From dry season crops to detergents: tackling water shortage in India

30th January, 2013 by Martin Wright

India exports 500 litres of water with every 50g of rice. But smart ways to save water, combining ancient practice with modern technology, could save dwindling reserves.

Thanks to the annual monsoon, India receives large quantities of rain. But capturing and storing it so the water can last through the year is a major challenge – and one that’s becoming more urgent given the increasing volatility of rainfall patterns. As Unilever’s Meeta Singh puts it: “Water security is one of the biggest challenges facing India. Without water security, you have no food security, and that means no livelihood security.”

It’s a point reinforced by the International Finance Corporation’s Raj Ganguly: “When we export rice, we export water. Five hundred litres of it for every 50g of rice.” Part of the solution involves less thirsty growing methods, such as those being developed by PepsiCo. But more broadly, it also means reviving a tradition of communal water conservation which is in danger of being neglected. Historically, many rural communities maintained communal water tanks, formed of earth banks with impermeable clay linings, to help capture and store rainwater. (‘Tank’, incidentally, is one of a number of ancient Indian words which has passed into English.) Often these were arranged in a series of ‘cascades’, laid out across slopes to maximise storage. But in recent years, with the weakening of traditional rural social structures, these have been fallen into disuse.

Now, Unilever is working with local communities in the Gundar Basin area of Tamil Nadu to revive both the tanks and the water-sharing arrangements that go with them. Local associations of farmers and landless families – many of them women – have taken responsibility for the work at the local level, contributing 10% of the cost (as a way of ensuring ‘ownership’ of the scheme). To date, the project’s restoring 13 cascades, comprising 250 individual tanks serving almost 70 villages. Reviving this ancient system should enable the storage of 11.3 billion litres of water each year – allowing farmers to grow dry season crops, and so enjoy substantial increases in income.

Shrink to fit

Lifestyle changes boost water use too. Washing clothes with detergents makes a regular chore a lot lighter for rural women, but it also soaks up huge quantities of water – all those suds need to be thoroughly rinsed out. A single bucket’s wash takes up to four buckets of rinsing. Unless you live by a river or lake, that’s water which has to be fetched and carried, and isn’t available for other uses.

Many of the detergents sold in India are made by Unilever, which recently calculated that 38% of its water footprint came from the laundry process – particularly washing by hand in the developing world. Globally, the company’s set a target of halving the water consumption associated with the use of its consumer products by 2020, which makes present practice pretty unsustainable. So, now it’s developed a new product called ‘Magic Water Saver’, with an anti-foam emulsion which dramatically cuts the need for rinsing by 75% – down to a single bucket. With washing accounting for one-fifth of a typical Indian family’s water consumption, that should add up to a significant saving. – Martin Wright

This feature appeared in ‘India: Innovation Nation’, a Special Edition produced in collaboration with TERIUnileverInterface and Mlinda.

Photo: Martin Wright

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