Harvesting Hope

“Green water is ignored by engineers because they can’t pipe or pump it, by economists because they can’t price it, and by governments because they can’t tax it.” -David Dent, Director, Green Water Credits

Worldchanging guest writers David Zak and Chad Monfreda write in their article “If green is the new black, then water is the new oil. With climate change threatening harsher droughts and water scarcity facing nearly 60% of humanity, water is critical to any vision of sustainability.”

Nothing can be more correct than this when we come to global water use and our dependence on it for survival and growth. But importance of green water is least understood by common man. We live comfortably with the cozy misconception that those big dams, canals, pipelines and tube-wells that our engineers constructed, our economists evaluated and our governments managed are our real agents of sustenance. Pictures of huge wheat-fields lined with canals or irrigated by sparkling ground water and harvested by state-of-the art crop cutters help to maintain the illusion.

Here is a reality check. About 60% of the world staple food production relies on rainfed irrigation, and hence green water. The entire meat production from grazing relies on green water and so does the production of wood from forestry. In Sub-Saharan Africa almost the entire food production depends on green water (the relative importance of irrigation is minor) and most of the industrial products, such as cotton, tobacco, wood, etc. Simply put, for 6 plates of food out of 10, the prayer should address rain and soil and not highly mechanized farms. We harvest hope when there is rain and the ground it happily wet.

For all enterprise that puts food on your table, you need water but you do not necessarily need that water as ‘end-of-pipe’. In most part it is and should be ‘out-of-soil’. Give it a careful thought.

Green water is that part of unseen water which is trapped in the soil to make it moist and is consumed by the plant world (pasture where livestock feed and forests that purify air}, and large part of world food production by the poor, unorganized, underdeveloped farmers without the aid of high-tech machinery and transpirated back into the atmosphere until the next rainy season re-moistens the soil. Easy enough scene, easier ignored. On the average (depending on climate, soils and topography, these numbers can vary significantly at local scale) the global soil moisture storage is 500 mm deep and the global evapo-transpiration rate is 100 mm/month, so the average residence time of this green water is 5 months. A poor farmer knows it by his life. His calendar has 7 months of prayer and 5 months of hectic activity.

Back home in India, the news paper is filled with political advert campaigns of Irrigation Projects and pipelines and water retaining dams. Impressive. But can someone tell me why Indian farmers keep on committing suicides after each crop failure? “According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 182,936 Indian farmers have committed suicide between 1997 -2007. It estimates 46 Indian farmers kill themselves every day – that is, roughly one suicide every 30 minutes. An estimated 16,625 farmers across India killed themselves in 2007, the last year that was reported. The numbers are horrifying, and they indicate the sense of despair that the poorest people in the world are facing today.”

The world has a right to know why this happens time and again. One of the several reasons of this tragedy is Globalization pressure of producing exotic food products instead of indigenous crop varieties and the Green Water Cycle of India just cannot supplement it. Read Vanda Shiva’s report here .

Sorry if this makes your bread taste sour a little, this is due to colossal neglect and ignorance of Green Water Management. I may be a little thick in the head, but many of my learned friends fail to come up with a rational answer to a simple question: India is one of the wettest place on earth, why would we need so many big irrigation projects (which still do not reach a substantial section of our farmers)?

Payments to farmers in the developing world are one opportunity to improve water management, while at the same time alleviating poverty and ensuring the flow of ecosystem goods and services like flood control and healthy soil. Modest measures like mulching, conservation tillage, and small-scale water harvesting can increase infiltration by as much as 2-3 fold. Other methods include terracing, contouring and micro-basins that also increase green water and reduce run-off. Initiatives such as Green Water Credits funded by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation ( SDC ) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development ( IFAD ), the International Soil Reference and Information Centre ( ISRIC ) is pioneering green water credits, which it describes as:

A mechanism for direct payment to people in rural areas in return for water management activities which are presently un-recognized and unrewarded. Benefits to poor people drive this initiative which, at the same time, safeguards water resources and food security for everyone.

Read a summary of Green Water Credits here .

There is still hope. We can harvest that hope here in developing country like India, if we can organize the poorest of the poor farm laborers, network with them and provide them with direct peer to peer micro-funding to improve rain-use efficiency. This model is applicable for 60% of Global Food Production, as well.

A little entertainment to finish my post. Following is a near-life scene of joy when rain arrives to Indian farmer. This is from Oscar nominated Indian movie Lagaan . You may not follow the language but the joy is infectious.

Feature Image credit: Greenpaxx


  • Thanks for explaining what green water is. The wheat farmers here in Oklahoma call it subsoil moisture and they credit it with carrying nutrients to the surface as it evaporates. I found Vanda Shiva’s report interesting but very sad. It looks like genetically modified crops are doing more harm than good and may not be able to make up for the growing population and reduced crop yields caused by climate change.

  • I enjoyed your writings as I learn and understand better, thanks to you Pabitra.


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