The Pathology of Decline of a Groundwater Socioecology

A few years ago, David Seckler, the then director general of IWMI, wrote alarmingly that a quarter of India's food harvest is at risk if she fails to manage her groundwater properly. Many people today think that Seckler might have well underestimated the situation, and that if India does not take charge of her groundwater, her agricultural economy may crash. Postel (1999) has suggested that approximately 10% of the world's food production depends on overdraft of groundwater to the extent of 200 km3; most likely, 100 km3 out of this occurs in western India. In the lower Indus basin in Pakistan and the Bhakra system in northern India, groundwater depletion is not a problem but soil and groundwater salinization is. IWMI's past research to understand the dynamics of groundwater socio-ecologies indicates some recurring patterns. In much of South Asia, for example, the rise and fall of local groundwater economies follow a four-stage progression outlined in Fig. 2.12. This highlights the typical progression of a socio-ecology from a stage in which unutilized groundwater resource potential becomes the instrument of unleashing an agrarian boom to one in which, unable to apply brakes in time, it goes overboard in exploiting its groundwater.

The four-stage framework outlined in Figure 2.12 shows the transition that South Asian policymakers and managers need to make from a resource

Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4


The rise of Green Revolution and tube well technologies

Groundwater-based agrarian boom

Early symptoms of groundwater overdraft and degradation

Decline of the groundwater socio-ecology with immiserizing impacts


North Bengal, North Bihar, Nepal Terai, Orissa

Eastern Uttar Pradesh, western Godavari, central and South Gujarat

Haryana, Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, central Tamilnadu

North Gujarat, coastal Tamilnadu, coastal Saurashtra, southern Rajasthan


Subsistence agriculture; protective irrigation traditional crops; concentrated rural poverty; traditional water-lifting devices using human and animal power

Skewed ownership of tube wells; access to pump irrigation prized; rise of primitive pump irrigation 'exchange' institutions; decline of traditional water-lifting technologies; rapid growth in agrarian income and employment

Crop diversification; permanent decline in water tables. The groundwater-based 'bubble economy' continues booming, but tensions between economy and ecology surface as pumping costs soar and water market become oppressive; private and social costs of groundwater use part ways

The 'bubble' bursts; agricultura growth declines; pauperization of the poor is accompanied by depopulation of entire clusters of villages; water quality problems assume serious proportions; the 'smart' begin moving out long before the crisis deepens; the poor get hit the hardest

Targeted subsidy on pump capital; public tube well programmes; electricity subsidies and flat tariff

Subsidies continue; institutional credit for wells and pumps; donors augment resources for pump capital; NGOs promote small farmer irrigation as a livelihood programme

Subsidies, credit, donor and NGO support continue apace; licensing, siting norms and zoning system are created but are weakly enforced; groundwater irrigations emerge as a huge, powerful vote bank that political leaders cannot ignore

Subsidies, credit and donor support reluctantly go; NGOs and donors assume conservationist posture; zoning restrictions begin to get enforced with frequent pre-election relaxations; water imports begin for domestic needs; variety of public- and NGO-sponsored ameliorative actions start nterventions

Fig. 2.12. Rise and fall of groundwater socio-ecologies in South Asia where economies follow a four-stage progression.

development mindset to a resource management mode. Forty years of Green Revolution and mechanized tube well technology have nudged many regions of South Asia into stages 2-4. However, even today, there are pockets that exhibit characteristics of stage 1, but the areas of South Asia that are at stage 1 or 2 are shrinking by the day. Many parts of western India were in this stage in the 1950s or earlier, but have advanced into stage 3 or 4. An oft-cited case is North Gujarat where groundwater depletion has set off a long-term decline in the booming agrarian economy; here, the well-off farmers who foresaw the impending doom forged a generational response and made a planned transition to a non-farm, urban livelihood. The resource-poor have been left behind to pick up the pieces of what was a booming economy barely a decade ago. This drama is being re-enacted in ecology after groundwater socio-ecology with frightful regularity (Shah, 1993; Moench, 1994; Barry and Issoufaly, 2002).

In stage 1 and early stage 2, the prime concern is to promote profitable use of a valuable, renewable resource for generating wealth and economic surplus; however, already by stage 2, the thinking needs to change towards careful management of the resource. Yet, the policy regime ideal for stages 1 and 2 has tended to become 'sticky' and to persist long after a region moves into stage 3 or even 4. IWMI's recent work in the North China Plain suggests that the story is much the same over there. The critical issue to address is: Does stage 4 always have to play out the way it has in the past? Or are there adaptive policy and management responses in stage 2 that can generate a steady-state equilibrium, which sustains the groundwater-induced agrarian boom without degrading the resource itself? In the remainder of this chapter, we review the prospects and opportunities for forging such steady-state equilibrium.

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