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Global Groundwater Situation: Opportunities and Challenges

Author(s): Tushaar Shah, David Molden, R. Sakthivadivel, David Seckler

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 43 (Oct. 27 - Nov. 2, 2001), pp. 4142-4150
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
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Economic and Political Weekly.
Global Groundwater
Opportunities Challenges
It is widely predicted that problems of groundwateroverexploitationwill become
more acute and widespread. The challenge then is not merely supply-side innovations but to
set in place a range of corrective mechanisms that would involve a shift from resource
developmenttowards resource management.Countries with severe groundwater
depletion still remain hampered however by lack of information.Not only is there no
systematic monitoring of groundwateroccurrence and,draft, but management
of such resources has for long remained in private informal channels, withpublic
agencies playing only an indirect role.

T hroughoutthe world, regions that Groundwaterproblems in west and intensified pumping of groundwater for
have sustainable groundwater bal- southAsia are as pernicious- or even irrigation is saline ingress into coastal
ance areshrinkingby the day. Three more- comparedto China's.A ground- aquifers. All these problems' will impair
problems dominate groundwater use: waterbasket-case is Yemen.ArecentWorld the region's capacity to feed its growing
depletion due to overdraft; water-logging Bankmemorandum on watermanagement population. According to David Seckler,
and salinisation due mostly to inadequate in Yemennoted:'the problemof ground- IWMI's directorgeneral,a quarterof India's
drainage and insufficient conjunctive use; water mining representsa fundamental harvest may well be at risk from ground-
and pollution due to agricultural, indus- threatto the well-being of the Yemeni water depletion.
trialand other human activity. Particularly people. In the highlandplains, for ex- Unplannedgroundwaterexploitationcan
in regions with high population density, ample,abstractionis estimatedto exceed wreck havoc on fragile ecologies such as
dynamictubewell-irrigatedagricultureand rechargeby 400 percent' [Briscoe1999]. wetlands. A good example of how ground-
insufficient surface water, myriad conse- Yemenis probablytheonlycountrywhere water over-exploitation can ruin ecologies
quences of groundwateroverdevelopment groundwaterabstractionexceeds the re- is offered by the Azraq Oasis in the heart
are becoming increasingly evident. The chargefor the countryas a whole (ibid). of the Jordanian Badia. The Azraq, a
most common symptom is secular decline Mexico's aquiferstoo are amongst the Ramsar wetland of over 7,500 ha, has
in watertables.InnorthChina's Henan pro- most overdeveloped;IWMI researchers provided natural habitat for numerous
vince, China's largest, where some 2 m ha basedinGuanajuato state,oneof Mexico's unique indigenous aquatic and terrestrial
- 52 per cent of irrigatedlands - are served agriculturallydynamicregions,foundwater species; and the oasis was acclaimed inter-
by tubewells, water table monitoring data tablesin 10aquiferstheystudieddeclining nationally as a major station for migratory
on 358 observation wells encompassing at averageannualratesof 1.79-3.3m/year birds until it dried up completely as a result
75,000 sq km showed water table declines during recent years [Wester, Pimentel, of groundwateroverexploitation upstream
of 0.75-3.68 m during 1975-87. In Scott 1999:9].The situationin southAsia through mechanical pumps for irrigation
Changzhou prefecture of Hebei province is no better.In western,north-westernand and for feeding the city of Amman. Over-
- where 76,800 wells irrigate 0.29 m ha peninsular India and Pakistan, where in draft resulted in the decline of shallow
- 37 per cent of the irrigated area - the recenttimes,overa millionirrigationwells water tables from 2.5 to 7 metres during
area covered by saline water increased by have got addedevery year, groundwater the decade of the 1980s drying up the
9.1 per cent during 1980-90 [Lunzhang withdrawal exceedsannualrechargeinvast natural springs whose supply to the oasis
1994]. In the Fuyang river basin of north areasthataregrowingevery year.Where fell from over 10 cubic mm in 1981 to less
ChinawhereIWMIhas been studying basin this process has been rapid, the conse- than 1 cubic mm in 1991. The result was
institutions, surface water supplies to quencesareseriousandvisible.Inthetwo the collapse of the whole ecosystem, in-
agriculturehave been drastically curtailed Punjabs,HaryanaandwesternRajasthan, crease in the salinity of groundwaterfrom
over a 20-year period for meeting indus- the main consequencehas been salinity; 1,200 to 3,000 ppm and the decline of the
trial needs; farmers have responded by in northGujaratand southernRajasthan, tourism economy around the oasis [Fariz
resorting to groundwater irrigation; num- it is fluoride contaminationof ground- and Hatough-Bouran 1996].
ber of tubewells in the basin increased to water;in hard-rocksouthernIndia, it is Groundwateris also emerging as a criti-
some 91,000 mostly during the 1970s and decliningwell-yieldsandincreasingpump- cal issue for cities and towns around the
water table has fallen from 8 m to 50 m ing costs arisingfrom competitivedeep- world. At the heart of the urban ground-
during 1967-2000. Aquifers in the Fuyang eningof wells.InWestBengalandwestern water problem is population density; cities
basin are under double assault: farmers Bangladesh,the consequenceis arsenic just do not have a large enough recharge
are depleting the lower aquifers; and contamination[Khan 1994]. In coastal area to support the needs of their in-
industries are polluting the upper ones. areas, the most serious consequenceof habitants on a sustainable basis. Some 300

4142 Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001

of China's densely populated large and groundwaterquality is good, groundwater groundwater is its high microbiological
medium cities - dependent on ground- draftin waterlogged areasoffers a big win- quality, arising from its situation below
water - face acute water shortages win opportunity.The SCARP tubewell pro- ground and the natural protection this
( and have to gramme in Pakistan and a similar earlier affords [Calow et al 1997:242]. Compared
look outwardfor their water needs. Things programme of public tubewells in water to surface water which is flashy in nature,
in Beijing have gone so bad that farmers logged, areas on the Satlaj-Yamuna canal groundwateroffers betterinsuranceagainst
in the neighboring hinterland have been in north India to pump water for irrigation drought because of the long lag between
prohibited from using water from local or to augmentcanal supplies seemed prom- changes in recharge and responses in
reservoirs for irrigation (ibid). The city of ising but have proved institutionally un- groundwaterlevels and well yields [Carter
Izmir in western Turkey is fed from well- sustainable [Moshabbir and Khan 1994]. and Howsam 1994].
fields from the neighbouring district of In many aridand semi-arid areas,however, Irrigationwith groundwater is also gen-
Manisa whose citizens have become in- salinitycomes withwaterloggingwhichcom- erally more productive compared to much
creasingly restive about it. In south Asia, plicates matters. Desalination of brackish surface irrigation;groundwaterisproduced
urban groundwater scene is reaching a water though cheaper thandesalinising sea at the point of use, needing little transport;
melting point: large cities like Ahmedabad wateris yet to become a mainstreamoption. it offers individual farmer irrigation 'on
and Jodhpurin western India and Chennai Farmers in west Haryana and Pakistan demand' which few surface systems can
in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu Punjabhave evolved home-grown formula offer; and because its use entails signifi-
supportthriving privategroundwaterbusi- for blending saline groundwaterwith good cant incremental cost of lift, farmers tend
nesses that draw water from tubewells in quality canal irrigation; these seem to be to economise on its use and maximise
the neighbouring hinterlands for supplies effective but need close examination. application efficiency. Evidence in India
to high-income residential areas because Aquifer pollution - from both point and suggests thatcropyield/cubic m on ground-
groundwater tables in the cities are falling non-point sources - is becoming extensive water irrigated farms tends to be 1.2-3
ata rateof 7-10 feet/year. Bangkok, Jakarta worldwide. In the Gediz basin of Anatolia, times higher than on surface water irri-
and Mexico City have been facing acute Turkey,non-pointpollutants- mostly agro- gated farms [Dhawan 1989:167]. Similar
problems of land subsidence because of chemicals - have polluted the groundwa- evidence is available from other parts of
groundwaterdepletion. The departmentof ter and the river downstream so badly that the world as well [see, Hernandez et al
water affairs and forestry of the govern- cities like Izmir and strawberry orchard 1999 for a comparative study in the
ment of South Africa estimates that more owners in Menemen would rather pump Andalucia, NorthernSpain]. Groundwater
than 400 of its towns and cities depend groundwater than use the river water. In users in south Asia often use only a small
upon groundwater for domestic supplies; North Arcot district in Tamil Nadu, coco- fraction of scientifically recommended
and many near the coast - including nut water contained 0.2 per cent of residual water requirements;rather than aiming at
Alexandria, Jeffery's Bay, Kleinmond, chromium derived from chrome-tanning full irrigated yields, they use sparse, life
Bushmansrivemouth,and Kenton-on-Sea, process-based tanneriesthatcontaminated saving. irrigation to obtain whopping in-
St Fransis Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Atlantis, the groundwater [K Sarabhai in forward creases over rainfed yields (see figure 1).
Port Alfred, Port St Johns - already run to Mudrakartha1999]. In the west Indian This is because of high marginal cost of
the risk of saline intrusion [Morris 1997]. state of Gujarat,groundwaterpollution by groundwater use; some of the poorest
Urban industrialisation is also a major textile processing and the rapidly growing irrigators in south Asia - who purchase
contributor to urban groundwater prob- chemical industry earned such notoriety pump irrigation from well-owners - com-
lems; in South Korea's industrial cities that, in 1998, acting suo moto, the state's monly pay US 10-14 cents/cubic m of
such as Seoul, Pusan, Daegu, water tables high court ordered an entire industrial water compared to a fraction of a cent paid
have dropped by 10-50 m over a 30 year estate- housing over 1,200 manufactur- by canal irrigators. Finally, compared to
period due to industrial pumping. In the ing units, 70 per cent of its chemical - large surface systems whose design is
Chejuisland, sea water intrusion in coastal closed, pending the establishmentof waste- driven by topography and hydraulics,
aquiferhas been the direct result of indus- water treatment and disposal system. groundwater development is often much
trialpumping of groundwater [Lee 1994]. more amenable to poverty-targeting. No
Besides depletion, waterlogging and the Opportunity wonder, then, that in developing countries
pollution of aquifers through human acti- of Asia and Africa, groundwaterdevelop-
vity is another major groundwater chal- Ironically, at the heart of all these prob- ment has become the central element of
lenge. Water logged areas in India are lems the world faces are the unique ad- livelihood creation programmes for the
estimated at 6 m ha; 12 major irrigation vantages that groundwater has and the poor [Shah 1993 for India; Kahnert and
projects with a design command of 11 m opportunitythese offer for humandevelop- Levine 1993 for the GBM basin; Calow
ha had 2 m ha water logged, and 1 more ment. Groundwateris accessible to a large et al 1997 for Africa].
m ha salinised [Mudrakartha 1999]. An number of users; it can provide cheap,
IrrigationCommission set up by the govern- convenient, individual supplies; it is gen- Groundwater and Rural Poverty
ment of India placed canal irrigated areas erally less capital intensive to develop, and
suffering from waterlogging and salinis- does not depend upon mega-waterprojects. In the Ganga-Brahmaputrabasin of south
ation at 6 m in early 1970s; these have Groundwaterdevelopment is also largely Asia as well as in much of Africa, ground-
increased substantially since then. In self-financing; its largely private develop- water irrigation offers big opportunity for
Pakistan,rising water tables and ground- ment and use ensure automatic cost re- enhancing the livelihoods of the poor. In
water salinity are among the most impor- covery. When it is not degraded by human the former, the population density and
tant issues in the Indus basin. Where intervention, the major advantage of concentratedruralpoverty are high; but the

Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001 4143

untapped resource is large too.l In many that militate against groundwater exploi- reinforce the rights of the early tubewell
partsof Africa, the resource is modest and tation for agricultural production are the owners and exclude the late comers, who
largely undeveloped; but the population [high] cost of drilling wells and lifting typically are'the poor. One of the most
density is low, too. In both these regions, water onto the land' [Sonoul994: 73]. serious ill-effects of depletion is from sea
the central challenge is to put the pump There is therefore enormous room for water intrusion in coastal aquifers as in
into the hands of the poor. David Seckler, institutionalandtechnological innovations Egypt, Turkey, China and India. In the
the director general of the International that can put groundwater irrigation at the Saurashtra coast of the west Indian state
WaterManagementInstitutehas suggested service of the poor. In south Asia, emer- of Gujarat, sustained over-pumping by
that few irrigation technologies have had gence and spread of water markets have private farming communities during the
as wide-ranging and profound an impact helped improve poor people's access to 1960s and 1970s generated previously un-
on the lives of the people as the small groundwater.Tubewells owned and oper- seen prosperity, earning the coastal strip
mechanical pump; and this becomes evi- ated by groups of poor farmers also offer the name of 'green creeper'. Rapid sea
dent in the Ganga basin and in sub-Saharan possibilities. Micro-diesel pumps made in water intrusion in coastal aquifers - which
Africa where poor households could trans- Chinahave become extremely popularwith extended from 1 km to 7 km inland in a
form their farming and their livelihoods small holders in Bangladesh because they decade, however, caused similarly rapid
if only they could lay their hands on a cost less to buy as well as to run compared collapse of the region's unsustainably
pump. Indeed, much recent evidence links to 5 hp diesel pumps that have become bloatedtubewell economy. The foresightful
the agricultural dynamism in parts of industrystandardin India.Among the most among the well-off farmers saw the writ-
Bangladesh,West Bengal andeasternIndia exciting are innovations in manual irriga- ing on the wall early, and used their re-
to the growing off-take of pumps and tion technologies; the treadlepump- selling sources to make a careful and planned
tubewells by private farmers [see, for ex- as 'Krishak Bandhu' (farmer's friend) in transition from farming to off-farm occu-
ample, Rogaly, Harris-White and Bose south Asia and 'money maker' in Africa pationin nearbytowns. The less foresightful
1999]. But the poorest in these regions are - costs US $ 12-25 a piece and can be and/or the less resourceful stayed behind
often too poor to save enough to buy a operated by anyone including children. and took the full brunt of the fall of the
pump; more, often, their holdings are too This has become hugely popular in socio-ecology. Many kepteking out a living
small to make a mechanical pump a viable Bangladesh where there already are over by selling tender coconuts; but this too
investment. a million sold; it is spreading to eastern became difficult as coconuts shrunkin size
In south Asia, rapid groundwater India and Nepal terai where water tables and contained saline water. In recentyears,
development has supported a booming are in the range of 2-5 m. Treadle pumps tens of villages get depopulated every
pump industry which, in India, has grown are particularly popular with vegetable year as those left behind proceed town-
at an annual compound rate of 20 per cent growers who combine small amount of wardtojoin the ranksof the wage labourers
since 1982; this growth is characterisedby land with large volumes of disguisedly [Shah 1993].
both economies of scale as well as intense unemployed family labourto generate dis-
competition. As a result, south Asia's rural proportionately large cash incomes [Shah Availability and Use: Fallacy of
poor have benefited from low costs of et al 2000]. Equally popular in this seg-
pumps and borings. In the Sahel, in con- ment are likely to be the new range of low-
trast, pump irrigation development is so cost bucket and drumbased drip irrigation Centralto appreciatingthe globalground-
slow and limited that costs of pumps and technologies that have recently begun water situation then is the co-existence of
washbores are high and quite beyond the coming into the market.IWMI is currently regions with undeveloped resource and
reach of small holders. Researchers from investigating what might well be the big- those with overdeveloped resource, and
UK's Cranfield University found that "In gest opportunityfor irrigationagainst rural the socio-economic dynamic that has re-
Africa the cost of a borehole drilled by a poverty in the region: exploring ways of lentlessly impelled the former to shrink
truck-mountedrig can be extremely high bridging the gap between the manualpump and the latterto expand. Equally important
in absolute terms (f 3,000-6,000) as well - which appeals primarilyto the vegetable is the fallacy of aggregation: in aggregate
as in relative terms (10-20 times the cost growers with tiny garden-plots and the terms, at the global andeven nationallevel,
of the pump and many times the cost of 5 hp diesel pump, the industry standardin groundwater availability appears far in
well drilling in Asia. High unit costs mean India, which is too big and costly for most excess of present use. The groundwater
that too few wells are drilled and commu- marginal farmers. use for the world as a whole can be placed
nities and farmers remain dependent on If underdeveloped groundwater in the at 750-800 cubic km which appearsmodest
internationalaid programmesfor this form Ganga basin and parts of Africa presents compared to overall water availability. But
of infrastructure development" [Carter an opportunity for the poor, groundwater an overwhelming majority of the world's
1999]. InNigeria, for example, the ground- depletion and contamination elsewhere cities and towns depend on groundwater
water irrigation potential is estimated at holds out a big threat for them. Depletion for municipal water supplies. Half of the
8,70,000 for washbores and tubewells; but has far-reaching social as well as environ- US population draws its domestic water
the actual numbers in use at the turn of mentaldimensions, andleave immiserising supply from groundwater [Morris 1997].
the 1990s were a few thousand. In west after-effects on all, but, often, on poor Groundwater is also critical in supplying
Africa as a whole, thus, 'The (ground- more than on the rich. In south Asia, when the industrial water demand in most coun-
water) potential remains almost untapped; muscle-driven traditional water lifts went tries. In some of the most populous and
only 0.2 per cent of recoverable safe yield out of business with the onslaught of poverty-stricken regions of the world -
and 0.02 per cent of the groundwater held tubewells, it was the poor who got hit the particularly in south Asia - groundwater
in reserve is presently used. Main reasons hardest. New siting and licensing policies has emerged at the center stage of the

4144 Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001

food-agricultural economy. In India, for Figure 1: Yield Impact of Life-Saving 5 cm Irrigation on Rainfed Crops in India
example, some 60 per cent of the irrigated Per cent increase over
foodgrain production now depends on 250 rainfed yield
irrigation from groundwater wells. Bet-
ween India, China, the US and Pakistan,
some 325 cubic km of groundwateris used 200'-
every year; the 14 countries included in
Figure 2 use some 520 cubic km (FAO's
AQUASTAT); over 35 countries of the 150
world use more than 1 cubic km of ground-
water annually [Llamas et al 1994].
In comparison, world's aggregate 100
groundwater resources appear abundant.
Groundwater - both stock and flow2-
constitutes over two-thirds of the world's 50
fresh waterresource,if we exclude glaciers
and permanentsnow cover [Shiklomanov
1993:13; Datt 1987]. Even if 8 per cent
of the 33,000 cubic km (Postel 4999)3 r
(p (.c
- E
X c
floodwater that runs off to the oceans - < m m <o

annually recharges the groundwater, we

have a renewable supply of over 2500 CZ CIO
0. 0
cubic km of groundwater annually which
seems several times more than the world Crop,region
uses today. This tallies with the picture Source:Dhawan1989, afterSingh and Vijaylakshmi1987.
that emerges from national estimates of
groundwateravailability and use. Accord- people - faces acute problems of water- and the risks of these irrigation invest-
ing to the FAO's AQUASTAT, the Rus- logging and flood-proneness despite the ments [Shah and Bhattacharya 1998].
sian Federation uses less than 5 per cent addition of over 3 million to its stock of
of its 900 cubic km of annual recharge; irrigationtubewells over the past 50 years. Responses to Groundwater
west Africa uses less than 1 per cent; One might even argue that pre-monsoon
China's renewable groundwater supply is water tables in much of the basin are
estimated at over 800 cubic km; but it uses unlikely to fall by more than 1.5-2 metres By far the most serious groundwater
just around 70; even India, which has even if the density of irrigationwells were challenge facing the world, then, is not in
serious overexploitation problems uses doubled and, in addition, 20-25 cubic km developing the resource but in its sustain-
only a third of her estimated annual re- of the 1400 cubic km of the Ganga- able management. As problems of ground-
chargeof some 450 cubic km. Yet, ground- Brahmaputraflood discharge were stored water depletion - and its deleterious con-
water depletion - and the host of associ- for augmenting the Ganga's summer low- sequences - have surfaced in different
ated problems - pose one of the most flows. If anything, increased tubewell parts of the world, a variety of responses
daunting challenges that the world faces irrigation would alleviate the endemic have been forged to mitigate oreven reverse
in the water sector. waterlogging and flood-proneness that these. The standardreasoning is that even
This is because of spatial imbalances in impose enormous welfare costs on the with 800,000 big and small dams around
the occurrence of groundwater and the people of the region [Centre for Science the world, the reservoirs can capture and
patternof demand for it. In the millennia and Environmentl991; Shah 2000b]. But store no more than a fifth of the rainwater,
bygone, humansettlements formed around peninsular and western India - including the bulk of the remainder still running off
abundantwater bodies; but this seems no the Punjab and Haryana, India's bread- to the seas. India, which has built more
longer the case today, at least vis-a-vis basket - have faced massive problems of than its share of the world's dams, 1,150
groundwater.South China has 68 per cent groundwater overdevelopment. Water cubic km of its rainwaterprecipitation still
of China's total groundwaterrecharge, 54 tables in these regions have dropped be- runs off to the seas annually in the form
percent of population but only 36 per cent yond the reach of muscle-driven water lifts of 'rejected recharge' [INCID1999]. If a
of farmlands, and is therefore able to use that were used by farmers for centuries for fraction of this could be stored under-
only a small fraction of its groundwater protective irrigation. In north Gujarat, ground by reducing the velocity of the run-
resource.In contrast,North China has only bullock-bailers could lift groundwater for off andprovidingtime forrecharge,ground-
31 per cent of China's groundwater, but irrigationbarely30 years ago because water water supplies could be enhanced signifi-
46 per cent of the population and 64 per levels in wells were 10-15 m; but today, cantly. But this presumes active aquifer
cent of farmlands and is facing serious tubewells reach out to a depth of 400-450 managementwhere planneddrawingdown
problemsof groundwateroverexploitation metres to get economic discharge; and the of the water table in the pre-monsoon dry
[Kramer, R and Minkang Zhu 1988; 35-75 hp pumps needed for lifting water months is an important element of the
Lunzhang 1994]. Similarly, the Ganga- from such depths cost so much thatfarmers strategy for enhancing recharge from
Meghna-Brahmaputra basin - home to in the region have evolved the institution monsoon rainwater as well as from irri-
some 500 million of the world's poorest of tubewell companies to share the costs gation return flows. In the developing

Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001 4145

world, however, such active aquifer man- Figure 2: Groundwater Use in Selected Countries in the 1980s
agement is still a far cry. In what is being
done, several approaches stand out. 10
160 b'cu m
Recharge with imported surface water:
Some of these experiments show success-
ful efforts to retrieve valuable ecologies 140
at-risk.In the Azraq oasis of central Jordan
120 1 101
we discussed in a precious section, con-
ventional measures to regain the ecology 100
- stopping water supply to Aman or ces- 75
sation of irrigation - were politically in- 80
feasible. However, a UNDP supported
project reverse-pumped into the epicentre 60 - ~j~BI~ ~gg~
fs~Z~1 45 45
of the lakes 1.5-2m cu m of groundwater 29
imported from a water-surplus well field. 12
So3rce Llma l13
Along with a number of supportive mea- 20 0.9 2.8
sures - such as cleaning of springs and
rehabilitation, the strategy was able to 0
< cc cc c a
retrieve the Azraq wetland pretty much to ci
-o (0 .9
C )
cn c
c o
its original position; birds came back; and o a c o
Azraq's tourism economy too apparently - c c:
bounced back to life [Fariz and Hatough- LU
Bouran 1996]. Similar examples at the
basin level can be found but only in de-
Source: Llamaset al 1992:4 and Takeuchiand Murthy1994:14.
veloped countries. One such example is
the San Joaquinvalley of California, where
groundwater irrigation was 'managed' to Himalayan rivers with Cauveri and other China has some seven million ponds which
create a tax base that would supportimport south Indian rivers; but these have have potential for water harvesting and
of water. With rapid agricultural growth, remained at the ideas level. recharge. And in south India - where the
by the early 1950s, more than 1.2 b cu m Recharge with rain-water: Long dis- three states of Karnataka,AndhraPradesh
of water was being pumped by well-irri- tance transportof large quantities of water and Tamil 'Nadu - have over 2,00,000
gators. And percolation of irrigation water is however often problematicbesides being tanks,a strategythathas been widely recom-
became the main source of recharge and expensive. In many parts of the world, mended is of transforming these into re-
exceeded natural recharge by 40 times. especially in south Asia, increasing stress charge tanks by filling them up with canal
The drawdown to 30-60 m caused achange is being placed on in situ rainwater har- water [Kulandaivelu and Jayachandran
in the direction of water flow in the con- vesting and recharge. In the monsoon 1990; Reddy, Rao and Prakasam 1990].
fined zone; and pumping lifts increased to region, this approach seems particularly In the Kurnool irrigationsystem of Andhra
250 m in many parts and land subsidence importantbecause, as in India, the bulk of Pradesh, nine percolation ponds and seven
emerged as a widespread problem. These the year's rainfall is received in some 100 check dams constructed in an experimen-
costs justified import of water through the hours of heavy downpour, providing little tal recharge project increased the duration
California Aqueduct. After 1967, surface time for rechargingthe groundwater[Keller of spring flow from 75 days to 207 days;
irrigation increased significantly, and Sakthivadivel and Seckler 2000]. More- andpost-monsoon watertablerose by 2.5 m
hydraulichead declined by 30-100 metres. over, the relationshipbetween the recharge (Reddy, Rao and Prakasam 1990). India's
'Throughout the area, the recovery in area, recharge rate and the extent of sus- Central Groundwater Board too has been
potentiometric surface from 1967 to 1984 tainable groundwater irrigation is now carrying out recharge experiments at sev-
was nearly one half the draw down that becoming increasingly important.A study eral sites. TarunBharatSangh and Pradan,
occurred from pre-development years to of groundwater irrigation in northern Sri two local NGOs in the Alwar district of
1967. Increased recharge with surface Lankan district of Anuradhapurashowed western Rajasthan - whose work IWMI
irrigation and reduced groundwater draft thatfor every acre of groundwaterirrigated has been studying - have helped local
raised water tables to less than 1.5 m in area, 34 acres of recharge area is needed communities to rehabilitate centuries old
some parts causing drainage problems; a for sustainability in up land areas and 17 tanks (known locally as 'johads' or 'paals')
regional tile drain installed in 1988 over acres in low land areas [Premanath and with dramatic impact on groundwater
a 150 sq km area lowered water table but Liyanapatabendi 1994]. As groundwater recharge and revival of dried-up springs
also diverted water that could have been irrigationincreases, this ratio comes under and rivulets in a 6,500 sq km area.
used to increase recharge [Llama et al pressure; and the only way out is to in- In India's western region, hit hardestby
1992: 6-7]. China is similarly planning crease the recharge rates. groundwater depletion, however, people
trans-basindiversions from the Yangtzi in Some of the water-scarceregions of Asia have figured out that they have no time for
the water-surplussouth to the water-short have age-old traditions and structures for experiments or for governmental action.
Yellow River basin in the north [Keller rainwater harvesting which have fallen in Catalysed by spiritualHindu organisations
Sakthivadivel and Seckler 2000]. India to disuse and are now attracting renewed - such as the 'Swadhyaya Pariwar' and
has talked about a garland canal to link attention. If estimates are to be believed, 'Swaminarayana Sampradaya' - and

4146 Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001

supported by numerous local NGOs, employs some 42,000 people at its peak the US. Several variations of this basically
people have spontaneously created a every year, but will take 20 years or more involve capturing and storing rain-water
massive well-recharge movement based to complete the job. In contrast, there is in some sort of a tank and using the water
on the principle: 'water on your roof, stays a growing worldwide movement to pro- with or without treatment.The University
on your roof; water on your field stays on mote the cultivation of vetiver grass of Texas has built a system of three cas-
your field; and water on your village, stays hedgerows as a powerful way of reducing cading ponds, somewhat like the system
in your village'. Some 3,00,000 wells - the velocity of rainwater run-off and re- tanks of Tamil Nadu in south India, to
open and bore - have been modified by charging groundwater. The vetiver net- support aquatic life for its biology labo-
the people to divert rain water to them; and work, supportedby the WorldBank,Danish ratory fed by harvested rain-water. In
thousands of ponds, check dams and other government and several global NGOs coastal desert of north Chile, a fog collec-
rain water harvesting and recharge struc- claims that rainwaterrun-off is reduced by tion project has been able to provide an
tures have been constructed by people on 70 per cent when vetiver hedgerows are average of 11,000 per day of water to a
the self-help principle to keep the rain planted across the slope by slowing down community of 330 people [Schemenauer
water gushing into the Arabian sea [Shah and spreading out runoff over larger areas and Cereceda 1991]. Many of these ideas
2000b]. While IWMI plans systematic but also because the strong roots of this may appear before-their-time now; but if
studies of the impact of the movement and grass can penetratehardpans and improve water scarcity is to grow at the rate IWMI
the popular science of well-recharge that infiltration. The network claims Indian projects it to [Seckler, Molden and Barker
has emerged as a result of farmers' experi- evidence showing that where such 1998], their time will surely come, and
ments, indicative evidence available sug- hedgerows are planted, water levels in sooner rather than later.
gests that for regions critically affected by wells are higher, springs do not dry up or
groundwaterdepletion, only mass popular run longer into the dry seasons From Development to
action on regional scale may be adequate (
to meet the challenge of depletion.
Management Mode
Domestic rainwaterharvesting:Ground-
India has begun to take rain-water har- water depletion has also revived popular Worldwide, then, there is some action
vesting and groundwater recharge seri- interest in domestic rain-water harvesting by way of a response to the growing scarcity
ously at all levels. These are at the heart techniques, both traditional and new. In of groundwater;but it is too little, too late,
of its massive Integrated Watershed De- water-stressed regions of countries like too experimental, too curative, and too
velopment Programme which provides India, some of these techniques - evolved supply-side oriented;thereis precious little
public resources to local communities for and used over centuries - are still pre- to reduce demand for groundwater or on
treatment of watershed catchment areas served and in use although in far-flung approaches to economising on its use. The
and for constructing rainwater harvesting areas. But these are now coming back into only examples we can find of combination
and rechargestructures.Trends during the the mainstream in a big way and, in the of demand and supply side interventions
1990s also suggest a progressive shift of process, are being improvised upon. are in the western US which has suffered
budgetary allocations from irrigation de- 'Khadins' of Rajasthan;'Tankas' of west- amongst the most extensive groundwater
velopment to water harvesting and re- ern Gujarat, and a whole new range of depletion problems anywhere in the world,
charge. One indication of the seriousness roof-water harvesting techniques are com- and before anyone else did. In the Santa
assigned to an issue by Indian leadership ing back into vogue. Since time immemo- Clara valley south of San Francisco bay,
is the message delivered to the citizens on rial, Jordan and its surroundingterritories overdraftwas estimated at 52,000 acre feet
Republic Day; January26, 2000 when the were once replete with honeycombs of way back in 1949 when India was still on
nation's prime minister and the water family cisterns for rain-water harvesting bullock bailers and Persian wheels. The
resourcesminister went to the people with and domestic use. These were an inevi- response to sustained overdraft was for
a full-page story espousing the benefits table component of a dwelling for centu- new institutions to be created, such as the
and criticality of groundwater recharge. ries but had fallen into disuse with the Santa Clara Water Conservation District
Vegetative treatment of the catchment: onset of the modem piped water supply and a water user association. Ten dams
Vegetative cover on the free catchment of system. The family cistern is finding its were constructed to store floodwaters for
a basin have proved to be a problem as use again [Wahlin 1997]. In the city of recharge; barriersof injection wells were
well as an aid to groundwaterrecharge. For Rajkot in the water-short Saurashtra re- created to prevent sea water intrusion;
example, some 10 m ha of land in South gion of western India, 1,500 new houses arrangementswere madeto import1,00,000
Africa are infested by an alien weed - and apartments built during 1997 had acre feet of water annually. But, besides
Acaciaspp(especially meamsii, andsaligna incorporateddesign-changes for rain-water these supply-side interventions, therewere
andlongifolia), pinus spp, eucalyptus spp, harvesting and storage found in old houses also measures to restrict the withdrawals
prosopis spp (Guy Preston, pers. comm) in the region but forgotten in recent de- throughcreation of groundwaterzones and
- that uses up 3.3 b cu m more water - cades [Shah 2000b]. Baluchistan and parts the levy of groundwater tax that varied
almost7 percent of the country's total run- of Afghanistan have the extraordinary across zones according to the cost of al-
off than the indigenous plants it replaced; 'karezes' which have served as excellent ternative supplies. As a result, as of mid-
the weed infestation is considered to be structuresfor community water supply as 1980s, groundwater table stabilised at 30
a major threat to groundwater recharge. also irrigation; these are dying but need feet above the historic lowest, and land
Anda special long-term programmeby the to be revived and improvised upon. Some subsidence became a matter of the past
South African government's department exciting work on bringing back traditional [Coe 1988].
of wateraffairs and forestry, called 'Work- rain-waterharvestingtechnologies is being Such examples abound in the western
ing for Water' to remove the alien weed, done by individuals and small groups in US; and these provide important pointers

Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001 4147

to the rest of the world about where to Institutional solutions to sustainable dry areas. There is also scope and need for
direct ameliorative action. A major prob- groundwater management that have a more orderly development of groundwater
lem in transferringthese lessons wholesale chance to work may pose complex issues for irrigation,especially in South Asia and
to developing country context however are of equity. Some of these became evident West Africa where potential for ground-
the numbers involved: in Santa Clara in the tiny World Bank supported Taiz water development still exists. One ap-
groundwater district, the total number of project in Habir aquiferof Yemen with the proach tried in Shanxi province of China
farmerswas probablyless than a thousand; objective to develop a partnershipbetween is of 'well-unit' construction. The idea is
in an area of comparable size, Asia would ruraland urbangroundwaterusers to trans- to undertake overall planning and con-
have over 1,00,000 farmers. The average fer water from country to town on equi- struction of tubewells on the basis of a
stakes per farmer too would vary by a table terms and ensure the sustainability hydrogeological zone where the total
factor of a thousand or more. As a result, of the resource. The project - which af- number of tubewells as well as their siting
spontaneous collective action by ground- fected a small group of 7,000 rural resi- is done taking into account the groundwa-
water users to protect and manage the dents on the Habir aquifer- failed to either ter potential. A well unit typically involves
resource is far less likely - and more transferwateror to ensure its sustainability 660 ha in plains and 330 ha in mountainous
difficult to sustain - in Asia. but suggested importantlessons aboutwhy region. The approachhas the advantage of
Which is perhaps why Asian and other it failed. Taking an egalitarian stance, the scientific construction of wells, unified
developing country governments tend to project tried capacity building of all the management and optimal dispatching of
rely more heavily on enacting laws to 7,000 residents to assume rights over the water, monitoring and maintenance of
regulate groundwater use and abuse. aquifer and manage the transfer of water equipment and scalar economies in capital
However, these areyet to deliver the desired to the city; however, the real stakeholders costs [FAO 1995]. In Yinhuang irrigation
regulation, either in Asia or elsewhere in were 22 irrigation pumpers - who used district, conjunctive use of canal and
the developing world. China's new water over 90 per cent of the aquifer - and not groundwater has been tried out with
law requiresthat all pumpers get a permit; the 7,000 residents. The practicalities of some success on a large area of 94,800 ha
but the law is yet to be enforced: it is able achieving the project aims required that (ibid). Tax-subsidy regimes too have been
to extract close to an economic price from the de facto rights of these 22 users were used to restrict withdrawals. In the over-
canal irrigators; but groundwater is still recognised, and incentives were created developed Ogalla aquifer in Texas and
free. South Africa's new water law and for them to sustainably manage the re- Oklahoma which supplies about 30 per
water policy enshrine the principles of source. The pumpers would oppose, frus- cent of all groundwater irrigation in the
'User Pays: Polluter Pays'; but these are trate or sabotage all institutional efforts US4 (, the rate
yet to be operationalised. India has been that infringed their de facto rights and of overwithdrawaldeclined partlybecause
toying around with a draft model ground- failed to provide them incentives for sus- of increased cost of pumping and improved
water bill for 20 years; but is not able to tainable management - which meant that application efficiency but also because of
make it into a law due to doubts about sustainability could be possible only by government programmes such as Conser-
enforcing such a law on more than 14 reinforcing existing inequalities. The re- vation Reserve programme and Payment-
million irrigation pumpers scattered port on a World Bank Consultation that in-Kind programme which offered added
through a vast countryside. The establish- analysed the lessons of the Taiz project incentives to reduce cropping [Llamas et
ment of Aquifer Management Councils concluded: "In our judgment, 'the egali- al 1992].
called COTAS ('Consejos Tecnicos de tarian option' is not viable and ultimately In the business-as-usual scenario, prob-
Aguas') in Mexico as part of its water counter productive since it is unlikely to lems of groundwater overexploitation
reforms and under the new Mexican water work" [Briscoe 1999:12]. worldwide will only become more acute,
law are a notable development; IWMI There are potentially powerful indirect widespread, serious and visible in the years
researchers in Guanjuato are, however, demand-management strategies that are to come. The frontline challenge is notjust
sceptical and hopeful at once: "several not even part of the academic discussion supply-side innovations but to put in to
factors bode ill for their (COTAS') future in the developing world. These offer operation a range of corrective mecha-
effectiveness in arresting groundwater importanttrade-offs that need closer scru- nisms before the problem becomes either
depletion. Most importantly, their main tiny. For example, it has been suggested insolvable or not worth solving. This
role will be advisory in natureand they will that Indian Punjab's groundwater deple- involves, what Marcus Moench calls, a
not have the mandate to resolve conflicts tion problems could be easier to resolve transition from resource 'development' to
between water users or restrict groundwa- if its export of 'virtual' groundwaterin the resource 'management' mode [Moench
ter extractions. Moreover, there is an form of rice could be reduced or stopped; 1995]. Even in south Asia - where symp-
unclear division of tasks and responsibili- on the other hand, IWMI researchershave toms of overexploitation are all too clear
ties between COTAS, irrigation water argued that using rain-water for rice cul- - groundwater administration still oper-
users' associations, the federal and state tivation may be an efficient way of re- ates in the 'development' mode, treating
water management agencies and the river charging the aquifers, especially because water availability to be unlimited, and
basin council. On the other hand, the evaporation from rice fields is limited and, directing their energies on enhancing
COTAS provide a vehicle for groundwater after intensive working of soils, paddy groundwater production. A major barrier
users to engage in self-governing, col- fields provide ideal sites for recharge. that prevents transition from the ground-
lective action and to find innovative so- Water-saving irrigationresearch - such as water development to management mode
lutions to the vexing problem of ground- for rice in China - can help reduce ground- is lack of information. Many countries
water depletion" [Wester, Pimentel and water use; but it needs to be examined if with severe groundwater depletion prob-
Scott 1999]. these technologies would work as well in lems do not have any idea of how much

4148 Economicand PoliticalWeekly October27, 2001

groundwater occurs, and who withdraws experimented with. Indeed, one of the rare Calow, R C, N S Robins, A M Macdonald,DMJ
how much groundwater and where. In- Macdonald,BR Gibbs,WRG Orpen,P Mtem-
examples one can find where a systematic
effort seems to be made to understandthe bezeka, A J Andrewsand S O Appiah (1997):
deed, even in European countries where 'GroundwaterManagementin Drought-prone
groundwateris importantin all uses, there hydrology and economics of an entire Areas of Africa,' WaterResources Develop-
is no systematic monitoring of groundwa- aquifer are the mountain aquifers under- nment,vol 13, No 2, pp 241-61.
ter occurrence and draft [Hernandez-Mora lying the West Bank and Israel which are Carter, Richard C and Peter Howsam (1994):
et al 2000]. Moreover, compared to res- shared andjointly managed by Israelis and 'Sustainable use of Groundwaterfor Small-
scale Irrigation: with Special Reference to
ervoirs and canal systems, the amount and Palestinians [Feitelsom andHaddad 1998]. Sub-SaharanAfrica', Land Use Policy, 11(4)
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management to national groundwater sec- will be the impact of the entry of big-time Carter, Richard C (1999): Private Sector
tors has been far less primarily because corporate players - such as Azurix and Participationin Low Cost WaterWell Drilling,
unlike the former, groundwater is in the the US Filter in the western US - in the in DFID-WATER,November 9.
Coe, Jack G (1988): 'California: Responses to
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Groundwater Resources, The World Bank,
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4150 Economic and Political Weekly October 27, 2001