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Maintaining sustainable levels of groundwater

Apr 06, 2010

Deep Wells and Prudence, a World Bank report discusses the issue of groundwater sustainability in India as increasing number of aquifers are reaching unsustainable levels of exploitation. The report provides a host of practical interventions which can be implemented in the current environment.

Deep Wells and Prudence, Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Exploitation in India

Publisher: World Bank, 2010

India is the largest groundwater user in the world, with an estimated usage of around 230 cubic kilometers per year, more than a quarter of the global total. With more than 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water supplies dependent on it, groundwater is a vital resource for rural areas in India.

Reliance of urban and industrial waste supplies on groundwater is also becoming increasingly significant in India. Through the construction of millions of private wells, there has been a phenomenal growth in the exploitation of groundwater in the last five decades.

A number of factors have encouraged the remarkable expansion of groundwater use:

  • Poor service delivery from public water supply systems has prompted many farmers, and rural and urban households, to turn to their own private supply for irrigation and for drinking water.
  • New pump technologies meant that even farmers and households with very modest incomes could afford to sink and operate their own tube well.
  • The flexibility and timeliness of groundwater supply presented an attractive alternative to the technically and institutionally less responsive provision of surface water through public systems.
  • Government electricity subsidies have shielded farmers from the full cost of pumping; creating a modality of groundwater use that has proved very difficult to change.

This era of seemingly endless reliance on groundwater for both drinking water and irrigation purposes is now approaching its limit as an increasing number of aquifers reach unsustainable levels of exploitation, and a 2004 nationwide assessment found 29% of groundwater blocks to be in the semi-critical, critical, or overexploited categories, with the situation deteriorating rapidly.

The potential social and economic consequences of continued weak or nonexistent groundwater management are serious, as aquifer depletion is concentrated in many of the most populated and economically productive areas. The implications are disturbing for attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, for sustaining economic growth and local livelihoods, and for environmental and fiscal sustainability. The consequences will be most severe for the poor. Furthermore, climate change will put additional stress on groundwater resources; while at the same time will have an unpredictable impact on groundwater recharge and availability.

A complex web of factors determines groundwater extraction: the size of landholdings, density of population, water-intensity of crops planted, water users’ behavior, legislation and administration of groundwater, power subsidies for pumping irrigation water, and economic policies.

India has both hard-rock and alluvial aquifers which differ considerably in their physical and socioeconomic profiles and require very different sets of solutions at both the macro and micro levels. As global experience offers few comparable models, home grown solutions are needed.

The World Bank report provides a menu of practical and non-controversial interventions which can be implemented in the current environment. Amongst its several suggestions, the report calls for community management of ground water wherein the user community is the primary custodian of the resource and is charged with implementing management measures.

The report showcases a model adopted in the drought-prone areas of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The state has produced the first global example of large scale success in self-regulation of groundwater use. At the cost of US$2,200 per village per year, communities have shown the first large-scale example of self-regulation of groundwater. Farmers have doubled their income, while bringing their groundwater use close to sustainable levels. In many cases, farmers have voluntarily reduced their water use, while continuing to safeguard their crops.

Groundwater is primarily a responsibility of state governments in India, and therefore the primary counterparts and audience for this report include senior state-level decision makers who are faced with the responsibility for addressing the challenge of groundwater overexploitation, and state departments and agencies charged with groundwater management.

The report also targets the global community of groundwater management practitioners, and it is hoped that the examples of politically feasible and local context-specific approaches recommended for different groundwater settings in India can be useful in informing the design of groundwater management interventions in similar settings elsewhere in the world.

Source : World Bank
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