonstration by extension departments. Incentives for adopting water conservation practices and savings in electricity bills for irrigation would also scale out the adaptability of these practices.

8. Conjunctive use of water needs to be adopted wherever possible. Water harvesting structures and storage tanks assures lifesaving irrigation in drought affected areas. Watershed management would reduce runoff and induce in situ moisture conservation and hence it should be an integral component of planning developmental work at local government levels. Several parts of India and Sri Lanka receive short duration heavy rainfall leading to runoff loss while a vast area in Bangladesh and India is subjected to drought and annual floods necessitating watershed management in those areas.

9. Clubbing irrigation subsidies with water saving practices would ensure water saving and thereby its efficient use. For instance, in Rajasthan subsidies for solar irrigation is clubbed with micro irrigation. Such initiatives on bundling of polices will ensure water conservation as well as water use efficiency.

10. Owing to the variation in availability, demand and possibility of recharge across aquifers, it is useful to have aquifer-level planning not only at national levels but also at regional strategy to enable sustainable use of groundwater from transboundary aquifers.


Sustainable use of water resources is an integral part of sustainable intensification of agriculture. Since water use efficiency is closely linked with crop management and energy policies a holistic approach is to be followed while developing a regional strategy for sustainable intensification of agriculture. Similar agro-climatic regions and food production systems existing in immediate border areas would enable cross border learning and adoption of good management practices and policy initiatives in the region.

(This article first appeared in Trade Insights and has been written by Dr Veena Vidyadharan who is working as a Fellow in CUTS International. She is also the Deputy Head of CUTS Centre for International Trade, Economics & Environment and holds a Phd in Agronomy)

Further reading: 

 1. CUTS International. 2016. Rethinking Perceptions- Scenarios in Agriculture, Water and Energy. 2016.

 2. Vidyadharan, V., Jha, R K., Mishra, A., Bhattacharjee., S, Nath., Prithviraj and Swain., A K. 2016. Agricultural Production and the Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra Basins of South Asia, SDC Anthology, Sang-e Meel Publications, Sustainable Development Conference, Islamabad-December 2014

3. Weert, Frank van, Jac van der Gun, and Josef Reckman. Global Overview of Saline Groundwater Occurrence & Genesis. Utrecht: International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC), 2009.

 4. Biswas JK. (2014) Growing Rice Under Stress Environment. A Report from Director General of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Published in Daily Star (A leading daily Newspaper), March 15, 2014.

 5. International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 2010. Sri Lanka: Issues and Opportunities for Investment. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 4p. (IWMI Water Issue Brief 7). DOI: 10.5337/2010.220