On a scorching summer day in northern India, Ajay Singh sat next to his water pump and scanned his 10 acres of farmland. He once used to grow rice each season to bring in about 150,000 rupees ($2,000) a year, well above the average income in the world’s second-most populous country. Now on six acres he’s cultivating pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn — crops that consume about 80% less water than rice, and also use less labor, fertilizer and electricity. While a water conservation program pays him 7,000 ($93) rupees per acre to plant them, it’s still a gamble: Unlike rice, which the government always buys at a set price, these crops have no guaranteed market.
“I am taking this risk because I have a passion to leave enough water for future generations,” Singh said from his farm in Karnal, an area a few hours drive north of the capital, New Delhi. India’s 1.3 billion people have access to only about 4% of the world’s water resources, and farmers consume almost 90% of the groundwater water available. As global temperatures rise and overuse of water depletes existing resources, the threat to lives and businesses in Asia’s third-largest economy is projected to grow.
Water shortages are already acute: nearly half the country’s population faces high-to-extreme water stress and about 200,000 die each year due to inadequate access to safe water. Stoked by climate change, the water crisis has forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to try and turn around decades of established farming practices and convince the country’s most powerful voting bloc to change the crops they plant. Water-guzzlers like rice and wheat are out, corn and pulses are in.