The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forecast that weather will become more extreme in the coming years. There will be sharp bursts of heavy rainfall followed by long periods of no rain. Shrinking glaciers will reduce the water we receive from the Himalayan rivers during the summers. The groundwater level will decline.
A severe drought is round the corner. This comes after hailstorms in March that led to huge crop losses. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forecast that weather will become more extreme in the coming years. There will be sharp bursts of heavy rainfall followed by long periods of no rain. Shrinking glaciers will reduce the water we receive from the Himalayan rivers during the summers. The groundwater level will decline. Slow rainfall that continues over many days gives time to the water to percolate into the groundwater aquifers. A sharp burst of rain does not provide time for the water to percolate. Thus groundwater level will decline. The problem will be compounded by the farmers relying even more on bore wells during long period of no rain. These problems will only become worse according to the predictions made by IPCC.
The Union Government is thankfully seized of the problem. The first Model Bill to regulate ground water was circulated by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1970. Newer versions have been circulated in1992, 1996 and 2005. Yet only 13 states have enacted the Bill. These Bills give power to the local community to determine how much water to extract. But implementation is tardy. Reason is that these laws would give the power over use of water to the community instead of the rich farmers. Presently, few rich farmers with deep bore wells extract all the groundwater and grow water-guzzling crops like grapes in Karnataka and red chilies in Jodhpur while smaller farmers are unable even to grow paddy. A social workers knowledgeable about affairs of Maharashtra told me that the politicians of the State have huge financial interests in cooperative sugar factories. They are in the forefront of extracting deep groundwater for cultivation of sugarcane. No wonder they are loath to implement such laws. Bigger problem is that the problem will not be truly solved even if extraction of groundwater is controlled because there is little in these laws that can provide incentives to recharge groundwater.
The solution is to provide subsidies for undertaking groundwater recharge. Nearly 300 villagers in Kadavanchi near Jalna in Maharashtra have captured rain water and have been able to undertake profitable agriculture even in drought periods. One farmer spent Rs 5.5 lakh in making the storage structure but made a profit of Rs 30 lakh by cultivating grapes while fields in the surrounding villages were parched. Farmers in Bagalkot District of Karnataka have leveled their fields and made bunds around them so that the rain water does not escape and seeps into the soil. They harvest good crops without fail even though surrounding areas are blank. The Model Bill does not provide power to the Farmers’ Committee to provide incentives or to compulsorily require farmers to establish water harvesting structures such as these.
We have to redesign the economic policy. Presently we are providing subsidies for extraction of groundwater. Many states provide cheap or free electricity to the farmers. This encourages them to extract more groundwater. Need is to provide subsidies on recharge structures. Let us say, a farmer is today getting a subsidy of Rs 5,000 though cheap electricity. The same money should be given to him for making a water storage tank, check dams and bunds on his fields. Simultaneously, the price of his produce should be raised so that the farmer can pay the real cost of electricity without starving to death. Here problem is the urban middle class that wants cheap food grains. It is necessary that the government takes the middle class into confidence and raises the price of food products such that the farmer can pay the true cost of electricity. Providing subsidy for water harvesting structures along with charging true cost of electricity from the farmers will ensure that more water is recharged into the aquifers and less is extracted. This will enable us extract some groundwater even during drought years and produce food.
The water crisis will aggravate along with global warming. The need is to:
(1) Dismantle all subsidies on water extraction and replace them with subsidies on water recharging.
There is need to change another policy. Government engineers are more interested in building large storage dams like Bhakra and implementing large engineering schemes like those of interlinking the rivers. It is true that storage dams have helped irrigate large tracts of land and established our food security. But the usefulness of these structures will recede with global warming. Dams will store only if rivers are bringing water. Very frequently these dams cannot be filled to their full capacity because of less rains in their catchments. This problem will become more pronounced with increased variability of rainfall as predicted by IPCC. There may not be any water to transfer from one river basin to another through the river interlinking scheme. Moreover, huge loss of water takes place through evaporation from these reservoirs. It is better, therefore, to store rainwater in underground aquifers where evaporation does not take place.
The Central Ground Water Board has made a plan to increase groundwater recharge. However, the plan is limited to holding and recharging local rainfall. Rain that falls in a village will be captured and stored in the aquifers of the village. But there is no plan to recharge groundwater aquifers using river flows. Our rivers bring large amounts of water during the monsoons. This water can also be used to recharge the aquifers. There exists such a traditional water harvesting system in the pynes of Gaya. Canals are made that take water from the flooded rivers and bring it into the village ponds. Another canal takes flood water from one pond to another pond lying farther away. The canals are blocked once the floods recede thus trapping the river flow in the ponds. Groundwater is recharged from these ponds. Such innovative systems need to be implemented across the country.
The Government has established a National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). This mission seeks to face drought through improved seeds, pest management, nutrient management, credit support, development of markets, and dissemination of information. All these measures do not face the fundamental problem of water availability. Water use efficiency, farm practices and crop diversification are also covered in the NMSA. These steps are welcome and will help. But still there is no strategy of how we will increase the availability of water in the face of global warming.
Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala (The writer is former Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)