Wheat crisis: Additional irrigation may not save Rabi crops; here is why

Additional moisture to save wheat and maize from high temperatures not feasible due to irrigation and groundwater level concerns, say Punjab and Madhya Pradesh farmers

By Raju Sajwan
Published: Friday 24 February 2023
Punjab requires a large amount of water for the cultivation of wheat and paddy crops. Photo: iStock

Agricultural scientists have recommended additional irrigation for Rabi crops to farmers to save crops from the unprecedented heat in February. The recommendation has raised concerns about groundwater levels in areas with no irrigation facilities. 

Down To Earth spoke to some farmers from Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, who are worried about the maximum temperatures spiked over the last two days. Farmers who had sown wheat in November say the grains have started forming, but the heat damage is not visible yet. 

However, if the temperatures keep spiking, then crop damage is certain, said farmers. 

Read more: Wheat crisis: High heat in February cause of worry for critical Rabi crop

Gurpreet Atwal, from Jalandhar district, Punjab, planted wheat on 25 acres. “Wheat doesn’t need to be irrigated in this region when we have proper seasonal rain,” he said. “This time, there was no rain in December-January, so light irrigation had to be done twice. But if the heat continues like this, water must be applied again to maintain moisture levels.”

While soft fields may manage with irrigation done three times, harder fields may need another round of watering, warned Atwal. 

“Farmers get electricity free of cost in Punjab, so the farming cost may not go up too much. But the groundwater levels in the state are depleting, which is a cause for worry. Irrigation will further strain the groundwater levels,” he said. 

The groundwater level in large parts of the state ranges from 10 to 20 metres, found a study by Sushil Gupta, regional director, Central Ground Water Board under the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti. However, the water level around major cities like Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala, Amritsar and Sangrur is 20 to 40 metres lower. 

There has been a drastic fall in the water level in major parts of the state, showed data on long-term water level fluctuations. The net dynamic groundwater resource for Punjab is 21.443 million cubic metres (MCM), while the net draft (withdrawal) is 31.162 MCM. 

There is a shortage of 9.71 MCM of groundwater in the state. Out of the 50,362 square kilometres of ​​the state, 39,000 sq km area (or 78 per cent) has recorded a decline in water level. The groundwater level is falling on an average by more than 2-4 metres every decade, found the decade-wise analysis.

Punjab requires a large amount of water for the cultivation of wheat and paddy crops. As a result, there are now more than 1 million tube wells in the state compared with 192,000 in 1970. 

Farmers are also concerned about the groundwater level in Punjab but say they have no other option other than agriculture. Even switching crops will amount to huge losses for them.

“If irrigation has to be done once more, then a water motor will have to be run for eight hours through a four-inch pipe in 1 acre of fields. However, there’s still no surety whether wheat will survive the heat,” said Atwal.

Advice for farmers

“Farmers are worried about strong winds,” Hari Ram with the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics of Punjab Agricultural University told DTE. “The strong winds can destroy wheat crops if the soil is wet.”

Read more: Rabi 2022-23: Increase in wheat sowing marginal, shows government data

Ram advised farmers to irrigate in the evening after noting the wind speed and dividing the fields into small plots. “Wheat needs additional irrigation to protect it from heat. At the same time, farmers can also use potassium nitrate at this time,” he said.

What about maize?

Punjab farmers are also having trouble with maize cultivation, which needs to be watered every eight to ten days. However, higher temperatures will mean additional irrigation for maize too. 

“In my field, maize has to be watered every 10 days. Irrigation is required nine to 10 times for a 90-day crop. But I have to irrigate it every three-four days due to the heat, increasing water consumption,” said Atwal. 

Double whammy for Madhya Pradesh farmers

Unlike Punjab, not all Madhya Pradesh farmers have access to tube wells and irrigation methods, increasing their troubles. 

In the absence of canals, people depend on rain for irrigation, but it neither rained in November-December 2022 nor in January-February this year, damaging Rabi crops. Farmers with tube wells report even those have dried up as well. 

“I irrigate my fields with water from tube wells, which dries up every year around March,” said a farmer from Indore district, Madhya Pradesh. “The groundwater level in my village is at over 100 metres.” 

When it rains in the monsoon, his tube well also gets some water, which he uses to irrigate Rabi crops. However, this year, the tube well dried up in January and his sown wheat is drying up in the heat. 

“The grains of wheat have not developed yet, so the effect on wheat is also not visible, but if the weather continues like this, the grain of wheat will dry up and become smaller as there is no source of irrigation,” the farmer said. 

The farmer is sure that he will face losses in the wheat crop and is not sure he will get a good price for any crop that he manages to save. 

“My fields remain empty after I harvest wheat because I don’t have any irrigation facility,” said farmer Babu from the region. “I sow soybean when it rains.”

Babu didn’t receive good prices from soybean last year, so he suffered losses. “I had expected to make up for it with the wheat crop this time, but the monsoon rains in 2022 and the heat now have ruined my chances for making a profit again,” he said. 

The farmers in one of the largest states in the country — Madhya Pradesh — regularly face a shortage of irrigation water. Out of its total geographical area of ​​30.77 million hectares, the net sown area is only 15.07 million hectares. 

Read more: Wheat Crisis: Government procurement goals not met, food security risk increases

The net irrigated area in the state from all sources is 6.41 million hectares, which is only 42.57 per cent of the total cultivable land. The average annual rainfall in the state is 857.70 millimetres and an estimated 60 per cent of rainwater is wasted.

Of the total irrigated area in the state, canals contribute 10.51 per cent, wells and tube wells 42.56 per cent, other sources 9.73 per cent and tanks only 1.38 per cent. Thus, in spite of all the efforts to increase the irrigated area by building big irrigation dams, so far, only 1.05 million hectare area has been brought under irrigation by dams and canals.

In addition, dams can only irrigate land in specific areas downstream of the dam through canals. As a result, remote areas where no river flows do not have irrigation facilities.

This means that the advice of additional irrigation is not going to work for the farmers facing problems due to less rain and increasing heat.

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