Asia Teeters Toward Food Crisis from Lack of Water

In countries like India, overpumping of groundwater for agriculture is reaching crisis level.
Just before dusk on the central plain of India's northern Punjab state Naresh Kumar, 22, crouches under drill and sprinkles mustard oil, turmeric, raw sugar and confections inside a 10-inch circle traced in the rich soil. Hands clasped and head bowed, he offers a short prayer to a Sufi saint asking for a bountiful supply of groundwater. He then cranks up his coughing and wheezing diesel engine, lines up the tube well drill over the offerings and releases a lever that brings an iron cylinder crashing into the earth, turning a parcel of India's fertile breadbasket into Swiss cheese.

"Business is growing by the year," says Kumar. "But we've placed about as many tube wells as we can in this area." As the water table in Punjab drops dangerously low farmers across the state are investing heavily -- and often going into debt -- to bore deeper wells and install more powerful pumps. On either side of Kumar's drill the calm beauty of emerald rice patties belies a quiet catastrophe brewing hundreds of feet beneath the surface. A prayer might be this region's best chance for survival.

India's groundwater woes are, in places, at crisis levels. But the problem is not confined to a few corners of the subcontinent; groundwater depletion is a major threat to food security and economic stability in China, the US, Mexico, Spain and parts of North Africa -- just to name a few. All of these regions are grappling with the problems inherent in extracting groundwater from deep below the earth's surface.

But the problem is most acute in India for two reasons: the country has long prided itself on being self-sufficient (not importing food) and because in this messy democracy free electricity is provided to farmers to win votes. Punjab, a wealthy state favored by the central government in New Delhi is just 1.5 percent of India's total landmass, but its annual output of rice and wheat contribute 50 percent of the grain the government purchases for its food distribution programs that feed over 400 million poor Indians. Experts are now saying that the 375-foot deep tube well and 7.5 horsepower pump Naresh Kumar's installs for a local sharecropper is at the eye of a storm that threatens India's food security, environmental health, and economic progress.

"We have depleted the ground water to such an extent that it is devastating the country," says Dr. Gurdev Hira, an expert on soil and water quality at the Punjab Agriculture University. Dr. Hira estimates that the energy used in subsidizing rice production alone costs the state of Punjab US $381 million a year.

Dr. Hira and other experts warn that if left unchecked this system will bleed state budgets, parch aquifers and run small farmers out of business. Though the pace of growth in its cities has put India in the limelight, over 60 percent of the economy is directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture with more than two out of three Indians living in the rural areas.

In China, the agricultural use of groundwater has skyrocketed, and the fall in water tables has created a potential environmental catastrophe. "The breadbasket of China -- north of the Yellow River -- have millions of people dependent on groundwater," says David Molden, Deputy Director General at the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. With the water table dropping in many places across China at a rate approaching or exceeding 1.5 meters a year, "It's sitting there like a time bomb," says Molden.

Aside from India and China, the two other regions where groundwater depletion is at its worst is perhaps North Africa and the Middle East, where groundwater extraction depletes aquifers that are not annually recharged. In India the problem is exacerbated by the fact that farmers in three states -- Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh -- pay nothing for electricity -- throughout India farmers' electricity is either heavily subsidized or completely free. So farmers run their pump sets with abandon, which further depletes the water table. Any farmer with the cash or collateral invests in larger, heavy-duty, power-hungry pumps capable of withstanding the grid's voltage fluctuations and frequent brown-outs.

"All these issues are interconnected: water, electricity and agriculture," says Saurabh Kumar, who heads up the government's Bureau of Energy Efficiency in New Delhi. "But agreeing on a simple thing is asking for the moon." That is exactly what he hopes to do: get politicians, farmers and bureaucrats all to sign onto a set of reforms that will save billions of dollars for the farmers, state and central government, and reduce the amount of water pumped (some say unnecessarily) out of the ground.

A pilot program for Kumar's nation-wide scheme is set to launch in the next three months. Farmers will receive new, efficient ground water pump sets, with meters, for which the farmers would receive pre-paid electricity credits allowing them to draw roughly the same amount of water they use now, allowing them to either pocket the savings if they pump less or pay to pump more. The utilities will upgrade their transmission and distribution lines to cut losses and improve service.

The program comes at considerable cost (US $7.5 billion altogether), even greater savings (US $2.2 billion per year) and includes a considerable amount of private investment. Kumar is realistic about the challenges ahead. Unlike many academics and policy wonks who simply say the answer to India's ground water and energy woes is to charge farmers the real cost of electricity, he realizes that, "for political reasons for the next 50 years you cannot charge for energy in the agriculture sector. There would be riots."

Farmers say they would be happy to pay for electricity if it were constant, consistent and didn't burn out their pumps. Except for receiving free power four years ago Darshan Singh, 55, has seen little change in government policies or investment in the last fifteen years. "Water. Managing water is the biggest problem we have," he seethes through gritty yellow teeth ground down to the size of small kernels. "This problem doesn't just have to do with farmers -- it effects everyone. If we don't have water it's the general population that will suffer."

Singh has nine-and-a-half fingers on his thick hands, a stocky frame and a salt-and-pepper beard. He manages twenty-five acres of wheat and rice, the main crop rotation of Punjab, on land that has been in his family for generations. Like farmers across Punjab and the rest of India, Singh disparages the subsidies he ostensibly benefits from and says that he is happy to pay for electricity, as long as "it's the correct voltage and there are no fluctuations."

The profusion of pump sets and tube wells for extracting ground water is also a result of the lack of infrastructure investment in rural areas by the central government. "No new irrigation potential has been created for about 20 years now. The state prefers to dole out subsidies rather than make capital investments," says Mohan Guruswamy, who heads the Centre for Policy Alternative, a New Delhi think tank. Furthermore, Guruswamy also points out, unlike under the British, farmers' produce in India is not taxed "so the rationale for [government] investing has gone."

The government's introduction of hybrid seeds, agrochemicals, tractors and irrigation in the 1950s and 60s, during India's "green revolution" meant for the first time farmers were feeding the rest of the country, not just themselves and their families. As India's rice yields went up the country stopped importing grain (self-sufficiency being a core point of Gandhi political philosophy) the country never again faced the prospect of a devastating famine, as it did in the mid-1940s, claiming 4 million lives.

But as the cost of electricity went up in the 1970s, 80s and 90s the state utilities simply ate the costs. Theft from the cheap, inefficient, long-distance and low-voltage power lines as well as corruption in the electricity boards led to a quickly antiquated, dilapidated network, especially in eastern India, which is abundant in groundwater. Back then India had only 200,000 electric pumps; today it has 12 million, and an additional 8 million diesel pumps.

Like so much else in the country, the government is trying to catch up with the pace of growth and investment in the private sector without making hard choices (like charging farmers according to the amount of power they use) and disenfranchising voters accustomed to government support. China has 4.5 million pumps and the United States 200,000. But India's pumps are less than half as efficient China's and only 1.8 percent as efficient as those in the United States, according to Tushaar Shah, a chief scientist with the International Water Management Institute in Gujarat.

India's power sector looses US $8-9 billion annually subsidizing farmers' use of electric pump sets. That's half of what the country spends on health and twice what it spends on education. In a country with child malnutrition rates worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa, experts are starting to question the wisdom of the system.

"These subsidies hit very hard at health, education and other government programs, and they are being taken by a few select farmers," says Bharat Sharma, with the International Water Management Institute in New Delhi. The power utility covers the cost of electricity through cross-subsidies from industry, by dipping into the state coffers and by getting bailed out by the central government in New Delhi. Power sales to agriculture are one-third the total electricity consumption in the top agricultural-producing states, but it's less than a tenth of the cost recovered. "It's one classic example of bad economic policies having very serious environmental consequences." Says Shreekant Gupta, a professor of economics at Delhi University.

But other options are available, ranging from different discharge systems such as drip tubes, sprinklers and more efficient pumps to different models of convening stakeholders. Spain is currently experimenting with a communal model of groundwater management in which groups of individuals have to collectively decide how to utilize a court-ordered quota of water.

And in India Dr Rajendra Singh, known as the Rain Man of Rajasthan, has already shown 1,058 villages how to collect and harvest rainwater so that parched areas can blossom. By building earthen structures at low cost where the aquifer reaches the surface villagers have been able to collect rainwater and once again make an arid climate hospitable. Says David Molden, with the Institute for Water Resource Management "you've got to get the communities involved, groups of people talking to each other recognizing they've got a problem and regulating the groundwater use."

Daniel Pepper is a writer and photojournalist whose work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Fortune, the New York Times Magazine and others.
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