Energy Irrigation Nexus

Energy-irrigation nexus focuses on a class of issues that are unique to the South Asian region as well as the North China Plain. Many countries - the USA, Iran, Mexico - make intensive use of groundwater in their agriculture sectors. However, in these countries, groundwater irrigation affects a small proportion of their people; energy use by agriculture is a small proportion of their total energy use and the cost of energy use in farming is a small proportion of the total value added in farming.

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal (but not Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives) are the biggest groundwater users in the world. Between them, they pump around 210 km3 of groundwater every year (Fig. 11.1). In doing so, they use approximately 21-23 million pump sets, of which about 13-14 million

160 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0

Fig. 11.1. Groundwater use in selected countries in the 1980s. (From Llamas et al., 1992, p. 4.)

are electric and around 8-9 million are powered by diesel engines (NSSO, 1999). If we assume that an average electric tube well (with pumping efficiency of say 25%) lifts water to an average head of 30 m, the total electricity equivalent of energy used in these countries for lifting 210 km3 of groundwater is around 69.6 billion kilowatt-hour per year.1 At an alternative cost of Rs 2.5 ($0.05)/kWh, supplying this energy costs the region's energy industry Rs 174 ($3.78) billion2; the market value of the irrigation produced is around Rs 450-55 03 ($9.8-12) billion and its contribution to agricultural output is Rs 1350-1650 ($29.3-35.9) billion.4 In these emerging low-income economies, pump irrigation is a serious business with economy-wide impacts, positive and negative.

Unlike in other groundwater-using countries, the pump irrigation economy in South Asia also affects vast numbers of low-income households and large proportions of people. This growth in groundwater irrigation in the region is relatively recent (Fig. 11.2). In India, gravity systems dominated irrigated agriculture until the 1970s; but by the early 1990s, groundwater irrigation had far surpassed surface irrigation in terms of area served as well as proportion of agricultural output supported (Debroy and Shah, 2003; Shah et al., 2003). According to Government of India estimates, 60% of India's irrigated lands are served by groundwater wells (GOI Ministry of Water Resources, 1999); however, independent surveys suggest the proportion may be more like 75% (Shah et al., 2004a; NSS 54th round).


Fig. 11.2. India, irrigated area by source. (From GOI Ministry of Water Resources, 1999.)


Fig. 11.2. India, irrigated area by source. (From GOI Ministry of Water Resources, 1999.)

In 1999/2000, India's 81 million landowning families (http://labourbureau. had more than 20 million tube wells and pump sets among them; on average, roughly every fourth landowning household has a pump set and a well; and a large proportion of non-owners depend on pump set owners for supplying pump irrigation to them through local, fragmented groundwater markets (Shah, 1993). According to a World Bank estimate, groundwater irrigation contributes around 10% of India's gross domestic product (GDP) (World Bank and Government of India, 1998), but this is made possible because groundwater irrigation uses up around 15-20% of total electricity used in the country.

Large number of small pumpers is a peculiarly South Asian aspect. In countries like the USA, Mexico and Iran, which have large groundwater irrigation economies, tube wells are fewer and larger, typically irrigating 10-500 times larger areas compared to groundwater users in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In Mexico's Guanajuato province, the heartland of its intensive groundwater-irrigated agriculture, a typical tube well is run by a 100-150 hp pump and operates for more than 4000 h/year (Scott et al., 2002). In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, the modal pump size is 6.5 hp and average operation is around 400-500 h/year (Shah, 1993). In Iran, only 365,000 tube wells are pumped to produce 45 km3 of groundwater (Hekmat, 2002); India uses 60 times more wells compared to Iran to extract three times more groundwater.

From the viewpoint of managing groundwater as well as of transaction costs of energy supply to irrigation, these differences prove crucial. In Iran, when groundwater overdraft in the hinterland threatened water supply to cities in the plains, the Ministry of Power (which also manages water resources)

was able to enforce a complete ban (provided under its Water Law) on new groundwater structures coming up in two-fifths of its plains (Hekmat, 2002). In Mexico, the Commission National de Aqua (CNA) has struggled to establish and enforce a system of water rights in the form of concessions and initiate a programme to create groundwater user organizations to promote sustainable resource management; however, while this has helped register most of its 90,000 tube well owners, Mexico is finding it impossible to limit pumping to quotas assigned to them (Scott et a/., 2002). Among the many factors that help Mexico make such direct management work, a very important one is that groundwater administrations in these countries have to deal with a relatively small number of fairly large irrigators.

A related aspect is the relation between groundwater irrigation, food security and livelihood. In countries with shrinking agriculture, the proportion of people dependent on groundwater-irrigated agriculture tends to be small (last column in Table 11.1). This, for example, is the case in the USA, Mexico and Iran. One would have normally thought that in such situations, it would be easier for governments to adopt a tough position with irrigators, especially if serious environmental anomalies were involved. However, we find that this is not so; Mexico has been unable to remove substantial energy subsidies to agriculture or rein in groundwater depletion (Scott et a/., 2002); and the USA has found it possible to only restrict the rate of, but not quite stop, the mining of the great Ogallala aquifer. Even after imposing a ban, Iran is still struggling to eliminate its annual groundwater overdraft of 5 km3 (Hekmat, 2002). In South Asia, the dependence on groundwater is far greater, and not for wealth creation as much as to support the livelihood of millions of rural poor households. In India, for instance, pump irrigation has emerged as the backbone of its agriculture and accounts for 70-80% of the value of irrigated farm output; rapid groundwater development is at the heart of the agrarian dynamism found in some areas in eastern India that remained stagnant for a long time (Sharma and Mehta, 2002). The greatest social value of groundwater irrigation is that it has helped make famines a matter of history: during 1963-1966, a small deficit in

Table 11.1. Extent of dependence of population on groundwater and average size of WEMs in different countries. (From Hekmat, 2002, for Iran; Mukherji and Shah, 2002, for India; Scott et al., 2002, for Mexico; and Shah et al., 2003, for China and Pakistan.)


Number of

Extraction per





dependent on


use (km3)

structures (million)


groundwater (%)

Pakistan Punjab






























rainfall left reservoirs empty and sent food production plummeting by 19%, whereas in the 1987/1988 drought, when rainfall deficit was 19%, food production fell by only 2%, thanks to widespread groundwater irrigation (Sharma and Mehta, 2002).

It is often argued that with 60 million tonnes of food stocks, India can now take a tough stand on groundwater abuse. However, this view misses an important point; groundwater contribution to farm incomes and rural livelihood is far more crucial than its contribution to food security, especially outside canal commands.5 In South Asia, the proportion of total population that is directly or indirectly dependent on groundwater irrigation for farm-based livelihood is many times larger than in Iran and Mexico. Indeed, our surmise is that by the turn of the millennium, three-fourths of the rural population and more than half of the total populations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal depended for their livelihood directly or indirectly on groundwater irrigation. It is not surprising therefore that the energy-irrigation nexus has been at the centre of the vote-bank politics in the region.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment