Challenge of demandside management

The South Asian debate on creating effective groundwater management regimes has been swayed by the success stories of groundwater regulation in Australia and the USA where the number of users is small, and their average size very large (see Table 2.5); or from Europe, which has a large number of small users but where the state has capacity to deploy huge financial and technological resources to mend its natural resources problems. The South Asian situation is different; as a result, the debate continues but the policy alternatives commended come unstuck. Enacting and enforcing a groundwater law, establishing clear tradable property rights on water, pricing groundwater as an economic good, installing and enforcing a licensing and permit system have all been discussed adnauseum in South Asia as desirable policy interventions to regulate groundwater overdraft (see e.g. Arriens et al., 1996, pp. 176-178,

Table 2.5. Structure of national groundwater economies of selected countries.

Percent of population

Annual

No of agricultural

Extraction/

directly or indirectly

groundwater

groundwater

structure

dependent on

Country

use (km3)

structures (million)

(m3/year)

groundwater irrigation

India

150

19

7,900

55-60

Pakistan

45

0.5

90,000

60-65

Punjab

China

75

3.5

21,500

22-25

Iran

29

0.5

58,000

1 2-1 8

Mexico

29

0.07

414,285

5-6

USA

1 00

0.2

500,000

<1-2

239-245). Nobody seems to disagree with the need for these; yet, no Asian country has been able to deploy any of these interventions effectively even as the groundwater situation has been turning rapidly from bad to worse. The scale of the groundwater threat is long recognized; but viable strategies for dealing with it are not forthcoming; indeed, governments are still busy promoting more groundwater development, as if they were in stage 1. This is true for South Asia, but it is also true for North China.7

In principle, the groundwater threat can be met, provided national administrations can build a tight resource management regime well in time that focuses on both demand- and supply-side interventions. The catch is that nowhere in the world - barring in very rich countries - do we find such an ideal regime actually in operation. Worldwide, then, there is some action by way of a response to groundwater degradation, but it is too little, too late, too experimental, too curative, and too supply-side-oriented. There is precious little done to reduce demand for groundwater or on approaches to economizing on its use. The only examples we can find that combine demand- and supply-side interventions are in western USA, which has suffered amongst the most extensive groundwater depletion problems anywhere in the world, and before anyone else did.8 The examples of western USA provide important pointers to the rest of the world about where to direct ameliorative action (see Peck, Chapter 14, this volume). A major problem in transferring these lessons wholesale to the developing country context, however, is the numbers involved: in a typical groundwater district in the USA, the total number of farmers is probably less than 1000; in an area of comparable size, Asia would have over 100,000 farmers (see Table 2.5). The average stakes per farmer too would vary by a factor of a thousand or more. As a result, spontaneous collective action by groundwater users to protect and manage the resource is far less likely - and more difficult to sustain - in Asia. In the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, widely held as a model for integrated river basin management, obtaining a permit is mandatory for all groundwater users, but small users extracting water for domestic or livestock needs, or for irrigating small plots of 2 ha or less, are exempt (see Turral, Chapter 15, this volume). If this exemption were to be applied in South Asia or the North China Plain, more than 95% of groundwater irrigators would be exempted (Shah et a/., 2006).

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