The differing rules for obtaining a permit for groundwater irrigation is perhaps why Asian and other developing country governments tend to rely more heavily on enacting laws to regulate groundwater use and abuse. Although South Asia is yet to embark on this path, there is little evidence to suggest that water laws deliver the desired regulation, either in Asia or elsewhere in the developing world. China is way ahead of South Asian countries in legislative and regulatory measures to rein in groundwater withdrawals. Its new water law requires that all the pumpers get a permit; but the law is yet to be enforced. Only in deep tube well areas of the North China Plain are tube well owners obliged to get individual permits; elsewhere, the village as a whole holds a permit to use groundwater, which has little operational meaning. China's water administration is able to extract close to an economic price from canal irrigators; but groundwater is still free (Shah et a/., 2004a). South Africa's new water law and water policy enshrine the principles of 'user pays; polluter pays'; they work well in the commercial farm economy dominated by large-scale white farms but would fail to impact areas of 'black irrigation' in the former homelands. India has been toying around with a draft model groundwater bill for more than 30 years; but is not able to make it into a law due to doubts about enforcing such a law on more than 19 million irrigation pumpers scattered across a vast countryside. The establishment of Aquifer Management Councils called COTAS (Consejos Técnicos de Aguas) in Mexico as part of its water reforms and under the new Mexican water law is a notable development of interest to South Asia's groundwater policymakers. However, IWMI researchers in Guanajuato, Mexico are skeptical and hopeful at the same time:
[S]everal factors bode ill for their (COTAS) future effectiveness in arresting groundwater depletion. Most importantly, their main role will be advisory in nature and they will not have the mandate to resolve conflicts between water users or restrict groundwater extractions. Moreover, there is an unclear division of tasks and responsibilities between COTAS, irrigation water users' associations, the federal and state water management agencies and the river basin council. On the other hand, the COTAS provide a vehicle for groundwater users to engage in self-governing, collective action and to find innovative solutions to the vexing problem of groundwater depletion. (Wester et a/., 1999)
A recent assessment of what COTAS have achieved is even gloomier. Mexican attempts to nationalize water, and create groundwater rights by issuing concessions to all users who are working in organized industry and with municipal users - sectors where these reforms are the least needed for effective regulation; however, in the farming sector, groundwater concessions have come unstuck. A major problem is the high transaction costs of enforcing the terms of the concession on 70,000 tube well owners and a similar number of farmers who impound rainwater in private bordos (ponds) in the highlands of Northern Mexico (Shah et a/., 2004b). South Asia is often advised to draw a leaf out of the book of Mexican water reform; but it is easy to imagine how difficult it would be to enforce such a regime on 19 million tube well owners when Mexico has been finding it difficult to enforce it on 70,000 groundwater irrigators.
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