Depleting Water Tables In India: Can We Stop It?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Explaining alternate wetting and drying to farmers. Credit: Katherine Alfredo

Explaining alternate wetting and drying to farmers. Credit: Katherine Alfredo

By Ishita Singh Kapur, C+S ’15

Water is one of the most precious resources we have, yet we all can remember a time when we left the faucet running (perhaps this morning even). In the developing world, increasing demands to develop, growing populations and the threat of climate change could make water less freely available.

The United Nations World Water Development Report warned that water scarcity may lead to major conflicts-political, financial, and social. In the past decade, people have been injured and killed in conflicts over water. And California’s record-breaking drought, a year without clean drinking water in Africa and depleting water tables in parts of India are all signs of the water crisis that we are facing.

This summer, I interned at the Earth Institute working on a study that aims to understand factors that could encourage farmers to conserve water. As part of the study, we visited the north Indian state of Haryana in May and interviewed 300 farmers across 30 villages to understand the relative effect of factors contributing to over usage of water in paddy cultivation.

The states of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are major paddy growing states in India, contributing more than one-third of the total rice production of the country. In many areas of northern India, groundwater is depleting at unsustainable rates, as high as a foot per year in some parts. Rice paddies are a major driver of groundwater depletion in the region. With highly subsidized costs of electricity and free water, farmers tend to run their pumps for as long as electricity is available. This enables flooding of fields beyond recommended heights.

Most farmers we spoke to believe that groundwater is depleting at a fast pace and approximately 50 percent of the farmers believe that in 20 years at most, they will have depleted their groundwater resources due to paddy cultivation.

Decreasing water tables comes with financial implications for the farmer as well, when he has to lower his pump or upgrade their horse power. Nearly 90 percent of the farmers have lowered their pumps by at least 10 feet in the past 10 years. Many believe that they will have to lower their pumps 10-40 feet further in the next five years.

Despite knowing the gravity of situation, farmers, government and extension agencies are doing very little to prevent the imminent consequences.

What measure might move the needle more is what this research aims to understand. We compare the effects of a introducing a less water intensive irrigation technique known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD) to individual farmers in addition to group incentivized messaging. AWD is a technique where farmers alternately wet and dry their paddy fields. They use specially designed pipes to ensure that their fields are flooded to 5 cm after which they allow it to dry to up to 15 cm below the ground depending on the soil. If only the 300 farmers of our study employ this technique, it could lead to potential savings of at least 15,552,000 cubic meters of water in 5 years. That is equivalent to 6,220 Olympic-sized pools.

All farmers are sent weekly text messages containing agronomic and water usage information. Half of those receiving AWD intervention and texts also receive additional priming around collective water use at village level. The purpose is to understand the degree to which individual incentives versus group behavior affect water use. A better understanding of this dynamic of group versus individual behavior is meant to help uncover potential incentives that can regulate groundwater management not just in Haryana, but also in many other water-intensive agriculture states.

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