And the 2014 UN ‘Water for Life’ award goes to …

Project leader Tushaar Shah with the award
Project leader Tushaar Shah with the award

IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program (ITP), a project that focusses on policy research in the co-management of energy & groundwater, has been awarded the 2014 UN ‘Water for life’ award!

Mr. Jarraud, chair of UN-WATER said, “The UN-WATER 'Water for Life' Best Practices Award is an important prize as it recognizes sustainable practices of water resources. Our future is highly dependent on our ability to manage our resources and at the same time educate and raise awareness around them. The winners this year are excellent examples of two organizations that tackle future challenges in a sustainable way". 

Let's take a look at the evolution of this program on water and energy and its achievements over the years. 

The partnership

In 2001, IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program (ITP) was initiated as a co-equal partnership between the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Colombo, and Sir Ratan Tata Trust (SRTT), Mumbai.

The core idea behind ITP was that while there is a lot of potentially useful scientific research being conducted in India, it often does not reach policy makers. Thus, ITP tried to fill the gap between research and policy action – by simultaneously engaging with scientists and policy makers, by asking the right questions, and often by turning problems on their head to strive towards practical, actionable policy recommendations based on sound scientific principles.


ITP has influenced some major policy changes in India’s water management over the years:

    • In Gujarat, a recommendation to introduce “intelligent rationing” rather than abolishing or curtailing power subsidies by metering tube-wells is credited with boosting both crop yields and improving the reliability of electrical power.
    • In West Bengal, where groundwater is abundant, ITP insights helped the state government improve access to small pumps for poor farmers, a move which will hopefully sustainably boost food production.
    • ITP has highlighted major energy and carbon implications of groundwater recharge. The bulk of India’s energy use in groundwater irrigation is explained by high pumping head. Decentralized groundwater recharge can reduce energy use in irrigation.
    • It has highlighted that in India, micro irrigation does more to save energy than water and that electricity companies should actively support groundwater recharge as well as micro-irrigation.
    • It has initiated research on the recent trend of state governments aggressively promoting solar irrigation pumps through very high capital subsidies. Solar irrigation promises to change the landscape of energy-irrigation nexus in India. An aggressive promotion in groundwater abundant eastern India has the potential to catalyze an ever-green revolution there. The same strategy in western and southern India, however, can increase the stress on depleted groundwater resources because solar pump owners face near-zero marginal cost of groundwater.

The energy irrigation nexus

Early work: In its early years, ITP focused on drawing the attention of policy makers to the significance of groundwater. It argued that while almost all public investments in irrigation were being committed towards maintaining and enhancing gravity flow irrigation, the majority of India’s irrigated areas are dependent on groundwater. This led to the creation of a huge informal economy with no links to public systems except through electricity supply used for groundwater extraction. In one of its earliest works on energy-irrigation nexus, ITP argued that the fortunes of groundwater and energy economies are intertwined. Policies in the energy sector greatly influence India’s large farming community – which holds enormous political clout – and often frustrates energy sector reforms.

Recommendations of ITP: To get the farmers’ (and therefore, the political leaders’) acceptance in the short run. Instead, a three-pronged practical approach to co-managing the two sectors was recommended

    • Flat tariff on farm power use should be raised gradually to approach the average cost of power consumed by a tubewell
    • Low-cost off-peak night power should be judiciously used to keep the average cost of farm power supply low
    • Intelligent scheduling and management of rationed power supply to the farm sector should be the central element of the strategy of effective co-management of groundwater and electricity use in agriculture.

It was further suggested that any farmer reluctance or resistance could be overcome by improving the quality of power supplied to farmers, enhancing its predictability and reliability and intelligent rationing to match the peaks and troughs of irrigation requirements as opposed to a uniform quota of daily hours of power supply.

Gujarat scenario: During 2003-06, the Government of Gujarat launched the Jyotirgram Yojana (JGY) and spent Rs. 11.7 billion (US$ 250 million) to completely re-wire the state by separating agricultural feeders from domestic and industrial ones. This was done in conjunction with broader structural and organizational reforms in the Gujarat Electricity Board. The agricultural feeders were now offered 8-hours of uninterrupted, high quality power supply as per a pre-announced bi-weekly roaster while the domestic and industrial feeders were offered 24*7 power supply at commercial and near-commercial tariffs.

Several studies on the impact of JGY, including the ones carried out by ITP, found substantial benefits of JGY in terms of improvements in quality of rural life as well as impact on farm economy. The Government of India has now accepted Gujarat’s Jyotigram initiative as a flagship scheme for its 12th five-year plan for the power sector.

The other states: The challenges of energy-irrigation nexus continue to be important in the Indian context with different regions and states facing different challenges and trying out different solutions. While states like Gujarat and Punjab opted for feeder separation to improve rural power quality, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh have resorted to giving temporary power connections to farmers during peak irrigation period and trying to create an alternative regime of metered farm power supply.

Power supply & depleting groundwater: In eastern and tribal central India, where groundwater is relatively abundant but villages often lack electricity supply, farmers are forced to depend on diesel to run their irrigation pumps. This creates a paradoxical situation where in regions with rapidly depleting groundwater, farmers get free or highly subsidized power supply (therefore they face no economic scarcity) while in regions with abundant groundwater resources, farmers tend to economize on irrigation due to expensive diesel. As a result of this and other food policies, water scarce India ends up exporting ‘virtual water’ (embedded in agricultural commodities) to water abundant India.

ITP researchers have argued that before India spends US$ 120 billion to physically transport water to water scarce regions, India’s food policies must sync with water (and land) endowments to correct the perverse direction of virtual water trade.

Solar water pumps & groundwater: Falling cost of photo voltaic (PV) cells is making solar irrigation pumps a reality in India. It is only a matter of time before governments begin aggressive promotion of solar irrigation pumps, evident by recent studies in Rajasthan and Bihar. An aggressive promotion of solar pumps in groundwater abundant eastern India has the potential to catalyze an ever-green revolution there.

The same strategy in western and southern India, however, can increase the stress on depleted groundwater resources because solar pump owners face near-zero marginal cost of groundwater. In water-abundant Eastern India, subsidizing capital cost of solar pumps can be part of a sound promotional strategy. Elsewhere, it may be appropriate instead to connect farmers as micro-level Independent Power Producers (IPPs) to the grid and offer attractive price for buying surplus power from them.

In 2013, ITP initiated preliminary work on the technical, economic and institutional feasibility of farmers’ solar cooperatives to explore the possibilities.

The award

ITP won the prestigious UN-WATER award for “Best Practices in Water Management” for its ground-breaking work exploring energy use, food production and water availability in Indian agriculture. The jury chose ITP from among 34 nominations from 19 countries around the world for “directly tackling the socio-economic environmental challenges related to the improvement of the energy-irrigation nexus by engaging with various stakeholders and for its strong potential for replication”.

“We are greatly honoured by this prestigious award,” said project leader Tushaar Shah who accepted the prize on behalf of the research team in Tokyo. “Many, many partners and several hundred student interns have helped us along the way, but our focus has always been to support India’s smallholder farmers and preserve our precious natural resources”.

For more information on thIWMI-Tata Water Policy Program, visit their blog and facebook page.