Groundwater and Its Impact on Food Systems

Shrinidhi Rao

Water shortage, or rather the unavailability of clean water, is an issue that has been nagging humanity for quite some time. Despite the struggles and disparity, an increasing number of organisations have started leveraging the power of technology to ensure minimal wastage and conserve this invaluable resource.

Water is a critical input towards agricultural production and food security. Irrigated agriculture represents about 40% of global food production. South Asia, the OECD countries, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries have the highest dependence on the depleting groundwater sources for food production. 

According to a study, groundwater depletion in India will result in up to a 20% reduction in food crops nationwide by 2025. Groundwater accounts for about 60% of irrigation supplies in India, making it precarious for food security. The usual issues causing depletion are unsustainable consumption for irrigation and mismanaged consumption for industrial usage. This becomes a serious concern considering India accounts for 10% of the global agricultural production.

How climate change is further accelerating groundwater erosion

Although invisible, the impact is visible everywhere. The ground reality is that globally 1 out of every 8 people suffers from a lack of access to safe drinking water.

The Indian sub-continent has the dubious distinction of being an overpopulated country. With this, climate change and groundwater depletion form the crux of the concerns and challenges faced by many.

Climate changes, including erratic rainfall in arid areas, have put additional stress on groundwater resources. These resources serve about 85% of the domestic water supply in rural areas, and 45% in urban areas, and represent 60% of irrigated agriculture. Moreover, overexploitation of this invaluable resource adds insult to injury by posing threats to livelihoods, food security, and climate-driven migration. 

An example of this is the Doula village, located 55 km northeast of New Delhi. Until the 1980s, the harvests of rice, millet, and mung beans were irrigated with clean water directly from the river or with groundwater extracted from shallow wells. The industrial development near the Hindon River has polluted the waterways and even contaminated the freshwater aquifers. Today, Doula village suffers from severe hydrological mismanagement. 

Doula village is not the only one. Other regions, too, stand unsafe to water pollution and industrial development, among other issues.

Why arresting groundwater erosion is critical

India is on the brink of a widening emergency. The country consumes over 600 billion cubic meters of water annually, of which 245 billion cubic meters come from aquifers. So, just over 40%! India is far more dependent on water pumped from aquifers than any other nation. Over 90% of the groundwater in India is used for agricultural irrigation. The remaining 10% makes for about 85% of the country’s drinking water. 

The grave issue is that about 80% of the 1.35 billion residents rely on groundwater for drinking and irrigation. What’s more, India houses 16% of the global population and holds only 4% of the global freshwater resources. 

This is further amplified by spoilt aquifers and water scarcity. Water reserves are getting smaller and dirtier. 

Yet another issue is the one highlighted by NITI Aayog – the annual per capita water availability will reduce to 1,140 cubic meters by 2050. A concomitant result will be a fall in cropping and imbalances in food security. 

The Jal Shakti Ministry gauged that about 17% of groundwater blocks are overexploited. Another issue is that, between 2004 and 2017, the percentage of safe blocks decreased while those of semi-critical, critical, and over-exploited ones steadily increased. According to the data from 15,165 locations in 32 states tested by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), groundwater had higher levels of contaminants than permissible limits of Arsenic (697 locations), Fluoride (637), Nitrate (2,015), Iron (1,389), and Salinity (587).

Initiatives taken by WayCool to save groundwater

  1. Efficient Water Management

Traditionally, sewage trucks were called upon to dispose of the wastewater, thereby incurring recurring costs on sewage handling. But WayCool has installed a competitively-priced water treatment system. With this, every bit of wastewater generated gets treated promptly. In addition, the water used for washing the crates at one of the warehouses is passed through a multilayer filtration system enabling recycling for up to 2-3 days. These practices fulfill the SDG 6 of clean water and sanitation.

All the wastewater gets fed into the treatment unit to make water suitable for reuse. From here, it gets redirected to domestic use, gardening, or harvesting system.

The cost-savings? For one warehouse alone, this translates to over INR 40,000. This is money saved on sewage trucks and reduced freshwater withdrawal.

  1. Technology-based Irrigation Management

WayCool has installed an indigenously developed micro-weather station at its Outgrow Agricultural Research Station (OARS) model farm near Bengaluru. This micro-weather station accurately analyses the prevalent local climatic conditions, including rainfall, temperature, humidity, and soil moisture. Furthermore, WayCool has acquired GramWorkX to bring predictability to farming. GramWorkX’s smart farm resource management solution analyses the real-time micro-climatic conditions and accurately predicts the weather conditions in the days to come. These actionable insights in turn help farmers monitor and optimize water usage as compared to conventional methods.

  1. Smart Drip Irrigation

WayCool has covered 100% of the cultivated farm area at OARS through drip and pitcher irrigation systems. In fact, the WayCool agronomist team reaches out to the Outgrow farmer's base to largely adopt these efficient irrigation practices. This brings down the cost of cultivation for the farmers substantially that is incurred on water pump sets operating electricity cost, weeding, and inter-culture.

Tangible impact

The overall benefits are better regulation and monitoring, cost-savings, and accurate and predictive insights.

The endeavor of the water treatment system at the WayCool facilities has resulted in 2.2 million liters of wastewater being treated till date, of which approximately 75% is taken to groundwater recharge. The IoT smart metering devices installed at warehouse operations, have not only helped in the real-time monitoring of water use patterns but have also enabled data-backed decision-making.

Furthermore, on the farming side, harvesting rainwater has given effective water control and replenishment of the groundwater table.  The initiative via the farm pond structure at WayCool model farm captures 100% of rainwater. In the last year alone, about 700,000 liters of rainwater were collected. On the other hand, about 90% of the Outgrow farmer base have implemented the drip irrigation system, which has delivered 30-40% less water usage for irrigation purposes. Finally, by leveraging technology to render efficient irrigation, the GramWorkX micro weather station implemented at our OARS farm has reduced water usage by over 40%.

Going forward, WayCool aims to be a water-positive organization through efficient operation practices, water treatment infrastructure, and the creation of additional water catchments.

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