Rain, rivers, coasts, and seas have shaped our societies from the earliest days. Tales from classical antiquity to the Abrahamic religions to ancient Mesopotamia speak of how water changed the course of history. In India, the “crucible of the monsoon,” the annual drama of the moisture-carrying winds that bring 80 percent of the country’s rainfall between June and September, has long shaped everything from childhood to culture to commerce. Some of the first written accounts of managing rainfall variability date back to Kautilya’s ancient treatise Arthashatra, written in the 4th century BCE, which discussed ways to predict and adapt to monsoon rains. While rainfall variability is not a new phenomenon, what is new is the intensity of change as a consequence of climate change.
It is often said that if climate change is the shark, water is its teeth. Climate change is felt most deeply through water, with higher temperatures leading to droughts, floods, and increasing rainfall variability. Every increase in the degree of global warming is likely to intensify water-related risks. As concerns about what a hotter climate will bring grow, this important issue of too much water and too little water continues to occupy center stage in policy discussions. And even as uncertainties about the future fate of the monsoons remain and science evolves with new generations of climate models, scientists agree that changes in monsoon variability are underway and will continue.
India is already witnessing a collision of long dry spells interspersed with short spells of rainy days, sometimes within a span of a month. In June of this year, while Assam was reeling from drought, it was stricken by intense rainfall that unleashed devastating floods within a week. With climate change, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the likelihood of such overlapping compounding risks will only become more frequent.
The increasing variability of water—too much or too little—can weigh heavily on communities and represents one of the most significant sources of risk facing Indian farms, firms, and families. Too much water in the form of deluges and rising waters are high-impact events that can destroy critical infrastructure, damage homes, and disrupt livelihoods for the millions of people living at water’s edge. New data suggests 390 million Indians, or about three out of every ten people, live in areas directly exposed to 1-in-100 year floods. These floods can produce at least half a foot of water—an extreme inundation capable of causing severe damage. But not everyone is affected equally. A staggering 65 million people living in extreme poverty (i.e., on less than $1.90 per day) with limited capacity to cope, recover, or move face high flood risk. The impact of floods on the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of the extremely poor is, therefore, the worst. While floods are catastrophic events, spatially diffused and slower-moving droughts are like misery in slow motion that can hamper firm and city productivity, accelerate the destruction of forests, and compromise people’s health and agricultural systems.
Adapting to such rainfall variability is often much more challenging than accommodating long-term trends because of the unpredictable duration and the uncertain magnitude. Not surprisingly, a majority of countries have listed water as the priority for adaptation in their climate change plans. The latest IPCC report also finds that the majority of these climate change adaptation strategies target the agriculture sector, which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of global water consumption. One of the most ubiquitous adaptation strategies is irrigation, the strategic storage and application of water on crops. These efforts can play a crucial buffer role in shielding crops from some of the hardships and uncertainties arising from the increased variability of rainfall and increased heat. The clearest example of this in India is groundwater irrigation, which has surpassed surface irrigation and grown by an explosive 500 percent over the past fifty years, making it one of the largest groundwater guzzlers in the world. The benefits to farms have been enormous. But to what extent and for how long?
Empirical and statistical analyses can shed light on the aggregate impacts. My co-authored research developed an econometric model of weather and irrigation effects to evaluate the impact of past irrigation trends on yields using forty years of data. We examined this for the case of water-intensive wheat, which is estimated to be the country’s single main driver of increased consumptive irrigation demand. Indian wheat contributes 13 percent of the global wheat supply and half of all domestic calories obtained from cereals. Results show that the rise in irrigation has been pivotal in wheat’s rise as a major crop in India. Irrigation has moderated drought impacts and alleviated yield sensitivity to heat such that in the absence of irrigation over the past four decades, national yields would have been 13 percent lower. However, it is questionable whether this benefit will continue in the future. In recent years, yield gains from irrigation expansion have slowed down while negative impacts of rising temperature and drought have continued to accrue, suggesting that strategies that have worked in the past may not work in the future. One of the reasons for this trend reversal is that the past’s benefits have come at the cost of increased pressure on groundwater sources. Increased use of groundwater irrigation has led to widespread over-extraction of groundwater and drops in groundwater levels. When groundwater levels become deeper, rising pumping costs and costly well deepening can make extraction prohibitive. As reliance on groundwater grows even as access to groundwater supplies dwindle, the impacts of drought and heat on water users in the future could be greater than today. Groundwater depletion may reduce cropping intensity by up to 20 percent across all of India, and by mid-century, when the impacts of climate change will be more pronounced, a loss in access to groundwater could reduce annual crop production by up to 28 percent and dry season crop production by up to 51 percent, compromising food security, farmer livelihoods, and welfare. Declining groundwater levels also means drying up of rivers in the dry season when water is most critically needed because the baseflows from aquifers feed perennial rivers. Paradoxically, the resource that has cushioned climatic variability in the past can also create the conditions that magnify and accentuate their adverse impacts in the future.
The reasons for this would have been familiar to Jean Baptiste Say, the nineteenth-century French economist who popularized the proposition that “supply creates its own demand.” In this case, it implies that water made available cheaply will be used freely. In some arid areas, the supply of free or underpriced irrigation water creates an illusion of abundance, which increases the cultivation of water-intensive crops—such as rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton—that are ultimately unsuited to these regions. As a result, crop productivity suffers disproportionately in times of increases in temperature and rainfall variability due to extraordinary water needs that cannot be met, upsetting an already tenuous resource balance. This, in turn, fuels vulnerability to drought and heat.
Water investments can also inadvertently exacerbate inequities. In Maharashtra, the scale and pace of plastic-lined farm pond development in drought-prone areas has increased rapidly since 2015. While the intent was to drought-proof smallholder agriculture by promoting rainwater harvesting, primary research shows that farmers were incentivized to extract groundwater and fill the ponds to support the intensification or expansion of higher-value, water-intensive crops. This, in turn, drove more groundwater extraction and increased competition amongst farmers. Moreover, many ponds lose water to evaporation due to high temperatures. About 81,247 cubic meters (about the volume of 32.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of water can evaporate in a single month, undermining other water needs for agriculture, drinking, and domestic uses. Since richer farmers own farm ponds, these unintended effects directly hit the poor and marginal farmers by undercutting their access to groundwater, exacerbating overall water scarcity.
These responses are often magnified by incentives created by a complex web of subsidies. Both input and output subsidies—guaranteed procurement at set prices that feeds the country’s Public Distribution System—influence cropping and investment decisions in agriculture. Subsidies for electricity—the key input used for groundwater extraction—amount to 85 percent of the average cost of supply and play a critical role in enabling groundwater extraction. Free or flatly tariffed electricity provision has led to an increase in the value of irrigation-intensive crops and, hence, the area on which these crops are grown. Output subsidies such as minimum support prices for rice and wheat can skew cropping decisions in favor of these crops, even in areas not conducive for their growth.
The prudent strategy is to encourage the production of crops more closely aligned with local agroecology rather than subsidizing crops that enhance vulnerability to climatic shocks. Moreover, investing in complementary solutions to buffer communities—for example, protecting watersheds and forests and using environmentally-sensitive land management practices—can increase water flows and produce greater benefits to crop productivity and incomes than investing in any single one of these solutions.
Change is often difficult, however. Over time, well-intentioned investments that provide short-term relief can generate costly lock-in effects, and path dependence can set in, which renders corrective actions more difficult and costly. Confronted with intensifying levels of variability, greater policy attention needs to be given to examining the effectiveness of remedies with a long-term view. So far, solutions have remained piecemeal, in part because conventional approaches pay insufficient attention to the water cycle and the multiple attributes of water at each stage in its cycle of use—from its source in the watersheds to its eventual users across farms, firms, cities, and households; and its re-entry back to the source.
Successfully managing water requires aligning policy and practice that recognizes water’s value throughout this entire chain of use while balancing three competing priorities: efficiency, equity, and sustainability. But as with any chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link. And herein lies the challenge that plagues current water management practices. Different sectors and users consider their narrow constituencies and neglect the effects on the whole system. The new National Water Policy drafted by a committee of independent experts set up by the Ministry of Jal Shakti recognizes these gaps and offers a paradigm shift for managing and governing water resources. It provides a roadmap for developing solutions to safeguard water resources sustainably and to use water wisely and equitably in a way that eschews a “command-and-control” approach to one that recognizes the immense diversity of India when planning for water.
This is all the more important with climate change, which brings even greater uncertainty about the future. Such circumstances put a high premium on adaptable and flexible solutions that respond to new information and changing circumstances. In doing so, it will be critical for local and national governments, civil society, and water users from all sectors and backgrounds to engage in a sustained dialogue to identify priorities for water allocation and the processes that will build a consensus. We need to redouble our efforts for a sustainable water future for India. Every single drop of effort matters.
Esha Zaveri is an Affiliate Scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University.
This article is the third in a series of guest-edited IiT short series. The articles in this series seek to understand India's economic future and its prospects for structural transformation. The first article takes stock of the health of India's sovereign debt and gives an overview of the consequences and possibilities in the immediate future. The next three articles focus on three major national endowments that have been neglected in the course of our development trajectory—the second article focuses on labor force participation of women, the third on water, and the fourth on land. The ability of the sovereign to spend on nation building, along with how we use our endowments, will be key in determining our future.
(Guest Editor: Shoumitro Chatterjee, Assistant Professor of International Economics, SAIS, JHU)
India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.
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