A silent revolution? Agricultural groundwater use in Ferghana Valley

24 Sep

And now, field notes from Central Asia. This is based on fieldwork in Ferghana Province of Uzbekistan in August 2010. I wanted to understand various aspects of agricultural groundwater use. Conventional wisdom is that private groundwater extraction is prohibitively expensive, especially when compared to free canal water and hence private investment in groundwater would be conspicuous by its absence. But my brief fieldwork showed that a lot of investments were indeed taking place in the private domain. Excerpts from my field notes:

“We found three types of private groundwater extraction mechanisms on farmers’ fields. Of these, open shallow dug wells (Type I) and shallow tubewells (Type II) tap shallow groundwater at depths of not more than 8 to 10 m. These operate with either electricity (preferred) or petrol pumps. Most of these pumps are made in China and are small, portable and as cheap as USD 25 to USD 30 per piece. Total investment for this kind of shallow dugwells and tubewells ranges between USD 100 and USD 400. The third technology is that of deep electric tubewells (Type III) which are usually 120-180 meters deep and tap aquifers at depths of 70 to 90 m. These are fitted with high capacity electric submersible pumps that yield 12 to 20 litres of water per second. Capital cost of investment is high and estimated at USD 20,000 per tubewell. There is no public finance for these tubewells and farmers invest their own savings.

Type I and Type II technologies are used by kitchen garden owners and their preferred crops are grapes, tomatoes and cucumber – the latter two are usually grown in green houses. We found shallow tubewells (Type II) to be more widespread than shallow dugwells (Type I). Shallow dugwells were mostly found in somewhat rocky terrain of Ozbekistan district of Ferghana Province, while shallow tubewells were found all throughout Oltariq and Ferghana districts of Ferghana Province. As per one estimate, almost 50% of kitchen garden owners in Oltariq district have shallow tubewells. As per another estimate, around 25% of all agricultural land in Ferghana Province is under kitchen garden. While we do not yet have a robust estimate of the number of shallow wells and tubewells in the region, our preliminary field visits suggests that they are more common than generally thought.

These groundwater extraction mechanisms are essentially very shallow structures, use small capacity pumps (less than 1 l/s discharge) and do not need a separate electricity connection – they are always connected to the household electricity grid and monthly electricity bills averages between USD 7.00 to USD 10.00. Hours of pumping varies from less than 50 hours to 250-300 hours in a year. Grape is the preferred crop and kitchen garden size varies from 0.10 ha to 0.25 ha. While these shallow wells and tubewells do not account for the bulk of pumped volume of groundwater, they do have a large impact in terms of livelihoods benefits. The most oft quoted reason for farmers’ adoption of shallow wells and tubewells is that it gives them assured and reliable water supply, which canal water does not always give.

Type III technology (electric deep tubewells) is almost always owned by orchard farmers with land holding varying from 4 ha to upto 40 ha, or more. These are almost exact replicas of government deep tubewells and may cost anything between USD 15,000 to USD 25,000 for installation. These are fitted with large capacity pumps (20 KV to 45 KV) and receive electricity bills of upto USD 500 or more per month. They operate for 2000 to 4000 hours in a year and serve anything from 4 ha to 70 ha of land. Crops grown are peaches, apricots, grapes, apples and flowers. Farmers with land under cotton and wheat seldom invest in these deep tubewells. These deep tubewells are more widespread than generally believed. In one village called Eske Arab in Oltariq district of Ferghana we found 25 farmers who owned deep tubewells. A government official had earlier told us that there would be a maximum of 100 private tubewells in whole of Ferghana Province. However, given that there were 25 reported from just one village in one district of Ferghana province, our guess is that these numbers would far exceed 100.

Then there are government irrigation wells and drainage wells. These provide irrigation to a substantial number of farmers and kitchen garden owners. There are some 2500 of these in Ferghana Province and is an important source of irrigation. These are operated by government employed tubewell operators cum electricians and farmers get water for free. These are mostly used to grow cotton and wheat. We talked to a few farmers who depend on these public tubewells for irrigation and they seemed content with the quality of service received. The condition of most of these public tubewells was satisfactory.

To sum up, shallow groundwater extraction mechanisms are adopted by kitchen garden owners, while deep tubewells are adopted by farmers who grow orchard crops (and not cotton and wheat) and farmers who grow cotton and wheat depend on government owned deep tubewells. All these categories of farmers and farms also draw water from canal, so most of groundwater use in this region, is in reality, conjunctive use. This short fieldwork covering 3 districts in Ferghana Province shows that private investment in groundwater may be more widespread than is generally known. This is not surprising and has indeed been the case in most countries where groundwater use has peaked over the years, but has largely remained outside the ambit of public knowledge and discourse. This is precisely why Llamas et al. (2008) has termed the slow but sure ascent of groundwater use as a “silent revolution”.

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One Response to “A silent revolution? Agricultural groundwater use in Ferghana Valley”

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  1. Emperor Babur on irrigation in Hindusthan « Waterscapes - December 25, 2012

    […] found that many farmers now use wells and tubewells to irrigate those same crops. See my previous blogpost on Central Asia. Babur, it looks like, came to Hindusthan and looked for canals, among other things.  What he […]

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