From Resource Development to Management Mode

In the business-as-usual scenario, problems of groundwater overexploitation not just in South Asia but throughout the region will only become more acute, widespread, serious and visible. The front-line challenge is not just supply-side innovations but to put into operation a range of corrective mechanisms before the problem becomes either insolvable or not worth solving. This involves a transition from resource 'development' to resource 'management' mode (Moench, 1994, see also Moench, Chapter 9, this volume). Throughout Asia - where symptoms of overexploitation are all too clear - groundwater administration still operates in the 'development' mode, treating water availability as unlimited, and directing their energies on enhancing groundwater production. A major barrier that prevents transition from the groundwater development to management mode is lack of information. Many countries with severe groundwater depletion problems do not have any idea of how much groundwater occurs, and who withdraws how much groundwater and where. Indeed, even in European countries, where groundwater is important in all uses, there is no systematic monitoring of groundwater occurrence and draft (Hernandez-Mora et al., 1999). Moreover, compared to reservoirs and canal systems, the amount and quality of application of science and management to national groundwater sectors has been far less primarily because, unlike the former, groundwater is in the private, 'informal' sector, with public agencies playing only an indirect role.

Gearing up for resource management entails at least five important steps:

1. Recognizing that even as the bulk of the public policy and investments is directed at large government-managed irrigation programmes, in reality, South Asia's agriculture has increasingly come to depend upon small-holder irrigation based largely on groundwater; policy effort as well as resource investments need to adjust to this reality if these are to achieve integrated water and land resources management in the true sense.

2. Implementing information systems and resource planning by establishing appropriate systems for groundwater monitoring on a regular basis and undertaking systematic and scientific research on the occurrence, use and ways of augmenting and managing the resource.

3. Initiating some form of demand-side management by: (i) registering users through a permit or license system; (ii) creating appropriate laws and regulatory mechanisms; (iii) employing a system of pricing that aligns the incentives for groundwater use with the goal of sustainability; (iv) promoting conjunctive use of surface and groundwaters by reinventing main system management processes to fit a situation of intensive tube well irrigation in command areas; and (v) promoting 'precision' irrigation and water-saving crop production technologies and approaches.

4. Initiating supply-side management by: (i) promoting mass-based rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge programmes and activities; (ii) maximizing surface water use for recharge; and (iii) improving incentives for water conservation and artificial recharge.

5. Undertaking groundwater management in the river basin context. Groundwater interventions often tend to be too 'local' in their approach. Past and forthcoming work in IWMI and elsewhere suggests that like surface water, groundwater resources too need to be planned and managed for maximum basin level efficiency. A rare example where a systematic effort seems to have been made to understand the hydrology and economics of an entire aquifer are the mountain aquifers underlying the West Bank and Israel. The actual equity effects of shared management by Israelis and Palestinians here are open to controversy; however, this offers an early example of issues that crop up in managing trans-boundary aquifers (Feitelson and Haddad, 1998). Equally instructive for the developing world will be the impact of the entry of large corporate players in the business of using aquifers as interyear water storage systems for trading of water.

As groundwater becomes scarce and costlier to use in relative terms, many ideas - such as trans-basin movement or surface water systems exclusively for recharge - that in the yesteryears were discarded as unfeasible or unattractive, will now offer new promise, provided of course that Asia learns intelligently from these ideas and adapts them appropriately to its unique situation.

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