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With water-saving sugarcane cultivation, conserved water goes to river

  • The trench method of sugarcane farming that was started in some districts of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, conserves water which is then pumped back into the Karula river, a tributary of the Ramganga.
  • About 300 farmers in the sugarcane-producing districts of Uttar Pradesh have been able to reduce water usage using trench farming and they have saved an estimated 60 million litres of water between 2019 and 2021.
  • Sugarcane cultivation is a water-intensive process and over-extraction of water from the river, for its cultivation, has led to drying up of river patches.

Sugarcane farmer Narendra Kumar, a resident of Khanpur village in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh, has been cultivating the cash crop for almost two decades. “My father started growing sugarcane for improved livelihood options. Currently, I cultivate the crop on 3.23 hectares of land which lie scattered,” Kumar said, over a phone call, on a hot and humid afternoon. The progressive farmer has, however, changed the method of sugarcane cultivation to conserve water.

Sugarcane, grown on 22.34 lakh (223,400) hectares and across some 15 districts of Uttar Pradesh, is a highly water-intensive crop. “In my village, 70 percent of the sugarcane farmers, including myself, now cultivate the crop using the trench method. I adopted the technique four years back. It helps save 18 percent of irrigation water,” Kumar told Mongabay-India.

Farmers in the village switched over to the trench method of cultivation after realising its benefits over the traditional flood irrigation system which uses a lot of water by allowing it to flow in all directions in the fields. By saving irrigation water, about 300 farmers like Kumar have been able to reduce water usage for sugarcane and divert the excess amount into the Karula river, a tributary of the Ramganga river.

River water conservation

The Ganga and its tributary, the Ramganga, are in a highly polluted state in Uttar Pradesh. As part of river conservation work, WWF-India has been addressing major threats like over-extraction of water in the agriculture sector. A network of irrigation canals make it easy for sugarcane farmers to extract water free of cost without thinking about wastage and conservation of water. One of the major objectives of WWF-India’s work was to enhance the flow of the Karula river which they did in partnership with the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation and Water Resources Department, the state government, the Bijnor district administration, gram panchayats and farmers in major sugarcane-producing districts. The Karula was not flowing continuously in the lean season from mid-October to mid-June. Water was found in the river in patches during peak summer.

“Most of our rivers flow lean as a lot of water extraction happens due to agriculture. In India, more than 80 percent water allocation is for farmers. But a lot of experts feel that the agriculture sector uses water inefficiently. Water drawn from rivers is not fully put into use,” Suresh Babu, Director, Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy, WWF-India, said. Babu added that the Karula revival work, which started in 2017, showed that there was scope for engagement with sugarcane farmers and irrigation department officials. Today, farmers have become ‘Ramganga mitras’ or ‘friends of the Ramganga’ and contribute towards the river’s revival where there is adequate flow for survival of aquatic biodiversity.

The Karula river is back to a healthy state as water saved in sugarcane cultivation has been pumped back to the river. Photo courtesy WWF-India.

Nitin Kaushal, Associate Director, Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy at WWF-India, informed that as irrigation is totally subsidised by the state government as a welfare measure, farmers generally do not care much about water overuse. “The sugarcane farmers use both canal as well as groundwater across the entire belt, including in districts such as Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, where flood irrigation has been traditionally predominant.”

Though in these areas, the trench method was started 10 years ago as a replacement for flood irrigation method, it did not get the required action due to weak mobilisation. “Looking at the design of the trench, a little bit of improvisation was done, keeping in mind the issues farmers were facing. Earlier, trenches used to be fixed but the introduction of adjustable arrangements allowed the reduction and enhancement of the width of the trench,” Kaushal added. The trench method ensures that water needed for sugarcane goes only into the trenches.

Intercropping in sugarcane fields

Initially, it was difficult to engage with farmers. “When we talked about river conservation, a few farmers became interested and later they inspired others,” Babu explained.

Rajesh Kumar Bajpai, senior coordinator, river basin management at WWF-India is in charge of Moradabad district. He informed that in order to popularise the trench irrigation method, confidence-building measures, demonstration work in fields and mobilisation took place. “The Karula is about 90 km in length. It falls in Moradabad and Bijnor districts. Earlier, farmers used to pay for canal water but after 2012 it was made free.”

Before the intervention, the Karula river was not flowing continuously in the lean season, from mid-October to mid-June. Water was only found in the river in patches during peak summer. Photo courtesy WWF-India.

Apart from saving water, the trench method of cultivation has enabled farmers to go in for intercropping. For instance, many of them are growing mustard and moong in sugarcane fields. In such a case, water-use efficiency further goes up to 34 percent, according to a WWF-India analysis.

“I take more than one crop aided by soil moisture. Whatever water we have to supply in the trenches is set and no extra water is needed for intercrops. Even though the soil is dry on the surface, there is moisture underneath. In October, I sow mustard in sugarcane fields. Intercrops can be taken by other farmers as well as farm labourers. This way, I am saving money too,” said Kumar, the sugarcane farmer from Khanpur.

Farmer Chaman Singh from Khanpur owns 1.61 hectares of farming land. He grows sugarcane on 1.21 hectares and the rest is for paddy cultivation. “I ensure four feet gap between the trenches for growing mustard and moong. In this way, farmers like me make extra income and save water for Karula at the same time.”

Kaushal pointed out that water started entering Karula for the first time in May 2019 since work started in July 2017. “Since May 2019 till March 2021, 60 million litres of water have been released into the river. It will reach 70 million litres easily,” he said.

Since 2017, WWF-India has been popularising the trench irrigation method and mobilising the community to adopt this water-saving technique of sugarcane cultivation. Photo by WWF-India.

Besides water conservation and yield increase of sugarcane, there has been one more benefit of using the trench method. Earlier, farmers living in the tail end of canals were deprived of adequate water and depended on groundwater for their crop. Now, they too can access canal water supply. Tail-end farmer Gambheer Tyagi of Kolasagar in Bijnor has a two-acre sugarcane plot. “The water problem has been solved since 2017. Initially, I did not get canal water supply as farmers in the head end used up all water. My crop yield has also increased. I get 50-100 quintals more now per 0.404 hectare.”

Irrigation canals in India work on gravity. The head end is on a higher elevation. By nature, water flows to the tail end. So, a passage was constructed maintaining gravity and the water passed through the passage and entered the Karula, Kaushal explained.

Om Dutta Rawat from the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department, Moradabad, said he was happy with the collaboration which is ensuring a healthy flow into the Karula through canals by saving water. Farmers are benefitting the most through intercropping, he added.

G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a Hyderabad-based organisation that works with farmers for establishing economic and ecological sustainability, said that overall the trench method is beneficial. “In terms of water conservation, it helps significantly. It reduces the irrigation requirement. But water saving also depends on the soil type. Still, it would be anything between 10-30 percent (water saving) based on local conditions,” he said. Other crops can be grown on bunds using trench whereas in conventional methods, farmers go in for mono-cropping. Increased spacing between plants also makes them grow bigger and better, the expert added.

“Trench method is in vogue across the country in various forms, but it also requires tools or implements. Wherever people did not get access to them, they could not do it. In Belgaum, Karnataka farmers went in for trench and raised beds where they grew turmeric on bunds with sugarcane crop in trenches. It was a successful initiative,” he said.

Banner image: Though the trench method of sugarcane cultivation was started around 10 years ago, as a replacement for flood irrigation method, in many areas of Uttar Pradesh, it took some years before the technique was widely adopted. Photo courtesy WWF-India.

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