Social regulation as a key to sustainable groundwater use

A well in Odoor farms, Mangalore
A well in Odoor farms, Mangalore

Sustainable management of groundwater continues to be ignored in India although its hydrogeological and socieconomic aspects continue to be studied extensively. Despite recognition of its importance at the policy level, no clear plan of action exists for groundwater management in India. 

Due to this, while surface water systems fall under the purview of public policy, groundwater systems are left to the purview of private individuals. In the absence of any control or regulation, groundwater has become one of most mismanaged resources in the country, and the absence of clearly defined property rights has led to a sharp increase in its use and over-exploitation.

Sustainable groundwater management (SGM) is critical for food security and poverty alleviation. Groundwater irrigation is twice as efficient as surface water irrigation in hydrological terms and also requires smaller investments and shorter implementation periods. Besides, it has a large number of inherent services including environmental services.

Experiences from 3 community-based water management projects in Andhra Pradesh

The paper titled 'Groundwater Governance: A Tale of Three Participatory Models in Andhra Pradesh, India published in the journal Water Alternatives, explores the possible options for community-based groundwater management in India, and presents the findings of a study that describes the experiences gained from implementation of 3 Community Based Groundwater Management (CBGM) projects in Andhra Pradesh.

The CBGM projects were based on 3 different models, and included:

  • The Andhra Pradesh Farmer-Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS), which have their origins in the APWELL Programme. This included alloting new dugwells to communities who lacked access to water, with clear instructions on sharing, groundwater monitoring, and water use efficiency measures while using water from the wells.
  • Social Regulations in Water Management (SRWM) by the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS) and its partner NGOs. This included no new borewell norms and improvement of efficiency with use of collective sprinkler irrigation sets.
  • Collectivisation of borewells under the Andhra Pradesh Drought Adaptation Initiatives (APDAI) programme being implemented by the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN) and its partner NGOs. This included the 'area approach' for groundwater management where the bore well owners pooled their individual borewells to provide supplemental critical irrigation to larger rain-fed areas for the survival of rain-fed crops. The rules included no borewells, right to irrigation for all land and supply of piped water for all.

All 3 initiatives had different origins and approaches to community-based groundwater management. One of the three villages worked on a knowledge-based approach while the other two on the social regulation approach.

Findings of the study

The study found that the knowledge-based approach clearly improved the awareness of well owners and helped in checking further expansion of groundwater development among them. However, it failed to check the growth of new borewells. The focus on demand management failed to encourage other conservation practices such as increased investments in recharge structures, or equity by sharing the water with un-irrigated farmers.

Social regulations were effective in terms of stopping new borewells as well as facilitating water-sharing by a large number of marginal and small households with well owners. This not only helped in increasing the cropped area, but also provided protective irrigation to a number of plots during critical periods, thus saving the crops. This also resulted in equity in the distribution of water, and overall welfare improvement.

The study thus concluded that the social regulation approach was observed to work better for sustainable groundwater management when compared to a knowledge-intensive approach, as the latter did not address equity issues.