Papers on minor irrigation, groundwater and arsenic

17 Apr

I thought it was timely to provide links to some of my recently published papers. I had blogged about them at one point or the other. In May 2013, EPW published our paper on Minor Irrigation Census. Link to that paper is given below. A few months later, a rejoinder to our paper was also published in EPW, and instead of responding to that by writing another rejoinder to a rejoinder, we thought that we will let our readers judge for themselves. Here are the two papers.

Major Insights from India’s Minor Irrigation Censuses: 1986-87 to 2006-07

Analysis of India’s Minor Irrigation Statistics

I had also blogged about this EPW paper here and here.

We also published a paper on poor state of irrigation statistics in India. In many ways, I call it an accidental paper because, while working on the MI Census paper, my colleague Stuti also started looking up various other sources of data on wells and tubewells and to our surprise (or may be, I should not have been surprised), we found that there is a huge discrepancy in groundwater irrigation statistics. This paper was published in International Journal of Water Resources Development (IJWRD) and here is the link.

Poor state of irrigation statistics in India: the case of pumps, wells and tubewells

I had blogged about this paper here.

Finally, my favorite paper of the lot. It’s on what can we do to reduce the negative impacts of irrigating with arsenic rich groundwater on crop, soil and human health. It was published in Agricultural Water Management early this year. Link to this paper is given below and  I had blogged about it here.

Irrigating with arsenic contaminated groundwater in West Bengal and Bangladesh: A review of interventions for mitigating adverse health and crop outcomes

I will be happy to share author copies of these papers should you need it, just drop me a line. Now that the weekend is almost here, happy weekend all.

Nepal Hydropower: What’s next?

16 Apr

Small hoardings highlighting interesting facts about Nepal welcomes all passengers when they arrive at Kathmandu Airport. Two that I notice every time I come in, I suppose because they are directly related to my work are; Nepal has most number of 6000 m plus peaks in the world and that its water resources endowments are second only to Brazil. It is then not surprising that Nepal also has a huge hydropower potential – a potential estimated at nearly 40,000 MW. Yet the reality is that only 700 MW of that potential has been realized so far. What stops Nepal from developing its potential? And what needs to be done to translate that ‘potential’ into ‘reality’? To answer these questions, an international financial institution (IFI) had organized a forum in Nepal in March.

While I have worked on electricity sector in India and have a fairly good understanding of the reform process there, my understanding of hydropower in Nepal was quite limited. But such was the richness of discussions at this forum that I feel confident about writing this blog. Chances are that I will get a few things wrong, but as a British philosopher named Carveth Read (1848-1931) said “It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong”. And that is what I am trying to attempt here.

The discussion at this forum veered around the question: Can Nepal transform itself from an energy deficient country to the engine powering rest of South Asia? Right from the beginning, it was apparent that there was a distinct shift in focus in discussions, say from the 1990s, when much of the debate was about whether Nepal should or should not develop hydropower, followed by the Arun III debacle in mid 1990s. Now, the discussions were most focused on when and how to develop hydropower, instead of whether to develop it or not. Most delegates seemed to think that given its rich hydro-power potential, this was indeed possible. But there was also the understanding that solutions will have to be different keeping different time horizons in mind.

In the short term horizon of next two to three years, the best way forward for Nepal seemed to invest in at least two cross border 400 kVA transmission lines that will enable it to import power from India. This could be done either through power purchase agreement with India or any of its state governments, or through the privately run spot electricity market. There are two such private electricity exchanges in India – Indian Energy Exchange and Power Exchange India Limited, both set up in 2008. Both these are regulated by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission. In 2012-13, the Indian Energy Exchange traded 2200 MU of energy in day ahead market at an average market price of INR 3.4 per unit (IEX Annual Report 2012-13) and it has been declining since then. Many seemed to think that it was the right time to invest in these transmission networks, which for the time being could be used for importing power from India, but at a later date, might as well be used for exporting power to India and also possibly to other countries in the region, such as Bangladesh and Myanmar. Today, roughly 18% of total energy supplied by the national grid in Nepal is imported from India and GoN also has a power sales agreement with the Power Trading Corporation of India (NEA, 2012). However, in the long run, it is more likely that Nepal will export power to its neighbor, than import from it and investment in transmission lines will serve both these short term objective of power import and long term objective of power export.

Long term solutions have both demand and supply facets. On the demand side is the question about quantum of electricity that Nepal can produce that will be absorbed both by domestic and regional market, given that domestic demand for power is unlikely to be more than 2000 MW or so. The Nepal Electricity Authority has been pushing for guaranteed power purchase agreement (PPAs) with producers, but the modalities of the same are still to be worked out. This is because of risk assessment by Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) and its attempt to create PPAs that can account for any eventuality in the next three or so decades. Most participants in the forum were however of the view that PPA process needs to be expedited and completed within the next 6 months, if not a year. In addition, officials from power ministries from neighboring countries underlined the energy ‘hungriness’ of economies surrounding Nepal and assured that power produced in Nepal will find a ready market in among its neighbors. Bangladesh cited the example of successful power purchase agreement with India which has been working smoothly for the last few years. In Bihar, energy needs will grow from 2200 MW currently to 10,000 plus MW in 2020 and that the only thing holding back development in Bihar was its energy scarcity. It was also mentioned that there are multiple avenues of selling power to India – it could be through federal level agreements, or through direct agreement with any state government, or through private power exchanges. Given the maturity of electricity sector in India post 1990s debacle when the sector was first opened for private investments, it is likely that power trading between Nepal and India can take the form of both traditional power purchase agreements between sovereign states, or resort to purchase from private operators, or come up with an optimum mix of both. What will be useful in this process is joint mechanism between power Ministries in Nepal and India. Right now, there are no such joint mechanisms and all agreements have to be worked through Ministry of External Affairs.

On the supply side is the question of investments. Here again, it seemed that as soon as Nepal put regulatory frameworks in order and responded to the concerns of the investors, the IFIs, including the World Bank, the IFC, and the ADB are ready to invest USD 6 billion plus in the hydropower sector. Based on international experience of inviting development assistance for power generation, it was highlighted that concerns of lenders and developers have to be prioritized over risk related concerns of the government and that the government needs to come up with nimble and responsive regulatory mechanisms that encourage, rather than stifle investment in the sector. In this regard, the need to unbundle NEA was emphasized, but it was not seen as the main stumbling block.

So, to sum up, the immediate solution seems to be investment in transmission line for importing power from India, but in the long run, political will is needed to give a push to Nepal’s electricity sector and with a new government in place, willingness for such a push was quite evident. It did seem from this discussion that the international community was looking towards Nepal to transform itself into an energy storehouse for the region.

(The views expressed in this blog are entirely personal).

Water, Energy and the Mountains

23 Mar

This is a feature article I wrote on the occasion of World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme was Water and Energy.

All passengers arriving at Kathmandu Airport are welcomed by small hoardings that showcase interesting facts about Nepal. Two that I notice every time I come in, I suppose because they are directly related to my work are; Nepal has the highest number of 8000 m plus peaks in the world and that its water resources endowments are second only to Brazil. It is then not surprising that Nepal also has a huge hydropower potential – a potential estimated at nearly 40,000 MW. Yet, those of us who live in Nepal know that the reality is that only 700 MW or so of that potential has been realized so far, leading to frequent load shedding and all other associated problems. Today is a good day to think about these issues because today is the World Water Day and this year’s Theme is Water and Energy – a very apt theme for a country as water rich and as energy scarce as Nepal.

It is obvious that water and energy are interconnected in ways more than one. The most obvious connection is hydropower – where water is used to produce energy. But an equally important aspect is use of energy to produce water. This is exemplified by the case of pumping of groundwater. Groundwater is now the most important source of irrigation in the region and South Asia has roughly 25 million or so wells and tubewells – all used for agriculture. Within Nepal, much of irrigation in the Tarai also depends on groundwater, which is often pumped with relatively expensive diesel fuel due to lack of electricity. Same holds true in neighboring India states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal.  Thus, that there exists water and energy nexus is fairly clear and that the third dimension of this nexus is food is also very obvious. After all, both water and energy is needed to produce, process, and transport food. Indeed, this water-energy-food nexus approach is now widely accepted and used for understanding these inter-linkages at global, regional and local scales.

In this article, I want to highlight how this nexus plays out in a mountain context. The entry point of understanding this nexus from a mountain perspective begins with the fact that mountains are the water towers of the world. For instance, the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region is the source of ten large Asian river systems and provides water, energy and ecosystem services to more than 210 million people directly and to 1.3 billion people indirectly who live in downstream areas. From a mountain perspective, there are at least three different, yet interrelated ramifications of this nexus.

First issue is that of upstream-downstream linkages within a river basin context. Mountains, as the water towers, are the source of water which then flows downstream and is used for various purposes, the most important of which is for food production. Given scarcity of land and uneven and often inhospitable terrain in the mountains, mountains cannot grow enough food to meet its needs and sources its food from the plains. The plains, on the other hand, derive energy security from the hydro-electricity that is generated in mountain areas. This energy is used for various purposes, including for pumping groundwater to grow crops. Therefore, the key issue here is: how do we ensure that mountain communities are able to derive benefit from the services (water and energy) that they provide to downstream users? This calls for an integrated river basins approach where nexus principles have been internalized by all key decision makers. This also needs to be underpinned by a regional cooperation framework that ensures that energy services derived from the mountains are adequately paid for by the users downstream.

Second issue is that of seasonality of water and energy demand. How does one meet the energy needs, of say, dry season irrigation in plains, at a time when river water levels are running low? The obvious answer is hydropower dams with storage. While such dams are indeed needed, the inherent fragility of mountain ecosystems makes them environmentally problematic. Here again, the nexus approach provides a less obvious, but equally appealing solution. The transition zone between mountains and plains happens to be an active recharge zone for groundwater. In the plains just below this transition zone, say in parts of Nepal Tarai and in Indian Bihar, there is a large unmet irrigation demand in summer season – a demand that is unmet even though groundwater is available in plenty. This is due to lack of access to affordable energy. Electricity produced through hydropower schemes upstream can be used to exploit groundwater and bring down groundwater levels in the summer season and then, aquifer storage so created, can be effectively recharged using monsoon flow. Again, this requires an integrated approach where surface and groundwater are co-managed.

Finally, there is the issue of water, food and energy security at a local scale in the mountain regions. This calls for local solutions.  Solar pumps are increasingly used in the mountains to transport water up from streams to the settlements, which are often located in the ridges, for household uses.  Furthermore, there are examples of dedicated small hydropower plants being used to generate electricity locally to pump up surface water from rivers to irrigate farms in the flat lands, or tar, in the mountains.

To sum up, Himalayan systems play a significant role in downstream agriculture and food security in South Asia. The global community must look to mountains to resolve issues of energy, water and food security, and to help people cope. To date, the conservation efforts of mountain people remain unrewarded, yet the benefits are for all of us. Institutional mechanisms need to be established and strengthened to secure the payment and reward mechanisms for mountain ecosystems services including surface and ground water, water storage and others relating to energy and food security. What happens to mountains is of global concern – whether or not there will be enough food and energy for all will depend in part on what happens in mountain regions.

Thanks to my excellent media colleagues at ICIMOD, this was also published as an Op-Ed by a leading English newspaper in Nepal. It was also picked up by a few online media in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as the Bonn based Nexus platofrm. Here are the links.


Answer in the mountains



Don’t forget the mountains


Solutions to pressing issues must recognize mountains’ integral role in the water-energy-food nexus

The Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus

Happy World Water Days folks. This time when you think water and energy, also think mountains.

Let’s inspire each other

22 Mar

A month or so ago, a friend sent me a somewhat unusual email. The subject was ‘Let’s inspire each other’.  It had a list of two names – the second name being that of my friend (sender) and the first being that of one of her friends. It requested me to send an inspirational quote/poem/song/verse of my choice to the first person on the list. After doing so, it required that I send the original email to about 20 of my friends in Bcc – after modifying the name list so that my friend’s name (from whom I had received it initially) would occur first while mine would be the second. The idea was that the friends I forwarded this email to would in turn send an inspirational quote to my friend and their friends in turn will send their quotes to me. Well, I did not quite know what to expect, but it did seem like fun and I did as I was told. Here’s a poem that has inspired me. Well, it’s written by Kipling (yes, yes, I know, he did hold terrible racist views, but this poem is good, so I forgive him).


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling
Well, I am not finished yet. Surprisingly, after a week or so, my inbox started filling up with lovely inspirational quotes. A young man (who is a friend of a friend, but I don’t really know whose friend) sent me Invictus (another of my favourites). He said, this is the poem which helped him keep focus while he was preparing for his exams.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley
Then a lady sent me this: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” Mahatma Gandhi
And another this:
“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel
Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you areAll my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the insideIn your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
The heat I see in your eyesLove, I don’t like to see so much pain
So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and aliveAnd all my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light,
The heat I see in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes
In your eyes in your eyes

And there were many many more. Even after a month has elapsed, I was pleasantly surprised to find another email in my inbox this morning. It said: “Solutions come to you when you are calm, centred, when you use your intelligence, when you are active and have strong faith in the divine law”.
Let me be honest and say that when I got that email, I hesitated a bit before forwarding it. I hesitated because I did not know what to expect and found it a little weird to send email to someone I did not know. But looking back, I am glad that I overcame my initial reluctance and did as my friend asked me to do. And because I did this, fascinating inspirational quotes, poems and songs pop up in my inbox every other day. It was indeed a good way to start 2014. So what inspires you?

2013 in review

31 Dec

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

On arsenic and groundwater in West Bengal

9 Oct

I make a lot of presentations in India and elsewhere, explaining my work on groundwater in West Bengal. And almost always, the first question I get is: ‘but what about arsenic?’ And it is a very important question, something I want to answer carefully.

To be able to do so, my colleague, Nari Senanayake, now a graduate student at University of California at Davis and I decided to sift through evidence to understand what we know about entry of arsenic into human food chain through irrigation with arsenic rich water on the one hand and ways of mitigating the same on the other hand. To me, mitigation always seemed important. This is because, farmers in this part of the world, often don’t have any other viable livelihood alternative than irrigating with groundwater and in some places, this groundwater contains arsenic. I have noticed how easily one recommends that irrigation with groundwater be banned in such places, without providing any other alternatives. That, to me does not sound like a good public policy due to two reasons. First, such a ban can never be implemented in reality given that farmers depend on this resource for their livelihoods. Second, assuming it was possible to actually implement this ban, it will only make farmers poorer than they already are, and in the process, make them even more nutritionally insecure. There is a lot of literature to show that people with poor nutritional status are more prone to arsenic poisoning than others. Thus, in some sense, such a policy will end up victimizing the same people it was purportedly designed to serve!

Now coming back to our paper. This paper, titled ‘Irrigating with arsenic contaminated groundwater in West Bengal and Bangladesh: A review of interventions for mitigating adverse health and crop outcomes’ is now under review process of an ISI journal. But a few months ago, we published a working paper version of the same paper for a more policy oriented audience. Here is the paper.  

We looked at two distinct, but related aspects. First, we looked at consequences of irrigating with arsenic rich groundwater. Here, we reviewed 27 high quality studies that had credible counter factual and found that irrigating with arsenic rich water leads to accumulation of the same in soil, but not necessarily accumulation in crop parts in equal severity and that such accumulation depends on crop types and water management practices. But what was evident was that irrigating with arsenic rich water for long periods almost always led to decline in yields. 

Second, we looked at ways of mitigating the negative impacts of irrigating with arsenic rich water. Here, we reviewed 29 high quality studies with experimental design and found that there are at least 6 categories of interventions that have been tried and tested in the field or in the laboratories. And the good news is that most of these work, but work with varying degrees of success. These six categories of interventions are:

1. Improved water management practices like deficit irrigation

2. Correct doses of artificial fertilization and bio-remediation of soil

3. Switching to alternative field crops with low water requirement

4. Breeding arsenic tolerant rice varieties

5. Cooking rice with clean water and in traditional ways

6. Providing nutritional supplements to those most at risk

We explain the pros and cons of each of these interventions in our paper. To me, the most important take home message is that we have to move beyond scare mongering and find solutions to managing arsenic in agriculture. And that those solutions are already being tried and tested by scientists. What then is needed is to link this science with extension activities. Agricultural extension in India, has literally gone to the dogs. But, good extension services are now needed like never before. Therefore, for me, the greatest concern is not that some farmers are irrigating with arsenic rich groundwater. The greatest concern is that they are not aware that they are doing so in the first place and second, they are not aware of how they could potentially avoid the negative impacts of doing so by adopting some best practices. It is here that there is a huge role for innovative extension services — something that is conspicuous by its absence. 

And this, my friends, is my answer to: ‘But what do we do about arsenic?’


Greenpeace Grand Challenge on solar pumps in Bihar

9 Oct

Till a few years, I was rather skeptical about potential of solar pump technology to address energy squeeze in eastern India. Not so any more. And the reasons: rapid decline in costs of solar panels, which has been matched with equally rapid improvement in efficiency. Chances are, solar pumps will prove to be just as much of a breakthrough for farmers in eastern India, as diesel pump operatedshallow tubewells were in the 1970s and the 1980s. A number of small companies have come up with cost effective designs and the government of Bihar has launched a program to convert its defunct electricity operated public tubewells to solar pump powered tubewells. I have heard anecdotal stories of how solar pumps are being tested in few locations in Bangladesh. Many have asked me whether or not solar pumps can provide a long term sustainable solution in West Bengal. To me, the biggest barrier still seems to be the price, followed by portability of panels.

Greenpeace has taken this challenge head on and designed a grand challenge on designing cost effective solar pumps that can be adopted by farmers in Bihar. Their challenge question is simple: Can your design replace dirty diesel pumps in the fields of India? 

This challenge is open from 3rd September to 15th November 2013. I am on the jury of this challenge and will strongly encourage designers to come up with solutions to meet this challenge.

Read more on the Challenge here and happy submissions, folks!


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