Sustainable groundwater development through solar irrigation in India

Both over and under development of groundwater is limiting the adaptive capacity of Indian agriculture to climate change. Solar irrigation, expanding across India, may provide an opportunity to manage groundwater in both over and underexploited areas.

Alok SikkaAlok Sikka   14 Feb 2023 11:03 AM GMT

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Sustainable groundwater development through solar irrigation in India

Mohammad Faiz Alam and Alok Sikka

Groundwater is central to India's water and food security. Almost 50 per cent of urban and 85 per cent of rural India depend on groundwater to fulfil its domestic water needs. In agriculture, 64 per cent of irrigated area uses groundwater, abstracted by more than 20 million wells.

However, this was not always the case. At the time of Independence, the contribution of groundwater to irrigation was less than 30 per cent. But then starting 1960s, the groundwater irrigation boomed with the advent of modern drilling and pumping technologies and enabling policies like subsidised electricity. This was instrumental in the success of the green revolution.

However, this unfettered access to groundwater had negative consequences too. Latest assessment by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) shows that almost a quarter of assessed units have unsustainable groundwater development.

These are predominantly located in the Northwest and Southern Peninsular regions where the boom in groundwater irrigation was concentrated. In some of the districts located in this region, such as Patiala in Punjab and Kollar in Karnataka, groundwater abstraction is almost twice the annual recharge.

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On the contrary, groundwater development in eastern and central India remained limited, constrained by unsuitable terrain and limited electricity network for agriculture. Latter made groundwater irrigation dependent on expensive diesel.

On an average in North-eastern and eastern states groundwater development has only been 25 per cent. Thus, with limited irrigation in the region, agriculture is still dependent on vagaries of monsoon resulting in low cropping intensity and productivity.

Both over and under development of groundwater is limiting the adaptive capacity of Indian agriculture to climate change. Indian agriculture, almost 50 per cent of which is still rainfed, relies heavily on the short monsoon season thus making it highly vulnerable to climate change. According to the Indian economic survey 2017-18, farmers' income may decrease by 15-25 per cent due to climate change impacts, much more in areas with no irrigation.

Similarly, recent research shows that without any measures to limit unsustainable development, cropping intensity may reduce by 68 per cent in groundwater-depleted regions.

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Groundwater being more resilient to dry spells, more reliable and easily accessible to farmers is central to the irrigation expansion and building agricultural resilience. Thus, a sustainable groundwater development pathway is critical.

Recently, several programmes by the government focusing on managing groundwater show that groundwater is getting the key attention it requires.

Punjab and Haryana, the two most overexploited groundwater states, have offered incentives to farmers to shift away from water intensive paddy crops. Haryana's “Mera Paani Meri Viraasat” scheme, operational in groundwater overexploited blocks, provides an incentive of Rs 7,000 per acre to farmers to grow less water consuming crops such as maize and pulses.

Both states have also announced cash incentives (Rs 1,500 to Rs 4,000 per acre) for direct seeding of rice (DSR) which can save 15-20 per cent of irrigation water. Punjab is also piloting “Paani Bachao, Paise Kamao” or Direct Benefit Transfer in Electricity (DBTE) scheme that provides a monetary incentive to farmers to cut down on electricity consumption to incentivise groundwater use.

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Solar irrigation, expanding across India, may provide an opportunity to manage groundwater in both over and underexploited areas. In overexploited areas, grid connected solar irrigation models where farmers can sell the generated and unused power back to the grid could pave a path for incentivizing the use of groundwater.

This could also be an opportunity to disentangle the perverse water-energy nexus under which billions are spent on energy subsidy for irrigation. Gujarat piloted this under the Suryashakti Kisan Yojana (SKY) scheme, and PM - KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) scheme at national scale aims to upscale the same with the target of 10 lakh grid connected pumps.

The schemes are influenced by the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Program where the world's first Solar Pump Irrigators’ Cooperative Enterprise was set up in a small village of Dhundi in Gujarat and signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with the local power distribution committee.

On the other hand, the standalone solar pumps and solar irrigation service models present a way to develop underexploited groundwater resources in groundwater rich eastern India where development is still constrained by lack of electricity or expensive diesel. Business models such as solar irrigation service provider entrepreneurs, piloted by IWMI in Bihar, can create an equitable irrigation service market reducing reliance on expensive diesel pumps.

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Multiple states have been focusing on augmenting groundwater through artificial groundwater recharge. Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan have all initiated schemes focused on managed aquifer recharge, a range of methods to enhance recharge by harvesting rainfall.

India’s ambitious recharge plan suggests envisaging a potential of > 150 billion cubic metres of water. Underground Transfer of Floods for Irrigation (UTFI) to recharge surplus wet season flows is one innovative approach to co-manage floods and groundwater depletion at the river basin scale.

Another recently launched flagship scheme — Atal Bhujal Yojana — which is operational in select water stressed areas in identified states (Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) is rightly focusing on participatory groundwater development.

These initiatives present a welcoming step towards managing groundwater and making invisible groundwater visible, which was also the theme of this year's World Water Day. However, many challenges and issues remain regarding the implementation of these programmes.

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For example, the uptake of crop diversification schemes under lack of market linkages remains limited. Similarly, direct benefit transfer for electricity and solar irrigation are constrained by operational issues and farmers remain unwilling to adopt DSR despite incentives. This results from a mix of farmers' scepticism, misconceptions and institutional challenges in implementation.

This reflects that there are no quick fixes. Decades old problems will require a holistic approach incorporating communication, outreach, and behaviour change with location technical solutions.

Additionally, we need scientifically robust and timely assessments to assess the effectiveness of these schemes. This will help policies and programmes incorporate learnings as we travel fast in the unprecedented era of climate change. Sustainable and resilient groundwater will be more important than ever for the food and water security of the nation.

Alok Sikka is Country Representative at International Water Management Institute – India; and Mohammad Faiz Alam is a Researcher - Water Resources- Agricultural Water Management at IWMI - India. Views are personal.

Agriculture Irrigation Climate Change India 

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