Pragmatic action possible for addressing overexploitation of groundwater in India, says a new World Bank report

March 5, 2010

NEW DELHI, March 5, 2010:  India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, with an estimated use of 230 cubic kilometers of groundwater every year – more than a quarter of the global total. In fact, groundwater use has been steadily increasing in India over the last 4-5 decades. Today, groundwater supports approximately 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and more than 80 percent of rural and urban water supplies, says a new World Bank report launched today.

However, groundwater resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. Today, 29 percent of groundwater blocks are semi-critical, critical, or overexploited, and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. By 2025, an estimated 60 percent of India’s groundwater blocks will be in a critical condition. Climate change will further strain groundwater resources.

Even though there is a major dependence of many sectors on groundwater and it is facing a critical threat of overexploitation, there is little investment in its management. This inaction has arisen mainly because the solutions often proposed for groundwater management are very controversial – these include “command-and-control” regulation of wells, curbing the supply of free or cheap power for groundwater irrigation, etc.

The report, Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India was initiated with the objective of identifying practical and politically feasible strategies for managing groundwater use in India. The approach was to look for pragmatic models that have demonstrated potential for success.

“The report provides a menu of practical interventions which can be implemented in the current environment. We hope that these findings can inspire an action agenda for moving swiftly to protect the vital but ever-declining aquifers of the country,” said Roberto Zagha, World Bank Country Director in India.

Analyzing the factors driving such exponential increase in groundwater use in India, the report says groundwater allows the users more control over quantity and timing of supply, and, therefore, its use is linked with higher productivity. For example, the crop water productivity of groundwater-irrigated farms is almost twice that of surface-water irrigated farms. In many cases, use of groundwater is also a response to poor service delivery of surface water systems, as in urban water supply.

However, there has also been a growing awareness that the continued pace of groundwater use is unsustainable, as aquifers are getting increasingly depleted. For the six states of Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu taken together, 54 percent of the groundwater blocks fall in these categories.

Amongst its several suggestions to prevent overexploitation and making use of groundwater more sustainable, the report has called for community management of ground water wherein the user community is the primary custodian of groundwater and is charged with implementing management measures. The report showcases community groundwater management model adopted in Andhra Pradesh which has produced the first global example of large scale success in self-regulation of groundwater use.

“At the cost of Rs 1lakh per village per year, communities in drought-prone areas of Andhra Pradesh have shown the first large-scale example of self-regulation of groundwater. The farmers have as much as doubled their farming incomes, while bringing their groundwater use close to sustainable levels. That means farmers in many cases have voluntarily reduced their water use, and still safeguarded their drinking water supply and crops. This has been made possible by an exceptional program of farmer education which has created `barefoot hydrogeologists’. This approach is immediately replicable in other hard-rock areas, which account for two-third of groundwater settings in India. There are similar other measures which should be immediately taken up to start addressing the critical threat of groundwater overexploitation,” said Sanjay Pahuja, lead author of the report and World Bank’s Senior Water Resources Specialist in India.

The proposed set of interventions sets the basis for changing the game on groundwater management in India to one where diligent implementation of interventions within the current framework can start producing immediate management results on the ground.

Findings and Recommendations

The main findings of the report are as follows:

Regulatory measures. Effective regulation requires not only sound legislation but also the administrative capacity to monitor and enforce rules. This becomes extremely difficult when there are very large numbers of small users. Today, out of a total of 5723 groundwater blocks in the country, 1615 are classified as semi-critical, critical or over-exploited, and regulatory directives have been issued by the Central Ground Water Authority for 108 blocks. However, neither the Authority nor the state groundwater agencies have the resources or personnel to oversee the enforcement of these regulations. Effective use of such measures is only possible for a small numbers of severely threatened resources.

Economic instruments. Pricing measures, including volumetric charges, taxes, and user fees, can act as incentives to conservation and more efficient allocation of water resources, provided they address concerns of equity and affordability to the poor. However, implementation is a major constraint. It is important to note that in the 1970s, when the number of irrigation pump sets in India was estimated to be around 12 million, the State Electricity Boards decided to switch to flat tariff because of the high transaction costs of metering. So implementing pricing mechanisms for groundwater today, with more than 20 million wells is going to require resources that do not seem to exist.

Tradable groundwater rights. While a well-defined rights regime helps resource users to reach optimal outcomes, the measure encounters the same fundamental difficulty as for regulation and pricing – the very high transaction costs of implementation.

Community management of groundwater. The key feature of community groundwater management is that the resource user community (instead of the state) is the primary custodian of groundwater and is charged with implementing management measures. Community groundwater management can involve any mix of instruments, including regulation, property rights, and pricing. The report assesses the viability of a community groundwater management model that has been implemented on scale in drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh. Over 500 farming communities in seven drought-prone districts have begun to bring their water use in line with the groundwater availability (which means reducing groundwater use in some years), and at the same time are improving agricultural incomes. This makes the AP model stand out as the first global example of large-scale success in community management of groundwater use, and this model is potentially replicable for two-thirds of India’s groundwater settings.

Building capacity and adjusting the role of state groundwater institutions. The capacity of state groundwater institutions will need to be developed to ensure that they can perform the key functions of providing information and technical support, enabling community management, and enforcing regulatory measures.

Promoting conjunctive use in agriculture. In the irrigation canal commands of the Ganga and Indus river systems, heavy depletion of aquifers often exists in close proximity to problems of waterlogging and salinization arising from canal leakages and excessive use of surface water in high-water-table areas. More optimized conjunctive use through microzone planning (including, for example, sealing bank embankments and de-sedimentation of major canals) could increase the cropping intensity without compromising groundwater resource sustainability.

Integrating groundwater in urban water supply planning. There is a need to move from opportunistic exploitation of groundwater resources to more systematic evaluation of the status of urban groundwater use and the contribution it can make to meeting future demand.

Technical and political solutions to agricultural power pricing. The current situation of heavily subsidized power in the agricultural sector is placing a heavy financial burden on the state electricity boards, and a politically pragmatic resolution of the energy–groundwater nexus is important for ensuring the viability and sustainability of both groundwater-based agriculture and the electricity sector in India. Gujarat’s scheme of separate power supply for agriculture, which provides 24-hour power supply for domestic, institutional, and industrial use in villages, with the farmers getting eight hours of improved quality and reliable power on an announced schedule, has proved to be a compromise that has allowed regulation of electricity and groundwater use with few political repercussions, and is potentially replicable elsewhere.

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