The roots of India’s deepening rural water crisis

Erratic monsoon rains and skewed farm incentives have led to the growing groundwater crisis, impacting farm incomes and availability of drinking water

India’s monsoon provides relief from oppressive heat but, more importantly, it provides sustenance for millions. A timely and sufficient monsoon is a critical input for farmers but increasingly, because of climate change, the monsoon is becoming less reliable. Exacerbating this is a set of policies which encourage water wastage, deepening the water crisis that threatens the livelihoods and lives of millions in rural India.

This year, like recent years, could be another year of deficient rainfall, suggests the latest data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Over the last 10 years, average rainfall across the country has fallen short of the normal level in all but one year. Such is the shortfall that IMD is considering lowering what is considered the normal level of rain by 2cm.

Some regions have been hit harder by the change in rainfall patterns. Parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, for instance, have seen a significant shortfall in rainfall over the last decade compared to historical averages. Even in regions, such as Uttarakhand, where average rainfall has increased—this could be driven by more extreme rainfall over short spans of time, the type of rains that cause floods. According to research, even as overall rainfall has declined, the number of extreme rainfall events has increased. For instance, one 2017 study estimates that there has been a threefold increase in the frequency of floods in central India between 1950-2015.

Rains matter for the country because nearly half of India’s farms (49%) rely solely on rain for their water and these are the farms that are hit the hardest by disrupted monsoon rains. The Economic Survey 2017-18 estimates that farmers without irrigation stand to lose nearly 14% of their income because of rainfall shocks.

And even among farmers with irrigation, 62% rely on groundwater as the source of irrigation, which exposes them to the vagaries of the monsoon. Groundwater, which is the result of rain seeping into the ground, also forms the backbone of water supply in rural areas. In villages, 85% of water needs are supplied through groundwater, according to the World Bank.

But as the strength of the monsoon has waned and demand for water has increased, groundwater levels have depleted rapidly. One measure of this is the depth at which water can be accessed. In 1998, across India, the average groundwater level depth before the monsoon was 7.5m, but by 2018 this had increased to 9.2m. Here, too, some regions are facing a graver crisis. In Punjab, for instance, groundwater levels have plummeted by 10.6m (from 7.2m in 1998 to 17.8m in 2018), while in Madhya Pradesh groundwater levels fell by 5m.

This growing demand for water is almost entirely driven by farmers. Nowhere in the world does agriculture consume as much water as in South Asia. This reliance on water has made the region one of the most water-scarce places in the world. In India itself, more than 80% of water demand is used for farming, and agricultural water consumption is expected to stay at these levels even in 2050.

India’s reliance on water for farming is partly self-inflicted. For instance, the government’s minimum support price scheme incentivizes the production of water-intensive crops, such as rice and sugar cane, even in areas not suitable for these crops’ production. Similarly, electricity subsidies have meant that farmers can use pumps to extract groundwater without worrying much about the costs of extraction. According to one study, just decreasing the electricity subsidy by 10% can generate a 7% fall in groundwater extraction levels.

Given the importance of the farmers’ votes, decreasing the electricity subsidy can be politically tricky, but some state governments are experimenting with other policies. For instance, the Punjab government is offering cash transfers to farmers for every unit of electricity they save to wean them away from pumping more water.

At the national level, the Indian government is trying to push farmers towards micro-irrigation and more efficient water use as part of its “per drop per more crop" campaign. According to the NITI Aayog, micro-irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation, can decrease groundwater usage by around 20% annually. However, data presented to the Lok Sabha reveals that less than 3% of India’s net sown area comes under this type of irrigation.

Excessive groundwater extraction affects not just the quantity but also the quality of water. Water collected from deeper underground is more likely to be contaminated with harmful chemicals such as arsenic and fluoride. Data from the National Rural Drinking Water Programme reveals that around 3.5% of habitations are affected by contaminated water, but states such as Punjab (21.5% of habitations) and Rajasthan (14.3%), with more depleted groundwater, are affected more.

Issues relating to coordination have further complicated water issues. Traditionally, different aspects of water have been managed in isolation by different ministries. This has now changed with the newly-formed Jal Shakti ministry, which has subsumed several different water-related departments.

“The Jal Shakti Abhiyan is a first step, and a good one, to initiate and focus the attention on water conservation. However, the causes of our water crisis are complex and will require sustained efforts and investment on conservation of rain-water, recharge of ground-water and must then focus on the sustained and equitable provision of safe drinking water," says V.K. Madhavan, chief executive of non-profit WaterAid India.

At the state-level, water scarcity is also deepening conflicts among states. In the Cauvery delta, for instance, every drought worsens the rift between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu state governments over sharing the river’s water. As India’s water scarcity worsens, these tensions will only escalate.

This is the second of a five-part data journalism series on India’s environmental crisis. Read the first part here

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