Upmanu Lall speaks of groundwater crisis for India

Upmanu Lall: Today, groundwater usage in India is the highest in the world. It’s about double the United States.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. Lall said that by 2025, many parts of India could run out of groundwater, and face a water crisis.

Upmanu Lall: What’s happening is that the rate of withdrawal of groundwater in prime agricultural areas exceeds the rate of recharge. So groundwater levels are dropping.

Dr. Lall explained that India has been using groundwater to support agriculture for its growing population. He added that pumping water from the wells requires the use of lots of fossil fuel whose carbon dioxide emissions contribute to climate change. So that’s another problem related to agriculture.

Upmanu Lall: This is a grand problem across energy, CO2 emissions, agricultural food security, and water, in a region which has 1.5 billion people today, and by 2050 is projected to hit greater than 2 billion people. That’s the scary part.

Lall said that the Indian government has what he believes to be an unsustainable policy of supplying subsidized energy for farmers to pump groundwater.

Upmanu Lall: We have to come up with economic ways of shifting what these people grow and charging them for the use of the water, so they end up with positive incomes and more responsible water use.

Lall said that India’s groundwater problem is rooted in the weather of the 1960’s.

Upmanu Lall: The story in the sixties was that there was a drought, there was extreme inability to provide food for the population, and there was an impetus to provide international aid. And the feeling in the West was there was no way this region could support itself in the long run. But if you look at the last 10 to 20 years, the region has been self-sufficient in food and actually is an exporter of grain. The question is, how does this come about?

He said the Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of seeds, and increased the use of fertilizers and irrigation.

Upmanu Lall: The Green Revolution kicked in, and that provided fertilizer which improved yield. But when you apply fertilizer, your water requirements also go up. Enter the ability to access to energy and pumps, and there’s been a dramatic explosion in the number of wells.

He said that the Indian government does not charge the farmers for the water extracted from the wells. The government has also imported and subsidized energy to the extent that, Lall said, “The value of that energy, in monetary terms, is greater than value of the agriculture being produced from it.”

Upmanu Lall: So if you stick to purely food security, that’s a policy decision that a government can make, but when it comes to food that is being exported, you are supporting a sector of the economy well beyond what the returns from that sector are. Since India imports most of their energy, you have a conundrum. You’re looking at climate variability, which is going to get worse due to climate change, hence more reliance on groundwater. And then you’re compounding that problem by importing fossil fuels to pump the water.

Dr. Lall is working to create economic solutions and incentives which encourage Indian farmers to conserve water, and farm in a more sustainable way.

September 7, 2009

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