Climate Change, Groundwater & Agriculture In India

By Dr Aditi Mukherji 19 August, 2019

India's groundwater levels are precarious but it is key to food security, so what to do? ICIMOD's Dr Mukherji shares ways forward

India is the largest groundwater user at 25%; in the 1970s groundwater irrigation & other tech sparked the Green Revolution that is linked to the country's food security but can this continue?
Over-extraction has compromised India's climate resilience & rainfall variability is making the situation even harder for farmers; demand management is needed to reduce use
Eastern India has plenty of groundwater for a new Green Revolution & solar-powered pumps can cut emissions; India agriculture's climate resilience depends on groundwater management now

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC), 5th Assessment Report (AR5) concluded that given the greater expected variability in surface water availability, increased groundwater abstractions may provide additional water supplies, especially for agriculture. Indian farmers realised this climate resilient feature of groundwater long way back in the 1970s, when, in conjunction with other Green Revolution technologies, private wells and tube wells proliferated in India.

Groundwater irrigation is key to India’s food security

Today, India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, accounting for almost 25% of the approximate 1000 km3 of groundwater that is extracted annually in the world. India also has the largest number of wells and tube wells, and the latest round of Minor Irrigation Census puts this number at approximately 20 million.

India is the world’s largest user of groundwater accounting for 25%…

…groundwater levels are precarious in many parts

Groundwater irrigation has played an important role in India’s food security and has provided drought resilience and income certainty for millions of farmers in the country. Indeed, the success of Green Revolution in India has often being attributed to assured irrigation from groundwater. Yet, 50 years down the line, in many parts of India, groundwater is in a precarious condition, with over 1/3rd of the blocks in India having extracted more groundwater than is naturally recharged.

Therefore, the moot question now is, can groundwater continue to play the role it used to in ensuring food security and in providing climate resilience? The answer is at best mixed and will depend on the strategies we adopt now.

But groundwater is over-extracted in large parts of India

In large parts of India, especially in the semi-arid zones, like in the north, west and the south, agriculture has been completely reliant on groundwater. A combination of perverse energy (including free and unmetered agricultural electricity connections) and food policies, meant that farmers extracted groundwater way above its natural recharge potential (which is limited due to low rainfall anyway) in order to produce water intensive food crops like rice and wheat, which in turn feeds into India’s massive food procurement system, thereby keeping food prices relatively low.

Long term over-extraction of groundwater has compromised its climate resilience properties – and farmers with access to groundwater are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to risks of rainfall variability. Rainfall variability is also likely to further reduce groundwater recharge, making the situation even more precarious for farmers in these parts of India.

“Long term over-extraction of groundwater has compromised its climate resilience properties”…

…demand management is needed to reduce use

Here, policies need to focus on reducing groundwater use through demand management and such demand management can be nudged through a combination of incentives and regulations in water, energy and food sectors. For instance, incentivising low water intensive crops such as millets through providing attractive procurement prices can help combat both groundwater over-extraction and India’s malnutrition problem, while metering electricity and providing fixed amount of electricity subsidy to farmers through direct benefit transfer can help in better electricity accounting by utilities, and more efficient use of groundwater by farmers.

Plentiful groundwater in Eastern India, however, can unleash a new Green Revolution

Eastern India, however, presents a contrasting picture. Here higher rainfall and therefore higher recharge, coupled with naturally rich alluvial aquifers, and lack of electrification meant that while groundwater supplies are plentiful, very little of it has been actually extracted. Farmers here, like elsewhere in India, do rely on groundwater, but due to high costs of diesel, they are more likely to use irrigation sparingly with negative impacts on crop yields.

Groundwater here can continue to play an important role in improving crop productivity and incomes for the farmers and at the same time, provide much needed climate resilience.

Opportunity in Eastern India to grow grains but sans  negative impacts seen in other parts

Intensive groundwater extraction in Eastern India facilitated by electrification and proactive food procurement policies can indeed unleash a new round of Green Revolution in eastern India, sans some of the negative impacts seen elsewhere in India. For example, given farmers in eastern India already pay a high per unit cost for extracting groundwater using diesel pumps, it will be possible to charge a metered tariff for agricultural consumers right from the beginning – something that is no longer politically feasible in the states which have been providing free electricity to farmers for decades.

Similarly, given the nature of the alluvial aquifers, high rainfall and semi-humid conditions, it is way more unlikely that aquifers would be over-extracted like they were in semi-arid parts of the country. Indeed, by encouraging groundwater use, Eastern India can produce much of India’s food grains and reduce dependence on states like Punjab and Haryana which have been growing rice by over-extracting groundwater.

West Bengal has already embarked on a path to encourage groundwater use & provide better incentives to farmers

Here, policies that encourage groundwater use, along with those which provide better incentives and prices to the farmers are needed. Some states like West Bengal have already embarked on such a path, by metering all its agricultural consumers and charging a non-subsidised tariff, while at the same time, improving volume of food grain that is being procured. Bihar is also planning to electrify groundwater wells and tube wells, and can emulate the example of West Bengal, instead of providing free or highly subsidised electricity to farmers.

Solar powered irrigation pumps needed to minimise carbon emissions

While electrification of agricultural wells and tube wells can help improve agricultural outcomes in eastern India, we need to remember that much of India’s electricity is generated from thermal sources and as such are a source of carbon emissions. While, India does have ambitious plans for renewable energy transition, while it is underway, there is a lot of sense in leapfrogging by converting diesel pumps to solar powered irrigation pumps.

Wherever grid is available, these pumps can also be connected to the grid and farmers can sell back their excess power back to the grid, like they have been in a few successful pilots in Gujarat conducted by International Water Management Institute. Reducing emissions from agriculture needs to be high on the agenda and solar pumps helps by reducing both carbon emissions and emission of black carbon and other short-lived climate pollutants – pollutants that are highly injurious to health.

“Whether or not, India’s agriculture will become climate resilient will depend a lot on the way we manage our groundwater resources now”

Finally, we need to remember that impacts of climate change will be felt more strongly by the poor, marginalised and women farmers. Policies that proactively work in their favour are also climate resilient policies. Whether or not, India’s agriculture will become climate resilient will depend a lot on the way we manage our groundwater resources now. Time for action is now.

Further Reading

  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
  • Hot, Thirsty, Sweaty & Wet: HK’s Future Down The Drain? – China Water Risk’s Woody Chan & Debra Tan look beyond current tensions and see very real threats to Hong Kong’s future from climate change. Get ready for a hot, thirsty, sweaty & wet future
  • 3 Takeaways From CEWP’s 2019 Groundwater Policy Dialogue – With China and Europe joining forces to tackle groundwater over-exploitation, China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu was on hand to bring us the latest policy and tech ideas from the Jinan forum
  • Going Dutch! Smart Drinking Water Networks – Gondwana, an optimisation tool equipped with evolutionary algorithms, adds a nervous system to make drinking water networks ‘smart’. See how from Ina Vertommen, Dr Karen van Laarhoven, Dr Mirjam Blokker & Dr Peter van Thienen from KWR
  • Environmental Watering In The Murray-Darling Basin – Megan McLeod from the Alliance for Water Stewardship explores how the Renmark Irrigation Trust benefits the Murray-Darling Basin by providing environmental watering, enhancing biodiversity and promoting tourism
  • India’s Water Policies: Just Feel Good Documents? – Chetan Pandit, former #2 of India’s Central Water Commission, joins Professor Asit Biswas from the National University of Singapore in a “no holds barred” review on what’s gone wrong with India’s water
  • India’s Thermal Power Plants Threatened By Water Shortages – Water shortages are negatively impacting India’s ability to produce power. World Resources Institute’s Tianyi Luo updates us on water stress exposure, risks & opportunities for India’s power sector
  • Time To Get Radical – Alarm bells are ringing for climate change but we are still wedded to the ‘norm’ and on track to miss even the 2°C target. With time running out and serious implications for Asia’s water resources, China Water Risk’s Debra Tan calls for more flashes of brilliance
  • Groundwater Shortage Calls For Urgent Action – China’s groundwater is over-extracted and this needs immediate tackling. Prof Asit K Biswas & Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy explore solutions, from desalination to sponge cities
  • Organic Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change – Organic agriculture is so much more than no pesticides as CEO of Go Organics, Spencer Leung, shows with lower GHG emissions, reduce energy & mitigating climate risks to farmers
Dr Aditi Mukherji
Author: Dr Aditi Mukherji
Dr Aditi Mukherji currently leads the Water and Air Theme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. Prior to joining ICIMOD, she was a Senior Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Colombo, Sri Lanka and then in New Delhi, India. She has over 18 years of experience working on policies and institutions of water resources management with a special focus on water-energy-food nexus. Her areas of specialization are groundwater governance, energy-irrigation nexus and community management of water resources. She has worked in South Asia, Nile basin and in Central Asia and is currently working in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. Aditi is a human geographer by training and has a PhD from Cambridge University, United Kingdom where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She has an M.Phil in Planning and Development from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay and Masters and Bachelor’s degree in Geography from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and Presidency College, Calcutta respectively.
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