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Water wars in the US: Lessons for India

By Devinder Sharma

Taps are running dry, water tables are falling, crops are shrivelling and cattle dying as America faces its worst drought since the '30s. Strangely, America's hi-tech model of precision farming has crumbled under just one year of severe drought. What does this say about the wisdom and efficacy of industrialised farming versus India's subsistence farming methods?

There is never a time when an educated Indian doesn't search for solutions to India's problems in the land of dreams. Whether it is hunger, sustainable agriculture, kick-starting industrial growth, food habits, music, or of course the successful model of economic growth, India must follow the US. No wonder our intelligentsia, our economists and our scientists are always desperate for opportunities to travel to America and return with a bag full of answers to our many problems.

Their solutions to India's raging drought - some call it the worst in recent memory, which haunts and ravages 12 states - are thus also inspired by America's management of its croplands. India, they say, must follow the United States' drought-mitigation strategy. High technology, we assume, has insulated American agriculture from the vagaries of drought. After all, don't the Americans use lasers, information technology, huge machines, satellite data, electronics and now genetic engineering for what is popularly called 'precision farming'?

In India, fragmented land holdings, subsistence farming methods, poor productivity and exploitation of the natural resource base make the sustainability and viability of our farms doubtful. The only way out for the country, we are invariably told by agricultural scientists, is to follow the American model. Such an approach will provide impeccable drought-proofing. And it is primarily for this reason that corporate agriculture is being pushed.

By a strange coincidence, America too is faced at present with its worst drought since the days of the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. As many as 26 of the 50 American states are reeling under a severe drought, with 'exceptional drought' conditions --- the worst level of drought measured - in 13 states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Such is the crop damage that like the drastic reduction expected in rice production this year in India, US wheat production is anticipated to fall to its lowest levels in nearly 30 years. There couldn't have been a better time to study America's drought-proofing mechanisms and suggest its replication in a developing country like India or for that matter in South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But get ready for a rude shock. The American agriculture that we all studied and appreciated in university has crumbled under one year of severe drought. The drought-proofing that we heard so much about appears to have failed. It is known that Indian agriculture falters because of its complete dependence on monsoons. But with the kind of industrialisation that took place in American agriculture, and with the amount of investment made, we believed that US agriculture is not dependent upon rains.

But the news reports appearing in the American media might almost be emanating from a drought-stricken village in India's hinterland. You read in utter disbelief about 100 desperate farmers and rural residents praying for rain at the St Patrick parish church in Grand Rapids, Ohio. With hands clasped and eyes cast downward, they seek divine intervention. "None of us have control over whether it is going to rain or not," Sister Christine Pratt, rural life director for the Catholic Diocese of nearby Toledo told Reuters. "But the people are praying for one another and there is some hope."

Another report in the Washington Post states that President George Bush is unwilling to extend any more finances for drought relief, other than the support available from the $180 billion farm bill he signed in May. The president however underscored his commitment to helping farmers through existent programmes including the agriculture department's decision to make $150 million in surplus milk --- "spoiled milk" as the Democrats called it - available for use in animal feed in four drought-stricken states including South Dakota.

Cattle are dying and crops are shrivelling. Fodder has become scarce, and therefore the need to feed surplus 'milk' instead. There is a scramble for new water sources as town and city residents are urged to stop watering lawns and washing cars. In heat-baked fields ranchers have sold off herds rather than let them starve for lack of pasture. "I have never seen it like this and I'm 60 years old," said Richard Traylor, who owns 37,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico but has sold off much of his cattle herd.

Serious hydrological problems with wells and reservoirs have emerged. Streams have gone dry. The groundwater table has fallen drastically. Wildfires have become more rampant, and an estimated 4.6 million acres have been scorched this year, twice the average acreage burnt in the previous decade. "It is pretty dire," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center. From southern California to South Carolina and from Montana to New Mexico, individuals and industries are suffering, the news agency reports.

In India, the total drought relief demanded by the affected states is around Rs 30,000 crore. In America, the drought relief being sought is in the range of US $5 billion.

In India, the government still hasn't banned watering of lawns. But in Monticello, Georgia, south of Atlanta, all outside watering has been banned, because creek levels were so low that the area could run out of water in 30 to 45 days. And like the loss estimates being worked out by the Indian ministry of agriculture, the national estimates for drought-related losses are being prepared by the US department of agriculture which is waiting for the harvesting of corn and soybean and other key crops before computing the loss figures.

Lack of rain is the obvious factor for the prevailing drought in both India and America. But let us not forget that while India receives almost its entire rainfall in 100 hours during the monsoon season, it continues to rain intermittently in America. And still, water shortages are prompting battles between 'upstream and downstream states and between individuals and businesses in Dodge City, Kansas'. In Jasper County, South Carolina, a drop in an underground aquifer left households without water. Rural residents, as in India, blamed business operators for using too much water. As if this were not enough, North and South Carolina are fighting over North Carolina's refusal to release water from its reservoirs downstream. In Colorado, Denver's water reservoir has already hit a historic low.

Colorado Governor Bill Owens has approved a $1 million emergency drought fund so that farmers and ranchers can buy water. "People are battling for water like we've never seen before," said Hope Mizzell, South Carolina's drought program coordinator. Like Rajasthan in India, which is faced with its fourth consecutive year of drought, some areas in America are also experiencing their fifth consecutive year of drought.

The conditions are close to those seen during the country's most devastating drought in the 1930s -- the Dust Bowl years, when some 60 per cent of the United States was affected, media reports. Isn't it the same situation that India is also passing through? After all, if a severe drought some 70 years after the 1930 Dust Bowl years still results in such massive devastation, isn't it time to question the efficacy of the American model of farming? Isn't it a fact that hi-tech American agriculture remains as vulnerable to dry weather as the subsistence farming systems that prevail in India? Why then should India follow a faulty agriculture and farming system?

It is time India realised that it must develop its own low-cost farming strategies suited to the needs of the country. It is time Indian agricultural scientists looked inwards to build up a farming system that meets the nation's requirements and also addresses problems of sustainability. Blindly apeing the industrial farming system would only push the country into a hitherto unforeseen crisis, much more severe than recurring drought.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2003