August 30, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Fred Pearce, New Scientist,
08/28/04: The world is on the verge of a water
crisis as people fight over ever dwindling supplies,
experts told the Stockholm Water Symposium.
A generation ago, Indian farmers in the state of Gujarat
used bullocks to lift water from shallow wells in leather
buckets. Now they haul it from 300 metres below ground
using electric pumps. But that technological revolution
is about to have devastating consequences.
So much water is being drawn from underground reserves
that they, and the pumps they feed, are running dry,
turning fields that have been fecund for generations
The world's leading water scientists warned this week
that this little-heralded crisis is repeating itself
across Asia, and could cause widespread famines in the
decades to come.
Day and night
India is at the epicentre of the pump revolution. Using
technology adapted from the oil industry, smallholder
farmers have drilled 21 million tube wells into the
saturated strata beneath their fields.
Every year, farmers bring another million wells into
service, most of them outside the control of the state
irrigation authorities. The pumps, powered by heavily
subsidised electricity, work day and night to irrigate
fields of thirsty crops like rice, sugar cane and alfalfa.
But this massive, unregulated expansion of pumps and
wells is threatening to suck India dry. "Nobody
knows where the tube wells are or who owns them. There
is no way anyone can control what happens to them,"
says Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management
Institute's groundwater station, based in Gujarat. "When
the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of
rural India," he says.
Shah gave his apocalyptic warning at the annual Stockholm
Water Symposium in Sweden last week. His research suggests
that the pumps, which transformed Indian farming, bring
200 cubic kilometres of water to the surface each year.
But only a fraction of that is replaced by the monsoon
The same revolution is being replicated across Asia,
with millions of tube wells pumping up precious underground
water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan,
Vietnam, and in northern China.
In China's breadbasket, the north China plain, 30 cubic
kilometres more water is being pumped to the surface
each year by farmers than is replaced by the rain.
Groundwater is used to produce 40 percent of the country's
grain, and Chinese officials warned this week that water
shortages will soon make the country dependent on grain
Vietnam has quadrupled its number of tube wells in
the past decade to one million, and water tables are
plunging in the Pakistani state of Punjab, which produces
90 percent of the country's food. In India, more farmers
now provide their own water via wells and pumps than
rely on the government's irrigation system, which is
based on a network of canals. Corrupt management, low
investment and drying rivers have made the national
system increasingly decrepit, and it rarely delivers
water to farmers when they need it.
In contrast, the $600 pumps are bringing short-term
prosperity to much of the country, turning India from
a land of famine to a major rice exporter in less than
Indian farmers have invested some $12 billion in the
new pumps, but they constantly have to drill deeper
to keep pace with falling water tables. Meanwhile, half
of India's traditional hand-dug wells and millions of
shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing
a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity
blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states
where half of the electricity is used to pump water
from depths of up to a kilometer.
Plunging water table
At least a quarter of India's farms are irrigated from
over-exploited reserves of water that threaten to run
dry in the coming decades, says Shah. Hundreds of millions
of Indians may see their land turn to desert. "In
some areas accessible groundwater supplies could be
exhausted within the next five to 10 years."
It is already happening in the southern state of Tamil
Nadu, says Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural
University in Coimbatore. A plunging water table means
that only half as much land in the state can be irrigated
compared with a decade ago.
Large-scale farmers with powerful pumps and deep wells
still get good prices growing water-hungry crops like
sugar cane and bananas, but 95 percent of the wells
owned by small farmers have dried up, Palanisami says.
Some villages now stand empty.
Another crisis hotspot is northern Gujarat, where water
tables are dropping by 6 meters or more each year, according
to Rajiv Gupta, a state water official. Is there a way
out of the crisis? Some states are placing thousands
of small dams across river beds in a bid to replenish
groundwater by infiltration. And Hindu water priests
are organizing farmers to capture the monsoon rains
in ponds, in the hope that water will infiltrate and
recharge the aquifers.
The last Indian government proposed a massive $200
billion River Interlinking Project designed to redistribute
water around the country. But the new government elected
earlier this year has gone cool on the idea. In any
case, the water supplied would probably come too late.