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Groundwater: Towards an Aquifer Management Framework

This article outlines an "aquifer management" approach towards utilisation of groundwater resources, which are rapidly being depleted across the country. The question of groundwater governance in India is twofold. First, we need to substantially support and empower the community-based systems of decision-making. Second, the existing legal framework and groundwater management institutions have to be fundamentally re-engineered to play a role facilitating and enabling community action.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 7, 200913Groundwater: Towards an Aquifer Management FrameworkHimanshu Kulkarni, P S Vijay ShankarThis article outlines an “aquifer management” approach towards utilisation of groundwater resources, which are rapidly being depleted across the country. The question of groundwater governance in India is twofold. First, we need to substantially support and empower the community-based systems of decision-making. Second, the existing legal framework and groundwater management institutions have to be fundamentally re-engineered to play a role facilitating and enabling community action.The Report of the Expert Group on Groundwater Management and Ownership (Planning Commission 2007) – EG report, hereafter – has provoked a healthy debate in the EPW through T N Narasimhan’s critique (Narasimhan 2008) and the rejoinder by Tushaar Shah(a member of the expert group) (Shah 2008). The DebateIn this note, we take the current debate further and suggest a viable approach to sustainable and equitable management of groundwater in India. Groundwater over-exploitation has been recognised as a seri-ous problem in India since the late 1980s (Moench 1992; Dhawan 1990, 1995; and Macdonald et al 1995). The EG report states that the rate of extraction of ground-water far exceeds the rate of replenish-ment in many blocks, leading to a progres-sive lowering of the water table. The EG notes that in 2004, an alarming 28% of the blocks in the country were in the category of semi-critical, critical or over-exploited, compared to 7% in 1995.In six major states (Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu), the proportion of blocks in these categories was as high as 54%. By all indications, the situation could not have improved since then. These figures assume significance when we consider that ground-water accounts for 60% of the irrigated area in the country and is the criticalinput for livelihoods of millions of people. Indeed, nearly 85% of the additional irri-gated area since 1970 is accounted for by groundwater. Moreover, tube wells (num-bering around 8 million) have become the main mode of irrigation, covering nearly 37% of the irrigated area in the country. The depletion of groundwater is closely associated with worsening water quality, as indicated by the rising levels of fluoride, arsenic and iron. Given this context, the EG report does a commendable service of taking “groundwater” out of the black box of “water resources” and putting it in the forefront of the planning process. TheEG report also breaks new ground by refusing to get enticed by supply-side solutions to the looming groundwater crisis, such as enhanced artificial recharge.1 The EG report states that while recharge of groundwater is urgently required, “even if the entire potential of recharge is utilised, shortage will still persist, underscoring the need for limiting extraction” (Planning Commission 2007). As long as groundwater remains an open access resource, there is very little room for regulating its overuse. Hence, “cooperative management by users to facilitate groundwater use in an equit-able manner seems inescapable”. How-ever, the clarity with which the EG report presents the problem is not matched by the decisiveness of its recommendations on how to move forward. In his critique of the EG report, T N Nara-simhan says that the equitable management of groundwater must be “based on the best available, evolving scientific knowledge” (Narasimhan 2008: 25). There can be no argument about this. We also agree with his emphasis on integrating groundwater management with watershed development, land use, ecosystem management and public health protection. Where he goes wrong is in suggesting that models based on other contexts, such as that of California, as solutions to India’s groundwater chal-lenge. In his response, Shah (2008) rightly emphasises the inappropriateness of suchmodels to the Indian context. His argument is that with a multiplicity of users (mostly small and marginal farmers desperately struggling for survival), each with established decentralised access to groundwater resources, the transaction costs of any legislative action are likely to be huge. Shah endorses theEG report’s approach of “indirect” management (as opposed to California’s “direct” approach), which tries “to manage groundwater demand by influencing the broader incentive structure and other exogenous determinants such as electricity supply and pricing regime” (Shah 2008: 117). We fully agree that groundwater manage-ment cannot be done by legislative action alone. A community-based system of management based on a cooperation of primaryusers is clearly the way forward. Himanshu Kulkarni ( is with the Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management, Pune. P S Vijay Shankar ( is with the Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Madhya Pradesh.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 7, 200915approach. While studying the basin as the technical unit, our attempt must be to try to overlap its boundaries with those of administrative units to whatever extent possible. In situations where many admin-istrative units are involved, systems of coordination across basins should be deve-loped. The key point is that while most discussions on sharing and equity in water resources are centred on management of surface water basins, no comparable effort seems to be going into thinking on ground-water in India. We need to correct this critical imbalance.4 A related difficulty is the paucity of data at the aquifer level to enable management. Available data is seldom organised at the required scale. A lot more micro-level work is required to generate information at an aquifer level. More importantly, we need to have manage-ment organisations with the required insti-tutional capacities to generate such data. Clearly, the primary task of the AM approach is to carefully define the aquifers in a region, including mapping out their boundaries. Mapping the aquifers is also needed to identify groundwater recharge and discharge zones and developing appro-priate strategies of intervention. While mapping aquifers, it may be useful to delineate different typologies of ground-water, based on variations in hydro-geological and socio-economic contexts. The variability in aquifers is particularly high in the crystalline and “hard rock” formations, which underlie about 60-70% of the geographical area of India (COMMAN 2005). Due to their inherently hetero-geneous character, hard rock aquifers are limited in their thickness and extent and consequently hold relatively limited groundwater storage. Moreover, the rock strata here often contain layers with widely varying physical properties. Overlapping of different strata with variable physical properties within a limited physical space renders the study of the occurrence and movement of groundwater highly com-plex. The management system needs to take these complexities into cognisance. A National Groundwater Management Programme It is a sobering thought that in as many as six states, the number of blocks in the semi-critical, critical or overexploited category has crossed the half-way mark (EG report: 7). It is clear that the groundwater resources in the country cannot be managed the way they have been in the last 30 years. The way forward is to initiate a national pro-gramme on groundwater management, based on anAM approach. Only such a nationwide programme could render the ideal of cooperative management men-tioned in the EG report workable. How can this be done? The key steps in implement-ing such a national programme: (1) Aquifer Mapping of the Entire Coun-try at an Appropriate Scale: Ideally, aquifermapping should take place at the scale of watersheds of the order of 1,000 to 2,000 hectares. These maps can be then aggregated at a more regional scale. The objective of such mapping is to develop understanding of groundwater at the right scale so that the local govern-ance mechanism can make informed choices about the resource use. Sufficient time must be allocated to build the neces-sary capacity in the local community of users in resource mapping. In other words, the exercise of resource mapping must empower the community to under-stand the resource and develop effective strategies of its protection. (2) Data Generation at the Right Scale: Once aquifers are mapped at the right scale, more information needs to be generated on their actual condition. Such data are gener-ated through study of water levels in obser-vation wells. The required density of wells would vary depending on the hydrogeo-logical setting. Our studies of hard rock aquifers on scales ranging from 200 hec-tares to 10,000 hectares indicate that on an average, the density of monitoring wells should be one well for every 25 hectares. This implies that steps should be taken to raise the density of observation wells to match the requirement. Some states in India have already undertaken hydrology projects and possess some framework for collection, retrieval and even sale of data. These systems could easily be modified to bring in data at the right scale. (3) Characterisation of Aquifers: After this, we need to characterise water con-tained in the aquifers in terms of its quantity, quality and inter-connections. This characterisation brings out the prob-lems-typology of a specific region with respect to groundwater. First, aquifer transmissivity and storativity tell us how long wells can sustain pumping and how these vary between seasons. Second, transmissivity is also an important factor in gauging the movement of pollutants through an aquifer. The chemical signa-ture of groundwater helps in developing a better characterisation of the pollution load in water accumulating and moving within the aquifer. Third, the relationship between aquifers, watersheds and river basins and the hydraulic connectivity between aquifers present within a water-shed and across watersheds need to be characterised. Such information is useful to understand the closure of basins, espe-cially in regions where base flows from groundwater contribute to stream flows. (4) Evolving Strategies and Protocols for Sustainable Management of Avail-able Groundwater: After we characterise the aquifer in this manner, an appropriate and strategic matrix of responses in response to the problems-typology in spe-cific hydrogeological settings is developed. This response is formulated as protocols of sustainable groundwater use, covering the range of supply-side (recharge- oriented) as well as demand-side solutions. These are not fixed solutions frozen at a point in time, but rather an evolving set of rules emerging from a continuous and active dialogue within the community of users. These rules are facilitated and supported by an enabling legal and insti-tutional framework. (5) Running Groundwater Management Pilots: Such management models incorpo-rating the principles of community man-agement need to be evaluated by piloting them under different conditions. A few dark and overexploited blocks facing acute groundwater crisis could be identified to run such pilots. A good deal of experience in groundwater management is already available through several scattered govern-ment and NGO-led interventions for increased recharge and demand regula-tion. Innovative approaches and best practices from such experiences should
COMMENTARYfebruary 7, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16MICROSOFT
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 7, 200917bedocumented along with that from the fresh pilots and again experimented over different typologies at a larger scale. (6) Development of an Appropriate Legal Framework: As summarised in the EG report, the existing legal framework for managing groundwater follows a com-mand and control approach. What is pro-posed in these legislations is a regulatory regime that includes everything from establishing authorities to issuing licences to imposing bans and penalties. However, in the Indian context, without a direct involvement of the millions of farmers and households, scattered over the entire land-scape of the country, no meaningful man-agement of groundwater could be visual-ised. Law has to be the facilitator and sup-porter of community action rather than a mere regulator. (7) Scaling up the Institutional Frame-work:The current nature of institutional framework governing groundwater resources is mainly a “state-based” one, which does little to integrate community efforts at managing groundwater re-sources. Some states have a separate agency handling groundwater-related issues, while most have the groundwater agencies nested inside other departments like water resources,PHED, etc. It would be premature to even suggest an institu-tional framework before outlining a pro-cess for management. Nevertheless, con-sidering the primary challenge of institu-tional restructuring for developing groundwater literacy at all levels, we pro-pose a skeletal framework as follows: t New institutions need to be visualised at the aquifer level and at the watershed level, with a clear “aquifer” focus. The membership of these institutions will be drawn from the user community, the panchayat raj institutions, civil society and district level representatives of state groundwater agency. These insti-tutions will manage aquifers and will function as registered bodies duly recognised by the block and district level administration. t Attheblock level, a facilitation centre will operate collecting and organising information generated by study of aqui-fers within the block. This centre will ensure that the plans for intervention at the aquifer level are coherent with the overall priorities in water resources within the block. It will also facilitate informa-tion flow between the aquifer level and the district and state levels. t At the district level, a District Ground-water Management Agency (DGMA) should be set up, which in itself will include an advisory panel of experts from academia and civil society. The DGMA will establish a monitoring network to generate aquifer-level information, run trainings, process data and disbursing expert advice on man-agement processes. TheDGMA will work in close coordination with other agencies engaged in water resource management like the District Watershed Management Agency (DWMA). Approval of the DGMA will be mandatory for all watershed plans presented to the DWMA. tAt the state level, the Groundwater Regulatory Authority (GWRA) will monitor all groundwater within the state. The authority will take necessary steps to ensure that exploitation of groundwater resources does not exceed the natural replenishment to the aquifers and advise the state government on remedial meas-ures whenever such mismatch occurs. The Central Groundwater Board (CGWB) will support the GWRA and play an advisory role in the governance structure. The CGWB will put in place its own monitoring processes, with the objective of generating and disseminating information in the public domain. This article in no way tries to prescribe a final solution to the groundwater problem in India. Rather, it attempts to outline the broad contours of a long-term manage-ment strategy. A lot more needs to be done to put this strategy in operation. The ques-tion of groundwater governance in India is twofold. First, we need to substantially support and empower the community-based systems of decision-making. Second, the existing legal framework and ground-water management institutions have to be fundamentally re-engineered to play a role facilitating and enabling community action. The attempt in this article is not as much to suggest a governance structure for groundwater management as to identify critical processes required for such a struc-ture to emerge. Notes1 For instance, the “Master Plan for Artificial Recharge of Groundwater in India” prepared by the Central Groundwater Board (, takes a strongly supply-side view, listing the 2,25,000 large structures and 3.7 million small structures for an artificial recharge of an estimated 36.5 billion cubic metres of groundwa-ter per annum, at an outlay of Rs25,000 crore. 2 A common pool resource shares with public goods the characteristic of difficulty of exclusion but is subtractable like a private good, i e, consumption by one person reduces the quantity available to others. 3 For instance, Maharashtra is divided into 1,500 odd watersheds spread over an area in excess of some 3,00,000 km2, implying that the average area of each watershed is 200 km2 (20,000 hec-tares). Such a unit, in case of hard rocks, would mean numerous aquifers.4 The complete absence of reference to ground-water in river-sharing agreements, such as that of Narmada, is striking (Ranade 2005). ReferencesCentral Groundwater Board (2002): “Master Plan for Artificial Recharge in India” inReport of the Expert Group on Groundwater Management and Ownership, Planning Commission, Government of India, p 61.COMMAN (2005): “Community Management ofGround-water Resources in Rural India”, R Calow and D Macdonald (ed.),Research Report: British Geological Survey Commissioned Report CR/05/36N.Dhawan, B D (1990): Studies in Minor Irrigation with Special Reference to Ground Water (New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers). – (1995): Groundwater Depletion, Land Degradation and Irrigated Agriculture in India (New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers).GoI (2006): “From Hariyali to Neeranchal – Report of the Technical Committee on Watershed Pro-grammes in India”, Department of Land Resources, MoRD, p 222.Groundwater Resource Estimation Committee (1997): “Groundwater Resource Estimation Methodology – 1997”, Report of the Groundwater Estimation Committee, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India.Kulkarni, H, P S Vijay Shankar, S B Deolankar and Mihir Shah (2004): “Groundwater Demand Management at Local Scale in Rural Areas of India: A Strategy to Ensure Water Well Sustain-ability Based On Aquifer Diffusivity and Community Participation”, Hydrogeology Journal (Springer), v 12(2), pp 184-96.Macdonald, D M J, H Kulkarni, A R Lawrence, S B Deolankar, J A Barker and A B Lalwani (1995): “Sustainable Groundwater Development of Hard-Rock Aquifers: The Possible Conflict between Irrigation and Drinking Water Supplies from the Deccan Basalts of India”,British Geological Survey NERC Technical Report WC/95/52, p 54.Moench, M (1992): “Drawing Down the Buffer”, Economic & Political Weekly, XXVII: A-7-A-14.Narasimhan, T N (2008): “Groundwater Management and Ownership”, Economic & Political Weekly, 43 (7), 22 February.Planning Commission, Government of India (2007): Groundwater Management and Ownership: Report of the Expert Group (New Delhi: Planning Commission).Ranade, Rahul (2005): “Out-of-Sight, Out-of-Mind: Absence of Groundwater in Water Allocation of Narmada Basin”, Economic & Political Weekly, VolXL, No 21.Shah, T (2008): “Groundwater Management and Ownership: A Rejoinder”,Economic & Political Weekly, 43 (17), 2 May.

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