Archive | February, 2013

Strategies for managing India’s groundwater

11 Feb

Following up on my blog on MI Census yesterday, here are some of my preliminary thoughts on how to manage India’s groundwater economy. To repeat, there are wide regional variations in India’s groundwater economy, with some states further along the way and some lagging behind. The management strategies for the future therefore need to take these trends into account. Blanket groundwater regulations, like the one proposed by the 12th Five Year Plan, without considering that groundwater economies of eastern India are on an altogether different trajectory will not lead to sustainable and equitable regional outcomes. What could those strategies be?

Strategies for regions facing groundwater over-exploitation

The first are the regions facing groundwater over-exploitation and this covers much of northern, southern, central and western India. All these regions have one thing in common: they all lie in arid and semi-arid climatic zones characterized by low to medium rainfall leading to low natural recharge rates. The type of aquifers ranges from hard rock aquifers in much of southern, western and central India and deep alluvial aquifers in northern India. Electric tubewells are the main source of energy for water lifting devices. Our analysis shows that none of these states require any further investments in creation of new groundwater assets and farmers here must be actively discouraged to dig new wells and tubewells. Farmers in few states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are making intensive use of existing groundwater structures, but other states in this category are not. In these states, there is a need to make efficient use of existing groundwater structures through investments in water efficiency measures. Primary fieldwork done in Punjab and Karnataka shows that such investments in the form of energy –efficient pumps, adoption of micro-irrigation and laser levelers have already underway. What is also happening across most of these states are separation of agricultural feeders from rural domestic feeders and investments in high voltage distribution systems which will allow rationing of high quality power to agriculture, thereby forcing farmers to make more efficient use of groundwater. Combining reduced pumping with more efficient water use will enhance crop per drop of groundwater.

Apart from innovations in groundwater sector, what is also needed is revitalization of surface water irrigation sector. All these states have made substantial investments in surface irrigation. However, at a time when farmers have become used to ‘on demand’ irrigation thanks to their tubewells, public canal irrigation systems needs to respond to farmers expectations of timely and reliable water supply. Some innovations like on-farm water storage (called diggies in Rajasthan and melon-on-vines in China) helps increase reliability and flexibility of canal water supplies. Further ideas on how to revitalize canal irrigation can be found here.

Rural electrification for groundwater abundant eastern India

In eastern India, where much of the topography is flat, groundwater is relatively abundant and rainfall and recharge are high, but groundwater use is low, and use that has further contracted from 2000-01 to 2006-07, investments in rural electrification is needed. This will help intensify groundwater use and in the process boost agricultural productivity. In these areas, rates of pump electrification are as low as 10% it can be brought up to at least 50%. The fact that farmers in eastern states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Assam already pay for electricity and diesel means that electricity need not be subsidized. For example, in West Bengal, all tubewells are metered and farmers pay a metered tariff which is very close to the cost of supply. Providing electricity together with investments in roads and market infrastructure will help increase agricultural production in this region. This will in turn take the pressure off regions like Punjab and Haryana which have been systematically over-exploiting their aquifers to feed the rest of India. Intensifying agriculture in eastern India is also in tune with the overall policy thrust of the government of India. The state of West Bengal has already taken at least four policy decisions in this direction. These are: change in Groundwater Law which will make it easier for small and marginal farmers to invest in wells and tubewells; reduction change in one time electricity connection charges for agricultural tubewells for the same purpose; one time capital cost subsidy for pump electrification to the tune of Rs. 8000 per farmer and capital cost subsidy up to Rs. 20,000 per pump set for those wanting to invest in pumps. The state of Bihar has also launched a number of schemes such as diesel subsidy scheme, pump subsidy scheme and solar power schemes, all aimed at reducing cost of groundwater irrigation. That, small and marginal farmers own a major share of India’s groundwater resources also makes this a pro-poor strategy and can possibly pave the way for a second green revolution in eastern India. I talk more about green revolution in eastern India here and here.

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Major insights from India’s Minor Irrigation Censuses

10 Feb

My colleague Stuti Rawat and I have just finished writing a paper based on four rounds of Minor Irrigation (MI) Census data. Any irrigation scheme that serves less than 2000 ha is classified as Minor Irrigation in India. And over 90% of all minor irrigation structures are actually groundwater structures comprising of dug wells, shallow and deep tubewells.  So basically, a study of MI Census is a study of India’s groundwater sector. Results turned out to be far more interesting than I anticipated.  So, what were our major insights?

First, the most important insight is that rate of growth of India’s groundwater structures is slowing down. Just as India was adding a million wells and tubewells every year all through the mid-1980s to early 2000s and it seemed that the groundwater juggernaut of India was unstoppable, the 4th MI Census of 2006-07 showed that this growth was already slowing down. In most of India, growth in number of groundwater structures has slowed down, while in eastern India states like Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, absolute numbers of groundwater structures have also declined. There could be several reasons for this overall decline.

It is possible that many places in India have just run out of groundwater, in particular in peninsular India with hard rock aquifers. Tamil Nadu, one of the basket cases of over-exploitation is one such hard rock aquifer area where number of groundwater structures has gone down marginally from 1.90 million in 2000-01 to 1.86 million in 2006-07. However, absolute numbers have not declined in other hard rock aquifer states such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, though rate of growth has declined. The same holds true for other states with over-exploitation problems such as Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat.

More importantly, than physical scarcity of groundwater, energy crisis may have played a role in this slow down. Many of these states mentioned above, depend on electricity for pumping and the deep crisis in the electricity sector meant severe rationing of electricity to farmers. For instance, in Gujarat, Punjab and Karnataka, farmers received 16-20 hours of electricity daily till early 1990s, since then electricity has been rationed gradually and now they receive not more than 6-8 hours per day.

This energy crisis assumes an entirely new dimension in eastern India. The fact that much of the decline in groundwater structures have come from eastern India where levels of development of groundwater is quite low (less than 40% of the renewable groundwater resources are tapped here) and rainfall and recharge are high, shows that decline in absolute number of groundwater structures is a function of energy squeeze experienced by farmers who depend mostly on diesel pumps and operating such pumps is a costly affair given high diesel prices.

Therefore, the second major insight is the important role that energy plays in regulating India’s groundwater economy of India. That the rate of growth in groundwater structures has declined from 2000-01 to 2006-07 seems to be  more of a function of electricity rationing in the north, south, west and central Indian states and dependence on expensive diesel for pumping in eastern India.

However, this is not to say that there is no physical scarcity of groundwater in India, or that farmers have not responded to declining groundwater levels. MI Census shows that villages with water tables of less than 10 m has declined from 62% to 56% from 1993-94 to 2000-01. How have the farmers responded to declining water tables? They have done so by shifting away from open dug wells with manual lifting devises to shallow and deep tubewells with mechanized lifting devices.  Thus, our third major insight is that composition of India’s groundwater sector is changing – from 70% of all groundwater structures being dug wells in 1986-87, only 45% of groundwater structures were dug wells in 2006-07. If anything, this trend is likely to continue, but with wide regional differences.

Our fourth major insight is that, some things have not changed over time and this includes ownership pattern of wells and tubewells. Majority (more than 90%) of all groundwater structures are owned by private individuals farmers and within this, small and marginal farmers (with less than 2 ha land) own a major share of wells and tubewells. This trend, far from diluting, is actually getting stronger, as both MI Census and Agricultural Census confirms. Thus, India’s groundwater structures are mostly owned and operated by small and marginal farmers – a fact that has important policy implications.

Our final insight is that there are wide regional variations in India’s groundwater economy, with some states further along the way and some lagging behind. The management strategies for the future therefore need to take these trends into account. Blanket groundwater regulations, like the ones proposed by the 12th Five Year Plan, without acknowledging that the groundwater economies of eastern India are on an altogether different trajectory will not lead to sustainable and equitable regional outcomes. Understanding regional variation in India’s groundwater economy is therefore a key for formulating future strategies.

I have some ideas on what such a future strategy should look like; I will blog on it soon.

On human ingenuity and managing water crisis

9 Feb

Yesterday, the Director General of IWMI, Jeremy Bird, made a presentation at the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) and Central Bureau of Irrigation and Power (CBIP), New Delhi. It was an excellent presentation where he talked about the looming water crisis. But even more importantly, he talked about reasons for optimism because many of those intractable problems can be solved. How? By thinking out of the box. And it is here that human ingenuity comes into play.

My favorite slide was a graph by Peter Gleick – the noted American water and climate change expert. It showed various predictions for future water demand in the US– made way back in the 1960’s, 1970s and 1980s. And if there was one universal thing about these predictions, it was that they all got it wrong. Each one of those predictions had over-estimated future water demand by several orders of magnitude, while in reality, in 2000s, water demand had not only plateaued, but was also showing signs of decline. Why? Human ingenuity and technology ensured that water is being used more efficiently than ever before.

And that made me think of groundwater in India. I was reading a book by B.D. Dhawan written in 1990. He predicted, based on numbers of electric pumps in 1980s, that electric tubewells will cross the 8 million mark by early 1990s, when the fact is it took another decade (early 2000s) before India crossed the 8 million mark. Similarly, I am pretty sure that in one of my earlier papers, I had said that there will be close to 28-30 million wells and tubewells in India in 2010 based on numbers of groundwater structures in 1993-94 and 2000-01. But I was wrong. Just as everyone was talking about India’s runaway groundwater growth and the fact we were adding a million pumps a year, it turned out that India’s groundwater juggernaut has slowed down. For example, India added 5.5 million wells and tubewells from 1986 to 1993, 7.0 million wells and tubewells between 1993-2001 and only 1.2 million from 2001-2007. However, area irrigated by groundwater continues to rise. So, why do we always get our predictions wrong?

We get it wrong, because, predictions hardly ever give enough credence to human ingenuity and our capability to adjust to all kinds of crisis in innovative ways. Why has growth in wells and tubewells in India halted? Surprisingly, it is not so much because water tables have declined (and when they have declined, farmers have just shifted from open dug wells to tubewells), but because electricity to agriculture has been severely rationed since early 2000s as a part of the larger electricity sector reforms process. In addition, most states have also restricted new electricity connection for tubewells. What have farmers done in response? They have invested in technologies that enhance water use efficiency. For example, in Punjab, laser levelers have spread like wildfire in just last five years. In Gujarat, the very same farmers, who used to pack away their micro-irrigation kits and keep them on rooftop (as I saw during my fieldwork in 2001) have started using drips and sprinklers, as have farmers in Rajasthan and Karnataka. I was doing some fieldwork in Kolar district of Karnataka recently and found almost universal adoption of drip irrigation for growing tomato. Well, as we water professionals know, this may not save water, but it surely ensures more crop per drop of water, which is good enough. And why have farmers responded the way they have by adopting technologies that they had rejected before? This is because it is only now that they faced real physical scarcity of groundwater and this made them think out of the box and adopt technologies that help them maximize returns from water. Human ingenuity is a beautiful thing and we researchers will do a far better job, if we kept this in mind at all times. But scientists who raise alarm about the future are also doing a very important job – by  putting water crisis on top of policy agenda and forcing us all to think about it.

And this is the reason I love this quote by Prof. Tony Allan, the father of virtual water and my PhD external examiner. He says:  “Water pessimists are wrong but useful – water optimists are right but dangerous”. I am an optimist and believe that human ingenuity can take care of many seemingly intractable problems, but for doing that; we do need to raise enough awareness about the problem. So, I will leave the pessimists to do scare mongering and raise awareness about water problems, while I will go looking for solutions that are already being tried by our ingenious farmers.

Papers that I presented at the IWMI-Tata Annual Partner’s Meet, 2012

4 Feb

I have been meaning to put together a list of all papers that I presented (along with my co-authors) at the IWMI-Tata Annual Partner’s Meet held in Anand in November 2012. Note that these are NOT peer reviewed and should be treated as pre-publication discussion papers. Here is the list:

1. Aditi Mukherji and Arijit Das (2012), How did West Bengal Bell the Proverbial Cat of Agricultural Metering? The economics and politics of groundwater, Highlight # 2 (Read)

2. Stuti Rawat and Aditi Mukherji (2012), Poor State of Irrigation Statistics in India: The case of wells and tube wells, Highlight # 5 (Read)

3. Narmadha Senanayke and Aditi Mukherji (2012), Irrigating with Arsenic Contaminated Groundwater in the Bengal Delta: A review of mitigation options, Highlight # 12 (Read)

4. Aditi Mukherji and Tushaar Shah (2012), A Review of International Experience in Managing Energy Irrigation Nexus, Highlight #34, (Read)

5. Aditi Mukherji, Tushaar Shah and Mark Giordano (2012), Managing Energy-Irrigation Nexus in India, Highlight #36, (Read)

6. Aditi Mukherji, (2012), Rural Electrification for a Second Green Revolution in West Bengal, Highlight #38 (Read)

7. J.V. Meenakshi, Abhijit Banerji, Aditi Mukherji and Anubhab Gupta (2012), Impact of Metering of Tube Wells on Groundwater Use in West Bengal, Highlight # 46 (Read)