I write this from western India, where I’ve traveled at the request of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to assist in reviewing the influence of irrigated agriculture on water scarcity and freshwater ecosystems. It’s my first trip to India, and I’m getting an eyeful.
One of my first images of India is a memory that I’m trying hard to shake off. Soon after leaving the Aurangabad airport by car, we passed an old woman washing her clothes in the filthy water collecting in a roadside drainage ditch, tainted with animal and human waste, motor oil and who knows what else.
A moment later, we crossed over a river bridge, where we could see hundreds of people bathing and drinking directly from a river that was clearly bearing a heavy pollution load.
This is the raw face of poverty, and a poignant example of the often-brutal connections between water, poverty and human health.
I must admit that I’ve become a bit too complacent about oft-repeated statistics about water and global health — that 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, for instance, or that a child dies every 17 seconds somewhere on the planet from waterborne disease.
But when you see those tragedies unfolding before your eyes you can’t help but become reinvigorated to do everything possible to make the world better.
So why am I now leaving India hopeful for a more secure water future for this country and other developing nations?
Our focus for the trip was a review of one company’s influence on agriculture in India. Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd., headquartered in Jalgaon, supplies two-thirds of the “micro-irrigation” systems in India — they are the drip- and sprinkler-irrigation kings in this part of the world.
During the past couple of days, we’ve visited a number of onion, mango and cotton farms that were until recently “flood irrigated,” meaning that water is poured onto the farm until flooded. A good portion of that water evaporates, doing nothing for the crop. Jain is helping farmers purchase water-efficient irrigation systems and providing them with the basic know-how to operate them properly.
The results have been quite spectacular. The farmers are using an average of 40 percent less water, which means that a lot more water stays in the aquifer or river, where it will benefit fish, trees and birds.
This is where poverty alleviation and conservation meet each other. And it is exactly the type of improved water use The Nature Conservancy wants to encourage through our new water certification program, which will recognize companies taking action to reduce their water use and pollution.
More important for India’s farmers is the fact that they’re getting 50 percent more crop from their farms. As the saying goes, “more crop per drop.” Farmer after farmer told us stories about how they could barely scratch out a living before they switched to micro-irrigation. Now they have money to build safe drinking water wells, feed their families and send their kids to school.
India faces a daunting water future. Most of the country is running short of water. Its population continues to swell. Already more than 450 million live in poverty here..
But I leave India with a hopeful heart. A water-efficiency revolution is taking place, and it is spreading beyond India.
(Image: Eco-friendly micro-irrigation system in India. Credit: Brian Richter/TNC.)