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Water Harvesting and Recharge: A Misinterpretation

The issue of upstreamdownstream water balance is an important one and there is a need to understand the feasibility of water harvesting and groundwater recharge in upstream areas. Kumar et al (EPW, 30 August 2008) highlight this issue, but they overemphasise the negative aspects.

DISCUSSIONnovember 29, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly110Water Harvesting and Recharge: A MisinterpretationPradeep Kumar MishraPradeep Kumar Mishra ( is a doctoral student at the Institute of Rural Management Anand.The issue of upstream-downstream water balance is an important one and there is a need to understand the feasibility of water harvesting and groundwater recharge in upstream areas. Kumar et al (EPW, 30 August 2008) highlight this issue, but they overemphasise the negative aspects. Kumar et al’s article “Chasing a Mirage: Water Harvesting and Artificial Recharge in Naturally Water-Scarce Regions” (EPW, 30 August 2008) has raised a pertinent question about the feasibility of water harvesting structures (WHS) and artificial recharge in the upper reaches of water-scarce regions and closed basins. In a closed basin, diver-sion of water from its current use is techni-cally not feasible. Given this argument, the authors’ questioning of the efforts at upstream water harvesting and water recharge is justified. However, in arguing their points, the authors have overplayed the negative aspects of the above measures. Further, the way they have interpreted their reviews, displays their inward-looking bias. InterpretationsThe paper is based primarily on insights from the observations made in the Saurashtra region; it is also limited to a small river basin having a catchment area of less than 6,000 ha. With selective additional information from existing literature, generalisations have been extended to other water-scarce regions/closed basins of India. The validity of such generalisation is questionable. Regarding the situation in north Gujarat, the authors have said that area has very high variation in rainfall, and hence, the system is not reliable (p 65). A rough esti-mation from the graph provided in Figure 3 of the paper indicates that there is a 75% probability that rainfall is above 500 mm, which is about the same as the average an-nual rainfall of the area. Extreme conditions do occur, but ordinar-ily plans for crops and water harvesting are not supposed to cater to the extreme situa-tions. According to the authors, to capture the highest amount of runoff, the cost of a structure would be many hundred times more than what is required to capture the lowest runoff. This looks like a theoretical question distantly placed from the actual practice. The cost of a small WHS mainly depends on things like the height of bund and width of surplus, which is determined on the basis of availability of pondage area and peak rate of runoff.1 Factors like rainfall intensity, duration of rainfall, topography of the area, soil texture, sunshine, vegetative cover, etc, rather than the amount of rain-fall, play a key role in design of such struc-tures. Hence, comparing the highest rainfall and runoff with the lowest is not relevant. Costs and BenefitsThe authors have raised a genuine ques-tion regarding the economic feasibility of water harvesting. The small WHS which provides supplementary irrigation may not be economical. It happens particularly in the Saurashtra region (and probably other arid areas) that the structures do not store or divert enough water that can bring addi-tional area under irrigation. My own obser-vation is that they help in recharging the tube-wells and wells which provide one or two rounds of irrigation. But then the authors have also mentioned that water harvesting has an environmental cost too. One of the important citations building the arguments in the paper is that that higher the degree of development, the so-cial and environmental cost of water har-vesting would be higher (Frederick 1993).2 While the case for social cost has been de-scribed (because of higher negative exter-nalities), it is not clear how “harvesting” water harms the environment: Frederick’s work (1993) cited by the authors mentions the environmental costs in a different con-text, where pollution and over-drawing of water create environmental externalities. He rather says that groundwater storage has an advantage over surface reservoirs because of low evaporation loss (ibid: p19), and advocates conservation of water when the demand grows faster than sup-ply (ibid: p 43). But in a water-scarce re-gion, how can water harvesting and groundwater recharge damage the envi-ronment? The authors should have speci-fied the nature and extent of the environ-mental damage.The paper refers to a study which finds that the gross return from various crops is
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 29, 2008111less than that of the cost of water harve-sting. The insights have come from Hoshangabad, Jabalpur, Narsingpur, Dhar and Raisen, which cannot be compared to the situation in an arid area like Saurashtra. Valuation of water must take into account its opportunity cost. Alagh et al (1995) had valued water at its cost of desalination. Such alternative valuation would be help-ful in understanding the real price of water in water-scarce regions.Even without considering the opportunity cost of water, so far there has been no strong evidence of upstream water harvesting sig-nificantly affecting downstream agriculture. From the reference provided by the authors, it seems that the only paper which has some relevant results is that of Ray and Bijarnia (2006). The result of that paper is only indi-cative. It cannot be considered definitive because the study recorded the yields of 2002-03, which was preceded by continuous drought years in the area.3 There is a possi-bility of bias of effect of drought. Equity and ManagementIn the Section 5 of the paper, the authors have made a strong criticism of the “social justice and equity argument” for decentral-ised WHS. I would limit this discussion to the equity aspects only, as the concept of so-cial justice is too loaded to be covered here. The authors clearly say that equity is not achievable through decentralised water harvesting. I think the authors are fasci-nated by the views of those whom they call as “proponents” of small WHS, and have not gone deep into the issue. Decentralised wa-ter harvesting is not about bringing equity in society. Rather equity is a requirement of water resource management. According to Frederick (1993), equity is a major criterion for measuring the performance of water-related institutions. The contentious part of the paper is the categorical statement that “demand for water should be the guiding principle for intraregional water allocation within the basin” (p 68). Unfortunately, the authors have posed this “principle” (which is no more than a criterion) to counter the “age-old argument” that people living in the upper catchment are excluded. Even if we take the demand-based criteria at its face value, the argument of the authors is nothing more than a narrow justification for market-based water management. The water market is a highly distorted one.4 In this context assessing a small WHS with a set of market-based criteria is not suitable, particularly in a distorted market. Even large dams in the lower reaches were not always based on sound economics. Other-wise, why are they not able to raise even the maintenance cost? I hope the authors will not pitch the “the-way-they-are-man-aged” argument here. The argument of the authors can be com-pared to a situation where there is a mono-poly of abig dam that claims to be Pareto efficient, and hence, there is a lobby for a barrier to entry for small players. The downstream has the irrigated area, and the upstream has the rainfed area. To say that the downstream has higher demand than the upstream is tautological. The issue is whether the distribution is proportional or not. The authors have concluded that the “optimum level of water harvesting” should be the key, thus swiftly overlooking the is-sue of “optimal proportion of distribution”. The paper contains a sweeping statement that “in no case in India farmers have (sic) invested on water harvesting from their own funds” (p 69), which needs to be looked into. According to Agarwal and Narain (1997) structures like tanks, private canals and wells (mostly funded through non-government sources) are major contributors to total irrigation in India. Of course, the number of check dams built through government funding has been tremendously high in the last two decades. But private initiatives are slow processes, and cannot be compared to large-scale government initiatives. Further, there are non-economic reasons (e g, drain-age lines are mostly government land) behind farmers not investing in water harvesting. But in India, there are examples of people contributing as much as Rs 10 million for the Chikkapadasalagi barrage (Anonymous 2008). I think the authors have not tried to understand the larger context and the ground reality. It is not so much that the small WHS brings in equity and sustain-ability, for which they are being promoted. Rather they are probably the best option. The need is to increase their efficiency, and as rightly pointed out by the authors to make them technically sound. There is no point disregarding them. The interesting thing is that the authors have exaggerated the virtues of medium and large irrigation systems forgetting the latter’s impact on ecology and relocation.This is not to negate some points Kumar et al have raised. The lack of managerial and technical skills among organisations involved in implementing such activities is one pertinent issue. But such key points have been mentioned only as passing remarks. The key issue raised bythe paper probably is the need for proper planning of water resource management in water-scarceregion, so that the storage capacity does not exceed the precipitation. Rather than limiting the arguments to this point, the authors have tried to touch all aspects of water harvesting and recharge from a narrow perspective. Notes1 The peak rate of runoff is considered for the ex-pected lifespan of the WHS (which is generally taken to be 10 years for a small WHS).2 This is to be noted that Frederick’s paper only touches on the relationship between basin devel-opment and cost. It is basically a paper on demand management. 3 The area Ray and Bijarnia (2006) have studied was under severe drought during 1999-2002. There is every possibility that the continuous drought changed the cropping pattern. Further, the paper only says that crop yield increased by 5%-16% in the upstream areas (incremental yield 0.30 quintal to 0.55 bigha, roughly one to two quintals per ha) over 14 years. In the downstream area the crop yield remained almost the same over the same time (ranging from 5% decrease to 2% increase, incremental change almost negligi-ble). The study has not mentioned the macro-level changes in the irrigated areas in the upstream and downstream of the basin, which would have given a better idea of the overall situation. 4 The work of Frederick (1993) which the authors have cited in their paper is full of evidence that even in a developed market economy a blind demand-driven withdrawal of water has brought negative externalities.ReferencesAnonymous (2008): “People’s Unique Irrigation Project: Chikkapadasalagi Barrage, URL”,, access: 9 September.Agarwal, Anil and Sunita Narain (1997):Dying Wis-dom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems (New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment).Alagh, Y K, R D Desai, G S Guha and S P Kashyap (1995): Economic Dimensions of Sardar Sarovar Project (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications).Frederick, K D (1993): “Balancing Water Demand with Supplies: The Role of Management in a World of Increasing Scarcity” in Kumar et al 2008.Kumar, M Dinesh, Ankit Patel, R Ravindranath and O P Singh (2008): “Chasing a Mirage: Water Harvesting and Artificial Recharge in Naturally Water-Scarce Regions”, Economic & Political Weekly, 44 (1), pp 61-71.Ray, Sunil and Mahesh Bijarnia (2006): “Upstream vs Downstream Groundwater Management and Rainwater Harvesting”, Economic & Political Weekly, 10 July.

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