#WorldWaterDay 2014: The Water-Energy-Food Nexus in India

An international day to celebrate freshwater was recommended at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio, Brazil, and the UN General Assembly responded by designating March 22, 1993, as the first World Water Day. It has been held annually ever since, and each year, a specific aspect of this issue is highlighted.

World Water Day 2014, which falls this week, will address the nexus of water and energy, and aims to focus global attention on the importance of interlinkages between water and energy in the context of sustainable development.

Image: UN-Water World Water Day

What do these interlinkages signify for India, then? A lot; far too much, in fact. So let’s just jump right in.

India is the largest user of groundwater (GW) in the world, consuming more than a quarter of the global total. A 2010 World Bank study pointed out that GW supports about two-thirds of our irrigated agriculture, and five-sixths of the drinking water supplies.

Such dependence on non-surface water is rather surprising given that India’s average annual rainfall is extremely abundant by most international standards. But much of this rain falls in relatively brief spill-overs during the monsoon, and there is great disparity across regions. Even Sohra (Cherrapunji), one of the wettest places on earth (second only to neighbouring Mawsynram), faces drought conditions several months of the year.

Enter the linkages.

India uses approximately 230 km3 of GW every year, which is tapped via about 21-23 million pumps, of which 13-14 million are electric and around 8-9 million are powered by diesel engines (National Sample Survey estimate). Assuming nominal pumping efficiency (25%) and an average head of 30 m, almost 70-80 billion kWh equivalent of energy is consumed annually every year simply to pump GW up to the surface for consumption. Some estimates have even pegged this number as high as 100 billion kWh/year for agriculture alone.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that due to the unreliable supply of electricity and unchecked access to water, it is a common scenario in farms to keep tubewells constantly on the ‘on’ position so as to start pumping as and when grid power is available, thus leading to greater overconsumption of both electricity and water without improving agricultural output.

Most of this energy comes from subsidised electricity/diesel supplies, binding food, water and energy in a vile politicised nexus of mutual dependence. The Earth Institute at Columbia University estimates that in many regions, about 3 kWh of electricity is used to grow 1 kg of food crops, which means that the actual cost of the electricity alone is nearly equal to and possibly more than the price for food procurement.

Even the green revolution depended mostly on using GW. A single sector has thus drained the nation’s power as well as water supply in such an abhorrently unsustainable manner, that water tables have dropped several metres over the years, leading to even greater energy guzzling for the extra depths our pumps have to seek. And now, even growth in agriculture is threatened because of the exhaustion of this neglected resource. I do not condone hyperbole, but we have on our hands a food security, energy security, and water security crises packaged into one catastrophic juggernaut.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It would be wrong to pin down agriculture as the sole culprit. This dependence on groundwater wouldn’t have emerged in the first place if over 70% of our surface water had not been polluted by industrial and human waste. Would Delhi households need borewells if 40% of the water supply wasn’t lost to leakages? And that’s just by the Delhi government’s own estimate.

These problems are only going to get more serious as our growing population eats through our limited energy and water resources. As GW supplies dip, they also see greater heavy metal contamination, which has a poisonous effect. And all this while climate change is already looking in our direction and kicking up the dust with its nostrils flared up.

It is nearly impossible to come up with effective overarching solutions for this crisis. While no worthwhile efforts have been made for GW replenishing or reservoir infrastructure repair anyway, a single authority can’t even fathom the task of managing the nearly 25 million of groundwater extraction structures in the country. And that too in the face of the most extreme political and policy challenges. Since agriculture, water, and power, all three happen to be state subjects; a more likely outcome is a race among neighbours to see who can empty the community chest faster. States fighting it out over water is a phenomenon as old as our sovereignty.

Image: UN-Water World Water Day

Instead, bottom-up approaches that involve the local community to manage water resources are the need of the hour. For example, an organisation called Naireeta Services, founded by Ashoka fellow Biplab Paul, has perfected a unique participatory irrigation system based on rainwater harvesting in rural Gujarat, one of the worst affected states in terms of water scarcity. They empower rural women and farmers to collectively own, operate and manage a low-cost groundwater recharge system, called a “bhungroo.” It is these local owners and caretakers who decide (upfront) on how the irrigation water will be used, and the crops that shall be grown. The intervention has enabled farmers to grow two crops in a year, improved soil fertility, and multiplied incomes, freeing them from dependence on groundwater markets. The system has seen wide adoption and has received support and recognition from the state government as well as development agencies worldwide.

My friend Tim Shah has pointed out a similar initiative in another state in India, the “Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project,” whose approach to demand-side management involves engaging farmers “in the field” to demystify the science of hydrological monitoring:

A huge success of APFAMGS has been the improvement of gender equity. By learning how to monitor local groundwater levels and measure rates of rainfall and discharge, women have elevated their position in society tremendously…

This idea of cooperation, fostered through the vision of groundwater as “common pool resource” has improved crop diversity. This demand-side management approach has led not only to a reduction in groundwater pumping, but selecting crops more strategically based on water intensity – and has become a model of participatory groundwater management for the entire state. This is not a question of regulation of groundwater, this is more about how farmers can be empowered, and teach each other, to make critical behavioural changes in their everyday lives.

Even though our country, and the world at large, is facing energy and water challenges of biblical proportions, this may be a good time to stop shoving one-size-fits-all solutions through top-down mechanisms. We can now reconsider our approach to governance and promote greater local involvement in ownership and utilisation of what are essentially public goods. Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste.

A version of this article appeared on NewsYaps — Ground to a halt: The Water-Energy-Food Nexus in India