I recently returned from a CWC trip to India, where we have several projects underway. During this trip, we had the opportunity to talk with a range of water users – farmers, corporations, academic experts, and government officials. One thing became very clear to me: Although India’s water situation is precarious, there is a real lack of an organized, systematic plan to deal with the country’s water resources. This fact, along with the already critical water situation, is leading India towards a serious, and probably irreversible, crisis.
Most countries aren’t doing a particularly good job managing their water resources, and the United States is certainly no exception. Even in the U.S., water is managed by an array of agencies at both the federal and state level. In India though, the situation is particularly acute for several reasons.
First of all, water resources are already highly stressed. In many areas, groundwater is depleting rapidly. In Gujarat for example, farmers are pumping groundwater from the almost unimaginable depth of 300 meters. In other areas, water supply simply can’t meet demand on a consistent basis. Even in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods of Delhi and Mumbai, water is unreliable, and will often shut down in the middle of the day. Surface water is also under stress. The Ganges, once India’s mightiest river has seen its flow reduced by 20% and may dry up altogether by 2050. It is also one of the world’s most polluted rivers.
On top of this already critical water situation, you have a huge and growing population, which is developing rapidly and pushing against resource limitations. Add unpredictable climate change to the mix, and you have a situation that is headed for disaster.
The combination of over-stressed water resources, a rapidly expanding population and unpredictable climate change could perhaps be managed through heavy government involvement and carefully targeted and well thought out policies designed to support a realistic pace of long-term growth. Unfortunately, the current government strategy, to the extent that there is one, seems to be the exact opposite. High rates of short-term growth are being promoted, regardless of their effect on water resources. Nowhere is this more true than in the agriculture sector. While green revolution era policies have succeeded in making the country relatively food secure, they’ve done so at an enormous cost to water resources. The Minimum Support Price, (MSP) designed to encourage rice and wheat production by guaranteeing a high price for these staple crops, has also encouraged farmers to raise these water intensive crops in regions that are unsuitable. The result: massive depletion of groundwater tables in rice/wheat hotspots, such as Punjab. No government investment is being made to promote crops such as fruits and vegetables, many of which have both higher cash values and well as lower water requirements.
Agricultural policy is perhaps the single most troubling area in regard to India’s water resources. It’s a complex topic that itself could be the subject of an extensive study. What is clear though is that the current, almost obsessive focus on food security, as largely defined by rice and wheat stocks, is not sustainable, at least in its current form. Punjab, the so called breadbasket of India produces 20% of the nation’s wheat and 11% of its rice. This year, the vast majority of areas in Punjab were declared “dark” (where water withdrawn exceeds annual recharge). It doesn’t take a detailed analysis to see the problem here – if Punjab continues to use more water than it puts in, eventually it will run out, essentially destroying its ability to produce water intensive staple crops.
The twin goals of food security and supporting farmer livelihoods drive much agricultural policy in India. There are obviously important and laudable goals, and India has done an impressive job of feeding itself since it enacted green revolution era reforms in the late 1960s. Unfortunately though, things seem to have gotten out of control. Instead of enacting smart policies geared towards increasing agricultural production, the focus on food security and rural livelihoods often leads to the promotion of nonsensical policies. To return to Gujarat, one area where the CWC is working, farmers are given free electricity to pump groundwater, which they use to irrigate their crops. Farmers are currently pumping from such great depths, that the cost to the state of providing free electricy far exceeds the income of the farmer. In other words, the state would be better of simply giving the farmers their income and forgetting about the electricity subsidy altogether. Currently, the benefit to the state is net negative.
Even worse than flawed state-level policy on is that there is no overall strategy for water resources in India. The national Ministry of Water Resources is doing important work, but they are largely considered to be a Ministry “without teeth”. And even their own website acknowledges that most water is primarily managed at the state level. This means that no person or agency that is looking at the country’s water resources in a systematic way – no one is asking questions like, should we be growing rice in Punjab? Or, what will happen when groundwater in Gujarat bottoms out or becomes saline? In a country as huge, dynamic and developing as rapidly as India, there really needs to be some central planning to address these types of questions.
One frequently heard point is that the study of water resources in India is largely the study of engineering. The focus is on big “supply side” solutions, such as canals and dams. These are important but what’s also needed is a holistic approach that includes demand management strategies. The first step is an honest look at the current status of water resources, with all information being made public. After this, there needs to be some serious thought into developing a long-term national water management plan that is both realistic and sustainable. India continues to ignore these issues at its own peril.