Irrigation has always been central to life and society in the plains of South Asia. According to Alfred Deakin, a three-time Australian prime minister and an irrigation enthusiast of early 20th century who toured India in 1890, the region had 12 million hectares (ha) of irrigated land compared with 3 million ha in the United States, 2 million ha in Egypt, 1.5 million ha in Italy and a few hundred thousand ha each in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), France, Spain, and Victoria (Australia) (The Age 1891). Although Egypt and Sri Lanka are better known as hydraulic civilizations, a century ago British India was the world’s irrigation champion.
During the past 40 years, however, much of what was British India has witnessed more development in irrigation than in the preceding two centuries. Available statistics—better today than a hundred years ago—suggest that in 2002, the world had some 300 million ha under irrigation, and of these, more than 90 million ha was in today’s India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—lands that were the bulk of British India before 1947.
This book is about the growing anarchy in South Asia’s irrigation economy. From antiquity until the 1960s, water mobilization and management for agriculture were predominantly the affair of village communities or the state. Today, however, the region’s agriculture has come to depend on explosive growth in irrigation from individually owned groundwater wells, and the current irrigation regime is wholly new. The resulting groundwater stress poses an environmental threat, but it also raises questions about the future of a vast agrarian system founded on a boom that seems destined to go bust.
Large swaths of western and southern South Asia are withdrawing much more water from underground aquifers than man and nature can put back into them, and society has yet to find a way of restoring the balance. The hard-rock aquifers in inland peninsular India offer so little scope for large-scale groundwater use that hydrogeologists would consider intensive irrigation with groundwater suicidal in these regions; nevertheless, smallholder agriculture in these parts has come to depend heavily on groundwater wells. Along the coasts, pumping groundwater on a large scale tips the precarious balance between coastal aquifers and the sea, threatening saltwater intrusion; nevertheless, many coastal areas are witnessing a runaway groundwater boom. In the Indus basin in the northwest, even though vast alluvial aquifers are recharged by the network of canals from the Indus Basin Irrigation System, farmers pumping groundwater bring up the salts accumulated thousands of years ago, when most of the region was under the sea, and deposit them on the fields, progressively reducing the productivity of soils. When fields are drained, these salts enter the river system and help make the Indus a salt-laden drain by the time it arrives in Sind. Only in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin on the eastern front—where the alluvium is 600 meters deep and the annual runoff exceeds 1,400 km3(Shiklomanov 1993, 16)—did there seem an opportunity for large-scale groundwater irrigation without major collateral damage. In recent years, however, arsenic has shown up in groundwater.
Drained wetlands and low-flowing rivers, falling water levels and rising pumping costs, deteriorating groundwater quality and new public health hazards—these are all consequences of South Asia’s anarchic groundwater development. Agricultural opportunism has been the driving force, and intelligent resource governance, a casualty.
There are fervent calls to end the anarchy, but this is more easily said than done. This book explores why. It describes how irrigation has enhanced the welfare of the region’s poor even as the groundwater boom threatens to create “illfare” on a comparable scale. It considers irrigation’s changing nature, drivers, and impacts on South Asia’s still predominantly agrarian society. Above all, it asks how South Asia will manage this irrigation anarchy.
The book begins by tracing the ascent of water-managed agriculture to situate irrigation today in its historical context. This prelude is essential for understanding the forces that drive South Asia’s irrigation economy, and for analyzing how public policies and institutions can bring order to this chaotic economy without undermining its stupendous benefits. When we compare the South Asian situation with the experience of other irrigating countries of the world, the historical background becomes critical to developing the central policy argument of the book: that to be effective, irrigation policies in South Asia must address the unique socioecological characteristics of the region and its people.
Here is a brief tour of the book. Chapter 1 traces the evolution of irrigation in South Asia, and elsewhere in the world, with emphasis on the progression of events during the 19th and 20th centuries. Chapter 2 analyzes the unique dynamic of South Asia’s groundwater boom and explains why it must be understood as a phenomenon in itself rather than as part of the global socioecology of groundwater irrigation. Chapter 3 analyzes how gravity-flow irrigation is shrinking in South Asia and why it will continue to do so, absent any change in policy. Chapter 4 recounts the welfare that groundwater irrigation has created for South Asia’s agrarian poor; Chapter 5 deals with the disaster it threatens to create unless the region implements an effective strategy for managing this runaway groundwater irrigation economy. Chapter 5 also analyzes how the groundwater irrigation boom is silently reconfiguring river basins, upsetting old calculations and challenging received wisdom on river basin management. It suggests that establishing effective river basin management in South Asia may depend on understanding how farming communities respond to groundwater development in different aquifer conditions. Chapter 6 proposes a set of hypotheses to facilitate such an understanding and adduces evidence in their support. Chapter 7 presents a comparative analysis of other countries’ experience in managing the demand for groundwater and describes how nascent efforts at demand management in South Asia are driven to chart their own distinctive course. Chapter 8 concludes the book by arguing for a practical, short- to medium-term groundwater governance strategy for South Asia that is society-centric rather than state-centric.
A note about geographical terms: Thus far I have used both “British India” and “South Asia” to refer to the vast landmass that is the stage of the drama described in this book. In reality, however, there is little groundwater irrigation in the middle Himalayas or in Bhutan and Burma (Myanmar), or in India’s northeastern states, except Assam. The “groundwater anarchy” is occurring in what were the princely state of Hyderabad, in a cluster of more than 200 small princely states of Kathiawar, in the Terai areas of Nepal, and in northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka—none of which were part of British India. Throughout this book, then, I use “South Asia” to describe what is happening in the plains of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, while taking an occasional look at the rapidly growing groundwater irrigation in northern Sri Lanka.
And finally, a note about the approach and methodology. The book takes a broad sweep to describe and analyze broad trends in South Asian irrigation that may overlook local details. It proposes several new hypotheses and introduces evidence in their support but does not necessarily offer rigorous tests for them. Its approach is intuitive more than formal, its aim being to design a frame that can center the current reality of South Asia’s irrigation economy. The Streeten-Kuhn maxim (Kuhn 1962) underlines the approach taken: a model (or framework) is never defeated by facts, however damaging, but only by another model.