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Water Footprint Assessments: Dehydrated Onion Products, Micro-Irrigation Systems

International Finance Corporation (IFC) ; Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd. (Jain); The Nature Conservancy; LimnoTech

Water footprint assessments were conducted for two products, dehydrated onions and microirrigation systems (MIS), produced by Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd. (JISL) in Maharashtra, India. A water footprint is an indicator of freshwater consumption that looks at both direct and indirect use, and considers where and when the water was used. It has three components, as defined by the Water Footprint Network1:

  • The green water footprint refers to consumption of green water resources (rainwater stored in the soil as soil moisture);
  • The blue water footprint refers to consumption of blue water resources (surface and ground water);
  • The grey water footprint refers to pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on existing ambient water quality standards.

A full water footprint assessment goes beyond accounting of water consumption, in that it also addresses the sustainability of the water use, and allows a business to identify its water-related impacts and vulnerabilities and identify potential response actions. Of great pertinence to this assessment is the sustainability of the groundwater resource that supplies irrigation water for onions purchased by JISL. The company is but one of many users of groundwater, and water tables are declining rapidly due to expansion of the area of irrigated lands, particularly with water-intensive crops.

Separate water footprints were calculated for the two products. The accounting results are summarized below.

  • The results indicate that water consumed at the farms accounts for 99% of the total water footprint of dehydrated onions. The water footprint of dehydrated onions accounts for water consumed in the supply chain to grow the onions, the production of MIS used on the onion farms, and in operations for dehydrated onion production.
  • Onions grown under drip irrigation have a 42% smaller water footprint than onions grown under flood irrigation. The largest component of both water footprints is the blue water footprint, associated with irrigation.
  • The grey water footprint for onions grown under drip irrigation is almost 90% smaller than the grey water footprint for flood-irrigated onions, reflecting the reduced application requirements and lower leaching rate when water and nutrients are applied at the root zone of the plants using drip irrigation.
  • The results for MIS (drip irrigation) indicate that most of the water footprint lies in the supply chain, associated with production of raw materials (plastics) and accounting for 73% to 96% of the total water footprint.
  • The water footprint of MIS (drip irrigation) used on a typical onion field is a negligible component of the total water footprint for growing onions.
  • The water consumption associated with JISL’s production of dehydrated onions and MIS accounts for approximately 1% of total groundwater draft in the Jalgaon District.

The sustainability assessment examined the sustainability of the groundwater resource that supplies irrigation water for onion growing, with a focus on potential social and economic impacts. Though onion farming constitutes a small percentage of the total area in cultivation, the results suggest that the sustainability of JISL’s water use is vulnerable in several distinct ways, each of which suggests a different type of response strategy:

  • The overdraft of groundwater due to cumulative uses in the onion growing regions suggests that response strategies should help farmers reduce their demand for water, thereby reducing their risk of shortages and helping to alleviate the regional declines in groundwater levels.
  • Given current rates of groundwater overdraft, it may be very difficult or impossible to maintain or increase crop production. Therefore, the response strategies should also find ways to increase the supply of water.
  • Finally, the complexity brought about by the presence of many different water users suggests that a community-based, multi-stakeholder approach to managing the groundwater resource could be of value.

The response strategies formulated for JISL include four different and complementary approaches to alleviating water scarcity and improving the sustainability of water use in the onion growing region:

  • Through supporting increased use of drip irrigation by existing onion farmers, JISL can help these farmers reduce their water consumption and thereby alleviate local groundwater overdraft.
  • Looking more broadly at agriculture in the Jalgaon growing region, JISL can also support the government’s push for new, less water-intensive cropping strategies, which will reduce overall groundwater consumption.
  • On the supply side, JISL can increase the amount of groundwater available by encouraging rainwater harvesting and aquifer recharge projects.
  • JISL is considering supporting or establishing a Tapi River Basin Water User’s Dialogue, through which representatives of local water stakeholders could work together toward sustainable water resource management.

These approaches address both water demand and water supply. They address very local applications (for local onion suppliers in Jalgaon) as well as applications that can make an impact on a regional and national level. Drip irrigation was highlighted in as a key vector to addressing the projected deficit between supply and water requirements in India in the recent report, Charting Our Water Future (2030 Water Resources Group, 2009).

JISL’s water footprint response strategies also provide a strong foundation for resilience in the face of climate change, and for sustainably meeting the growing global demand for food. As such, these approaches are of global importance as examples of a significant corporate response to agricultural water scarcity.

1 Water Footprint Manual; State of the Art 2009