The Ganges Water Crisis

In April, to offset a prolonged drought in California, Governor Jerry Brown introduced water restrictions for the state’s 39 million residents. Now imagine a water crisis like this affecting some 200 million people in an area smaller than California. That’s the reality in Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state in the Ganges River basin.

I’ve spent the last 10 years in the Ganges, studying water conflict. If I wake early I can hear the purring of tube wells, the groundwater-extraction tool whose use underpins an increasingly privatized regional water economy. While these wells helped sustain India’s most populous state, inadequate regulation has contributed heavily to its current shortages. If the Ganges groundwater crisis is to be reversed, the tube-well economy must be reformed.

A tube well is a metal or plastic pipe that, when combined with a diesel- or electric-powered pump, enables groundwater extraction. From the 1930s, India promoted tube-well use to increase irrigation in areas not served by canals. This helped make the Ganges an agricultural hub: Nearly 20 percent of India’s food grains now come from Uttar Pradesh.

But the technology that helped the basin thrive is bleeding it dry.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Uttar Pradesh worked with donors like the World Bank to improve electricity access and implemented a vast public tube-well program. But frequent outages meant that public wells rarely ran at capacity and water delivery to poor or small-scale farmers was unreliable.

Eventually, farmers started sinking their own wells, spurred by the linkage of groundwater ownership to land rights and minimal government regulation. A flat electricity tariff for well owners in rural areas, introduced in 1975, was amply offset by the effectively unlimited water supply. Farmers adopted inefficient irrigation methods, like flooding, and pumped additional water to sell to poorer neighbors eager to bypass state fees and receive faster delivery. Defying predictions, competition kept costs low in these unregulated markets.

Private well use exploded in the 1980s, when Uttar Pradesh subsidized boring costs and banks provided loans to farmers to purchase pumps. By 2002 there were over two million private tube wells in Uttar Pradesh, according to some estimates.

Despite rising operation costs and tariffs, well owners still get a relatively good deal: They pay for equipment and energy, but not water extracted. Consequently, overuse is a massive problem. The World Bank in 2010 reported that extraction provides some 85 percent of India’s drinking water and over 60 percent of its irrigation water. In 2012, over-exploitation led Uttar Pradesh to suspend well-boring subsidies in designated areas in over one third of its districts.

In the Ganges basin, which sustains some 40 percent of India’s billion-plus population, sinking water tables have exacerbated disputes. Farmers are boring deeper wells, which not only costs more but risks drying out the public hand pumps used by poorer people. Water from deeper wells also contains greater levels of arsenic and fluoride.

India’s capital, New Delhi, just west of Uttar Pradesh, lies in the Ganges basin. In 2001, concerned by declining water tables, India’s Ground Water Authority banned the private extraction and sale of groundwater in designated neighborhoods. But black markets persisted, with residents continuing to sink wells and connect illegally to the electric grid. In 2012, scientists at India’s National Geophysical Research Institute said New Delhi’s groundwater could dry up in just a few years.

To reverse the crisis, tube-well use must be regulated to ensure proper remuneration and reduce excess extraction. But even as it bans tube-well subsidies in certain areas, Uttar Pradesh continues to underwrite the cost of boring in others. Meanwhile, politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorse initiatives like the National River Linking Project, which would redistribute water by joining 37 rivers in a vast canal network. With an estimated $168 billion price tag, the project would likely displace hundreds of thousands of Indians, limit water available to neighboring countries, and do significant ecological damage. While India rightly recognizes the need for water security, the only sustainable solution is to utilize the existing private infrastructure.

Urban well owners, whose electricity use is already supposed to be metered, must start paying for both water and electricity at market rates. Metering should replace flat electricity fees in rural areas, though farmers may continue to pay for electricity alone. To maximize revenue and minimize illegal grid connections, the state should reduce the number of electrical lines and increase distribution points along them. Private companies should be contracted to meter these points and work with village councils to collect fees from private well owners (who may continue to charge neighbors for well use). In rural areas, replacing pump subsidies and flat electricity tariffs with significant subsidies for drip irrigation would limit wasteful flood irrigation.

There is precedent for this public-private strategy. Gram Power, a Rajasthan start-up company, has since 2012 sold electricity in bulk to vendors who sell prepaid energy plans to locals. Metering is done directly at consumers’ homes or businesses. Results suggest this has increased energy access and reduced power loss and theft. This and similar plans must now be tested in agricultural areas.

There will be significant obstacles to expansion. No accurate record exists of the total number or location of India’s tube wells. Mapping them is an urgent priority, particularly in areas where rapid urbanization is anticipated. New tube wells must be registered, and urban developers and farmers must collaborate with planners to mediate between groundwater extraction and land use.

The Ganges water crisis is the product of decades of mismanagement, disorganization and corruption. Reversing it will require imagination and cooperation between private enterprise, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, architects and planners. But any strategy that does not look critically at private groundwater use is bound to fail.

Anthony Acciavatti is the author of Ganges Water Machine: Designing New India’s Ancient River.

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