Tackling anarchy of groundwater

Tackling anarchy of groundwater

The challenge is to shift groundwater governance such that aquifer-based practice gets mainstreamed.

The agriculture ministry has drawn plans to dovetail the recently launched Rs 50,000 crore Prime Minister Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) for providing irrigation to each cultivated field with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to ensure smooth availability of labour. However, it has paid little attention to groundwater which will be the primary source for providing ‘har khet ko pani’ (water for every field) across 129 million hectares of non-irrigated arable land in the country.

Despite massive investments in the irrigation sector during the five-year plans, of the current 193.76 million hectares of cropped area only 33 per cent has been covered yet. PMKSY has thus been formulated to bridge this glaring gap. Three ongoing schemes viz, Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program-me, Integrated Watershed Management Programme, and On Farm Water Management have been merged to not only extend irrigation coverage but to prom-ote water-use efficiency as well.

This move is promising, but the facts are stacked against it. With some 88 per cent of extracted groundwater already used for irrigation, and 48 per cent of urban consumption drawn on it, the country’s groundwater resources can hardly be stretched any further. Groundwater exploitation clusters extend to different geological formulations — from unconsolidated sediments of alluvial origin to lands underlain by crystalline rocks of igneous and metamorphic origin.

The heterogeneity in hydro-geological conditions calls for better understanding of groundwater status. However, current assessments by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) limit itself to the degree of grou-ndwater abstraction as compa-red to the annual recharge. But, given the lack of understanding of the typology of groundwater resources and variations in accumulation and movement, the technology-driven, supply-oriented approach has contributed to the situation going haywire.

While the new scheme aims to renovate existing water bodies and strengthen the carrying capacity of traditional water sources, it also insists on groundwater and command area development to meet the growing needs. The crucial issue, however, is that in areas where neither traditional water bodies exist nor is there enough precipitation to harvest rainwater, the scheme will end up exploring groundwater beyond the existing estimated 30 million wells, tube wells and bore wells. And, such areas are aplenty in India.

Preserving and sustaining groundwater supplies is critical because groundwater not only drought-proofs agriculture but also acts as a cushion against climate fluctuations, and contributes ’base flows’ to rivers and streams. The CGWB indicates that nearly 34-35 billion cubic meters of water are naturally discharged by aquifers as ‘base flow’ to streams and rivers. Though it is a mere 8 per cent of the annual groundwater availability, it forms an important element in overall contribution of groundwater to agriculture.

Green revolution

In a country where much of the rainfall is received over a period of 4-6 months, maintaining groundwater stocks are critical for balancing the development demands for agriculture, and for meeting small but crucial needs of the urban and industrial sectors. The tragedy is that the availability of groundwater is often attributed to chance, which has fuelled over-extraction and contamination, leading to a serious groundwater crisis.

Green revolution agriculture has contributed to the crisis too, with intensive use of inputs such as chemicals and fertilisers to boost farm production consuming excessive amounts of water. The political economy of green revolution has been such that low-power tariffs and subsidies for irrigation equipment are extended as policy incentives, which have only encouraged excessive groundwater extraction. Subsequent rush to grow cash crops in recent years has further exacerbated the crisis.

Top it up with a lax groundwater regulatory regime, and an increasing industrial and urban water demand, the competition and conflict over groundwater has escalated to such an extent that farm sector has exhibited a front on ‘who pumps out more and how quickly’. With 700 million people directly dependent on it, groundwater resource degradation threatens sustainability of the resource base on a wide-spread geographical basis.

Groundwater quality is another issue that needs as much attention as its overall availability. As per the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, out of 593 districts from which data is available, there is high fluoride in 203 districts, iron in 206 districts, salinity in 137 districts, nitrate in 109 districts and arsenic in 35 districts. PMKSY cannot be oblivious to these facts, and is obliged to pay attention to groundwater conservation, regulation and conjunctive as espoused by the National Water Policy, 2002.

Since PMKSY has assumed bigger responsibility for developing and managing decentra-lised water resources at the local level, the challenge is to shift from the business-as-usual appr-oach in developing groundwater governance that gives ownership of regulatory role to Minis-try of Agriculture, such that aquifer-based methods get ma-instreamed across the country.

A sector consuming over 70 per cent groundwater cannot be distanced from being at the helm of regulatory regime. Time for a paradigm shift in groundwater governance was never as compelling as it is now.

(The author researches and writes on water issues)