The word Punjab is derived from Persian, meaning five (panj) rivers (ab). It is named so for the five rivers coursing through the arable land, like veins through a body, providing the essential nourishment to cultivate the land. As a child, I grew up amidst tall fields of lush, swaying crops of wheat that stretched for miles and perfumed the air. Our livelihood was dependent on the harvest and environmental balance.
Today, that way of life is under threat, from an increasingly warmer atmosphere and its impacts on the ground. The electricity outage in India, the largest in world history, coupled with the severe drought, has shed light on the region’s vulnerability and lack of preparedness but has also opened many doors for discourse and implementation of clean energy policies and solutions that can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Punjab is known as the “Bread Basket” or “Granary” of India; while encompassing only 1.5% of geographical territory, it produces 20% of the nation’s wheat supply. The emphasis on agriculture is in turn heavily dependent on the annual monsoons and rainfall. This year, rainfall in the region has fallen 70% below average, compared to the nationwide figure of 20% below average. In the absence of rain, farmers desperately pump rainwater with more frequency and from greater depth, leading to increased stress on the environment, which has contributed to the paralyzing electrical outages. A win-win solution here is energy efficiency; pumping water from underground is extremely energy intensive so the ability to use energy efficient pumps or retrofitted pump systems is a huge opportunity. Retrofitted pump systems allow for energy and cost savings, increased equipment life and pump efficiency. On a specific front, Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, suggests using soil monitors called tensiometers that measure the amount of moisture in crops and allow for farmers to gauge if the crops have to be watered yet or not. Their completed trial revealed a 22% savings of water and 24% savings of energy. The project is a positive indication of the success of policies that focus on energy efficiency for water and energy conservation.
Another solution is the use of renewable energy. Most of Punjab, and a significant portion of rural India, sits on low, flat plains that naturally lends itself to distributed generation such as wind and solar, and doesn’t need to be connected the national grid system. An increased focus on solar power for energy distribution would mean fewer wires, fewer subsequent transmission losses, and a decreased chance of overdrawing from the grid, as was the case in the recent outage. As the United Nations Development Programme case study on solar power in Morocco showed, the cost-benefits nexus of implementing solar is more favorable in rural communities than urban cities (that are more thoroughly integrated to the grid and electricity is cheaper). Additionally, NRDC has laid out recommendations for moving forward the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (NSM). These include recommendations for the banking and manufacturing sectors, as well as enabling a positive environment for solar technology. As my colleague points out in her blog, measures have already been implemented to advance renewable energy such as record breaking investments in the sector, increased solar installations and development and construction of solar farms by foreign companies, and a bilateral clean energy deployment program between the United States and India (PACE-D) but the blackout has highlighted the need for more widespread and larger-scale policies.
Finally, all of these solutions would benefit immensely from state supported policies. A prime solution would be a resource-driven policy on the macro level. For example, the Green Revolution in the 70’s and 80’s prompted the Indian government to subsidize and mandate the cultivation of water intensive crops, namely rice, because of its export potential. But as geophysical factors change in the current environment, policies could be shaped to address current supply and demand. In regions where water is lacking, the government should consider incentivizing crop diversification and less water intensive crops like vegetables, oilseeds, baby and sweet corn. Such a diversification would be a positive step in reducing the high burden of inefficient water use in agriculture.
Punjab is host to some of the most fertile land in India and its identity is rooted in agriculture. Climate change poses a serious threat to the future of the region, unless specific and immediate steps are taken to mitigate its effects. Necessary solutions for more efficient resource use by the industry need to be across the board, from smart government policies to private sector investment. Such solutions, which if implemented, would help Punjab remain fertile and true to its name.