The monsoon shortfall and the prospect of drought are causing jitters. But water supply is about a lot more than just rainfall. Recent research published in the scientific journal Nature argues that groundwater supplies in northern India are depleting at a frightening rate.
To put this in perspective: the Nature authors state that from August 2002 to October 2008, groundwater loss was an astounding 109 cu. km, or twice the capacity of the largest surface water reservoir in the country.
The authors aren’t the only ones taking notice. The ministry of environment and forests released a “State of the Environment” report earlier this week, which stated, “Groundwater reserves are becoming more and more depleted even as surface water sources become too polluted for human use.”
If the country’s groundwater depletion continues unchecked, India will face a water shortage—and a subsequent food shortage—of staggering proportions.
Groundwater in India exhibits the classic economic conundrum of a tragedy of the commons, which means that it is in each individual’s interest to deplete the common resource—in this case, groundwater—at the expense of the group.
At present, Indian farmers have little incentive to use groundwater sparingly. The best way to conserve groundwater is encouraging farmers to switch from water-intensive crops—such as sugar cane and rice—to comparatively less demanding ones, such as wheat, millet and pulses.
There are a few ways to do this. Farmers could be “taxed” for using excessive groundwater. As electric pumps are mainly used to procure groundwater, electricity prices could be hiked in areas of farmland—serving as a deterrent for groundwater consumption. Another possibility would be to adjust land revenue or property taxes based on the type of crop a farmer produces—rice fields, for example, could command more tax than wheat fields.
But such plans are not without their difficulties. The biggest problem is that state- or local-level politicians never have the will to institute such pricing schemes, as their political fortunes depend on a deeply sensitive agrarian base. Short of a fiat from the Centre, it is, unfortunately, unclear how to institute such policies.
An incentive scheme—of some kind—is necessary to encourage crop substitution. This is an expensive prospect. But a future without groundwater would be even more costly.
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