UF professor: Drought, free electricity ravaging India’s groundwater supply

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A professor with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences hopes to use his research on water conservation to help farmers in India.

In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 5,650 farmer suicides. The highest number of farmer suicides were recorded in 2004 when 18,241 farmers committed suicide. The agency blames low crop yields, crippling loans, droughts and a shrinking supply of groundwater for the rash of suicides.

Sanjay Shukla, a professor in the UF/IFAS agricultural and biological engineering department, has conducted two studies that show groundwater is disappearing where it is needed most: areas that get less rainfall in south India. Approximately 70 percent of the Indian population depends on agriculture as a source of income, Shukla said.

The first study, in collaboration with ICRISAT, a global CGIAR organization, began in 2010 and ran through 2016. While there was anecdotal evidence that farmers were suffering through a water shortage due to falling water levels, Shukla wanted to study if the levels are indeed falling and what was causing the shortage. According to Shukla, India uses more groundwater than any other country in the world.

“In the last 15 years, droughts have affected all of India, but especially in drier areas such as the Telangana state in south central India,” said Shukla, who works out of the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, Florida. “Wells were drying up, farmers couldn’t pay back loans and crops were lost. This affected millions of farmers and their families and many committed suicide.”

His study in Telangana confirmed that, indeed, the groundwater levels are falling and limiting groundwater supply due to low storage capacity of underground hard rocks. But he was astounded by his next discovery. The Indian government subsidizes electricity to farmers, giving them free access to the energy source in Telangana. Farmers, said Shukla, “started installing more wells powered by electric pumps. Others who really needed the wells, but couldn’t afford it, would buy water from other farmers.”

“Compounding the problem, is that most farmers in Telangana and India use flood irrigation which is inefficient and wastes water,” Shukla said. “We found the decline in groundwater coincided with the period of time when the government offered free electricity to help farmers. But in a way, it really worked against farmers, especially the small farmers who were supposed to be the main beneficiary. We saw a proliferation of wells and expansion of irrigated areas. The number of tube wells in the study watershed increased by two-fold, while it almost doubled in the state from 2004 to 2014.”

If the current rate of well drilling and withdrawal continues, the situation will worsen, said Rajendra Sishodia, a post-doctorate working with Shukla. “If another drought comes, that can mean the difference between having a crop or not. And if the flood irrigation continues, it will reduce the amount of flow in rivers by 13 to 26 percent,” he said.

Since hydroelectric dams are used to generate electricity, a lower river level means less electricity is produced, Sishodia said. “It’s a vicious cycle. Farmers will need more energy because the water level is lower, and they will need to burn more electricity to bring the same amount of water. It means more money will be spent on subsidies, which are causing too many wells to be dug, and too much water being used.”

The first study was published in the Journal of Hydrology: Regional studies. Next, Shukla and other researchers went back to India to study solutions to reverse the damage.

In the 2017 study, published in Advances in Water Resources, researchers predict the current management system will result in crop production losses in 60 to 90 percent of irrigated acreage during dry years. So, they offered several solutions:

  • Change from flood irrigation to a more efficient drip irrigation to save water.
  • Reduce hours of free electricity available by 50 percent.
  • Store excess runoff water to recharge groundwater for later use.

According to Shukla, the government would save $1 billion annually by cutting subsidies. Introducing and adopting drip irrigation techniques and water storage would cost $6 billion, which could be funded from subsidy savings, he said.

“If farmers did this, they could survive and thrive in drought years. Water savings would support expanding farmland to increase food production. And it would help families survive,” Shukla said. “As a next logical step, we are looking into long-term water availability with changed climate and water demand.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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