Sunday, May 17, 2009

Water: A Two-fold Crisis

On one hand, we are loosing our water reservoirs - groundwater, snow packs and glaciers, freshwater lakes - rapidly. Water tables are falling almost everywhere in India, due to "Green Revolution" methods that emphasized pumping groundwater:

To date, India’s 100 million farmers have drilled 21 million wells, investing some $12 billion in wells and pumps. In a survey of India’s water situation, Fred Pearce reported in the New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.”

In Tamil Nadu, a state with more than 62 million people in southern India, wells are going dry almost everywhere. According to Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, falling water tables have dried up 95 percent of the wells owned by small farmers, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the last decade. As a result, many farmers have returned to dryland farming. [ref]

On the other hand, impending climate fluctuations will disproportionately affect small farmers dependent on un-irrigated farmland:
Even a small increase in temperatures ... could push down crop yields in southern regions of the world... A greater frequency of droughts and floods, the agency added, could be particularly bad for agriculture.

"Rain-fed agriculture in marginal areas in semi-arid and subhumid regions is mostly at risk," Diouf said on a visit to the southern Indian city of Chennai. "India could lose 125 million tons of its rain-fed cereal production, equivalent to 18 percent of its total production."
- Warming threatens farms in India, UN official says. New York Times

The current approach to solving this problem is a combination
  • build ever larger dams and canal networks [ref],
  • exploit deep water aquifers,
  • build expensive water desalination plants [ref], and
  • commodify water [ref, ref]
Inevitably, these approaches will make water expensive for everyone and actively harm millions of small farmers that need water the most, while exacerbating the underlying resource problem.

A much better approach that solves the underlying problem, makes water truly more abundant, and actually benefits the people most at risk is to
  • promote universal small scale water harvesting, especially on drylands [see previous post] and
  • phase out annual crops that are completely dependent on rains in favor of perennials and tree crops that can withstand inconsistent and unpredictable weather patterns.



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