More rice with less water

Article, 28.02.2018

One seventh of the organic rice sold in Switzerland’s Coop supermarkets comes from small farms in northern India that strive to save water. High environmental standards are maintained thanks to the public-private partnership behind the Water Productivity Project, WAPRO for short, conceived and co-funded by the SDC.

A farmer counts rice plants per square meter.
Transplanting the rice seedlings with more space between them results in bigger ears with more grains. This technique, known as the sich «System of Rice Intensification» (SRI) cuts water consumption by more than 25%. ©Helvetas

New, simple farming methods have enabled rice farmer Sarasvati Yadav to increase her crop yield. A purchase commitment from the Swiss supermarket chain Coop and the premiums she receives for meeting environmental standards mean that she earns roughly a third more than she used to. On top of this, she says, “The WAPRO training course taught me new techniques and helped me to understand how important the way we use water is.” After the training, it was clear to her that her village could and should take action to improve the irrigation of the rice paddies that surround it. This prompted her to set up a water and environment group together with her neighbours that repairs irrigation channels and discusses water management.

Around 4,200 farmers in the Indian state of Uttarakhand have attended training courses on the efficient use of water in rice farming as part of the WAPRO project funded by the SDC. The rice producers learn about water-saving technologies and how to manage their water infrastructure. As in many regions of the world, India is increasingly suffering from water shortages caused by the ever later start of the monsoon season, a lack of rainfall and overuse of groundwater.

Fair-trade rice from the SDC project

In total, Coop buys around one seventh – some 1,000 tonnes – of all the fair-trade rice it sells on the Swiss market from the WAPRO catchment area in northern India.

Together with Helvetas, the retailer has been supporting organic and fair-trade rice in the Indian state of Uttarakhand since 2011. The SDC was the first organisation to point out how important water management is within the context of a holistic solution. With this in mind, WAPRO is now funding training courses for water and environment groups that manage collective water consumption. “We want to offer a credible and sustainable product, and water has to be a part of that,” explains Coop’s Annina Böhlen. The partnership in India was thus begun in 2015, with WAPRO’s funding split equally between the public and private sides. Helvetas runs the project with the aid of local partners on behalf of the SDC.

Water is central to sustainable farming

WAPRO focuses in particular on water productivity in rice and cotton farming, i.e. reducing the amount of water consumed in the production of each kilo of crop. The SDC involves all stakeholders in the effort to address this issue, so WAPRO is made up of three components: water management advice for local farmers, support for administration and governance, and purchase commitments and price guarantees from the private partners.

More from less

When used in combination, the farming methods presented in the training courses make it possible to increase crop yields while reducing resource use. One example is transplanting the rice seedlings to the paddy fields earlier than before but with more space between them. This technique, known as the ‘system of rice intensification’ (SRI), gives each plant more room to grow, resulting in bigger ears with more grains. Another of the techniques covered, ‘alternate wetting and drying’ (AWD), entails flooding the paddies only intermittently rather than constantly. Rice does not actually have to be grown underwater. The only reason why paddies were originally flooded was to kill off weeds.

WAPRO also encourages farmers to grow mixed crops. Soya beans, for example, are ideally suited to planting between rows of rice, and they even supply the soil with valuable nitrogen, so the rice needs less fertiliser. Lentils also flourish alongside rice. Coop has developed a new product – a mixture of rice, lentils and quinoa – specifically to support this mixed-crop approach.

Organic and water-saving

However, knowledge alone is not enough to persuade farmers to adopt new methods. As in any market, incentives are needed to switch over to a new technology. This is why WAPRO has introduced a premium of one rupee per kilo of rice to use the two new rice-growing techniques.

The major buyers pay this premium to farmers who grow in accordance with WAPRO standards. The farmers thus benefit from a higher purchase price for their produce in addition to the purchase commitment.

After just two years, as many as 30% of farmers in Uttarakhand have started to apply the new techniques in rice farming. The system of rice intensification cuts water consumption by more than 25%. Alternate wetting and drying, which is much more popular, uses 20 % less water.

Collective action

Water productivity in the field is not the whole story. Most of the water is lost in the outdated infrastructure. Dilapidated weirs and leaking channels are common sights. Improving irrigation infrastructure and water management is thus essential.

“The most pleasing thing was seeing farmers motivated after the training courses to take action collectively and start repairing the irrigation infrastructure the State had neglected,” explains Jens Soth of Helvetas. A total of 55 water and environment groups have come together in Uttarakhand alone. Rice producers, who depend on the shared water infrastructure, use the groups to discuss how to maintain it and where repairs are needed. Fair-trade subsidies cover some of the repair costs. “We find it interesting how course participants are prioritising water infrastructure of their own accord,” says Soth. It is worth noting that there are no conditions attached to the fair-trade premium regarding how it is spent. The premium comprises a direct payment to producers and a payment to the cooperative that flows into the water and environment groups’ water stewardship efforts. Coop is also helping improve irrigation infrastructure through its climate protection activities, since more efficient use of water in rice farming also lowers greenhouse gas emissions.

Freshly repaired irrigation channel flowing through two dry fields
After the WAPRO training course, the water and environment group in the northern Indian village of Kyari repaired 500 metres of irrigation channel. © Helvetas
Two men walk along an irrigation channel beside a stone wall inspecting its condition.
Joint water management means regularly inspecting irrigation infrastructure and planning repairs and improvements as a group. © Helvetas

Same problem, different solution

Overall, WAPRO operates in seven regions in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and India. The focus in all these regions is on farming methods that save water and improving water management. The project aims to empower farmers to use water more efficiently and to encourage local and regional authorities to take responsibility for improving water infrastructure. A total of around 47,000 farmers have attended WAPRO training courses to date and are working to improve water management in their regions.

SDC Director-General Manuel Sager sums up the project’s multiple benefits: “WAPRO is a successful collaboration between the SDC, its Indian partner organisations and the private sector – a win-win solution on all sides. The rice-farming families earn more money while saving water and preserving the environment, which benefits everyone. Leading food companies can market the healthy, fairly traded organic rice profitably, and we consumers enjoy a product that’s good for us.”