South Asia has experienced a veritable boom in groundwater irrigation over the last 35 years. This boom is a manifestation of the struggle of the region's peasantry to survive in the midst of inexorable increase in population pressure on farmland. Because small pumps and boreholes have proved one of the most potent land-augmenting technologies, smallholders in India, Bangladesh, Nepal Terai and Pakistan have taken to bore well irrigation with great enthusiasm.
Our analysis suggests that this enthusiasm has proved to be well founded, and that farmland productivity through Green Revolution technology has experienced a quantum jump thanks to the spread of groundwater irrigation. Wells have also brought greater spatial, social and interpersonal equity in access to irrigation, especially when compared to large public canal irrigation systems that have created islands of agrarian prosperity. Indeed, it can be safely said that the groundwater boom has been amongst the best things that have happened for South Asia's rural poor in the past few decades, and the size and dispersion of the livelihood benefits of this boom can arguably outcompete some of the best-known poverty alleviation programmes in the region.
The key concern in South Asia is managing this boom for socio-economic as well as environmental sustainability. Evidence is mounting that this runaway economy is taking its toll on wetlands, lean-season river flows, groundwater levels as well as quality. Evidence is also mounting that, unless effectively regulated, further indiscriminate expansion of bore well irrigation - except in pockets like the eastern Gangetic basin - will undo all the good it is doing to South Asia's poor. The sense of urgency about building effective mechanisms for governing the groundwater economy is already being felt. The challenge for the region's decision makers is to evolve a strategy unique to its peculiarities rather than blindly adopting approaches tried in groundwater economies with a totally different architecture.
Even if South Asia experiments with direct regulation of groundwater abstraction - such as licensing of bore wells, withdrawal permits and water fees - it should not bank on these schemes. It should instead devise a tool kit of indirect instruments to regulate overall groundwater abstractions. This requires that water policymakers eschew hydrocentric vision and embrace a broader, strategic view of groundwater governance. It is also important to realize that for a long time to come, the most potent response to groundwater overdevelopment in South Asia would come from effective supply-side interventions. Therefore, South Asia should scale up its commitment of financial and scientific resources to groundwater recharge management to a level commensurate with the high and increasing dependence of the region on groundwater resource.
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