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.


6 Responses to “On human ingenuity and managing water crisis”

  1. Doug Merrey February 9, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    The Tony Allan quote hits the nail on the head. But working on water management in Africa, a striking contract with South Asia is to date, farmers in Africa do not have the range of technologies for better water management available to them that Indian farmers have. Even NGOs with experience in India get it wrong by pushing a single technology, usually highly subsidized, and often imported from India (and often of poor quality with no spare parts). Pushing this idea of promoting a private sector that makes a wide choice of technologies available since about 2007 has so far had little impact (pushing wet spaghetti comes to mind), though the AgWater solutions project may have pushed the ball along a bit. Governments, donors and ngos are inherently conservative, authoritarian and arrogant (“we know best” syndrome) and are the core of the problem.

    • aditimukherji February 9, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Very interesting observation Doug. I am fairly confident that what triggered innovation among farmers and got the ‘informal’ private sector involved in innovating in India is the high population pressure on land. The pressure to grow 2-3 crops from a stamp sized land holding led to such a whole lot of innovations, including intensive use of groundwater. Basically, much of innovation has gone to prove Boserup right, while making Malthus less relevant (but then, why is Malthus so much more popular than Boserup — perhaps everyone wants bad news?). My guess is that many of the innovations that are being rejected by African farmers today will be welcomed tomorrow when pressure on land increases — as it already is. And as far as patronizing attitude of governments, donors and NGOs are concerned, I find no difference in India and Africa — though I must say NGOs in Bangladesh are really good, they have outgrown the need to patronize farmers.

      • Doug Merrey February 9, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

        I think you are correct–population pressure is a critical driver as Boserup recognized–but it is not enough by itself. The Ethiopian Highlands is also characterized by a dense population on stamp-sized holdings, but farmers have been perceived as resisting innovation. Turns out this is not true, as more detailed studies have shown, but minimal innovation at least until recently seems more related to a combination of availability of alternatives and lack of any incentives to motivate innovation. In this context, you should look at the book on Java by Clifford Geertz (Agricultural Innovation, 1963 or so), who offered an interpretation that rising population pressure on rice fields was leading to intensification [and “involution”, a social-cultural process which contrasts with “evolution”] enabling survival at very low levels of poverty but inhibiting “development”, because of lack of altnerative options. When I read it I found it convincing, and my wife even wrote a paper showing how Bangladesh was characterized by similar processes [all this in the 1970s in graduate school]. This perspective needs to be revisited and reassessed now–how did this involution process get reversed (if it did) and what are the lessons for elsewhere? Because this brings me back to the first point, population pressure by itself is not an adequate driver of innovation by itself, it depends on the context.

  2. aditimukherji February 9, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    Yes, I read Geertz some 7-8 years back, during PhD days I guess, and now that you say it, I think, something like this must be happening in Indian Bihar. I must re-read this book and also read your wife’s article on Bangladesh, where can I get that? But I suppose, shallow tubewells in Bangladesh changed all that, no? In Bihar, my thesis is that agriculture has been such a low growth mode for such a long time (for over a century now) that farmers no longer look upon as an income earning enterprise, they look upon agriculture as a source of home grown food and derive cash income from other sources, including migration. But well, it’s very hard to prove these things, one way or the other. Thanks for pointing to the Geertz book, I will read it again and refresh my memory…

    • Doug Merrey February 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

      My wife’s paper was never published, unfortunately (it was a grad school paper). Bihar has always seemed to me to be another place where the involution thesis may help understand what is happening –because involution is the very antithesis of innovation and evolution.

      And yes, shallow tubewells being introduced and available at low cost seems to have driven the change. i remember summarizing the knowledge on this as of 1996 in my IIMI book, “Frontiers of Water Management Knowledge.”

  3. ywwp March 5, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    A washbasin design that wastes no water, meets best hygiene standards, at the same cost of regular washbasin, and it will kill motion sensing taps technology…


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