Policy Feature

Taming the perverse water-energy balance

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.44 Published online 27 March 2014

Tushaar Shah with the UN 'Water for life' award, 2014.

© S.Priyadarshini

Tushaar Shah is a skeptical man — he doesn't yet know if his globally-acclaimed water management advocacy will impress the Indian government enough to think of national scale replication.

Shah received the United Nations 'Water for Life' award 2014 on behalf of The International Water Management Institute (IWMI)-Tata Water Policy Programme (ITP) at the World Water Day function in Tokyo last week. He says the recognition should enable him take the science-policy debate surrounding the water-energy nexus one step further.

Shah's pet peeve: the paradox that rules India's agricultural water management policy — on one hand, in regions with rapidly depleting groundwater, farmers get free or highly subsidised power supply. One the other hand, where groundwater is abundant, farmers tend to economise on irrigation due to expensive diesel needed to run the show. "This perverse water-energy balance is so absurd, it needs to stop immediately. And science provides us the strongest tool to influence policy," Shah says.

A policy expert on irrigation and groundwater management and a former director of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat, Shah says in the Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan states, there's a lot of scientific evidence to suggest massive levels of groundwater depletion. However, on the contrary, the state governments have only increased power subsidies encouraging farmers to dig deeper and deeper.

Shah cites the model in Gujarat, where he works. The state government's power subsidies are declining, groundwater balance is improving, and agricultural economy is getting a boost, he says.

Joining issues

Shah advocates something called 'conjunctive management' which essentially means joint management of rainwater, surface water, wastewater, and groundwater resources for optimal socio-economic and environmental outcomes at the level of aquifer and irrigation system or a river basin.

"In Gujarat, the government has constructed a 600 km long spreading canal to use surplus flood waters from Kadana and Sardar Sarovar reservoirs in the south to recharge parched aquifers of North Gujarat to counter groundwater depletion and reduce power subsidies to irrigation. This is a good example of conjunctive management of surface and groundwater," he said in an interview earlier.

The UN 'Water for Life' award recognised that while a lot of potentially useful scientific research is being conducted in India, it often does not reach the policy makers. The ITP "filled the gap between research and policy action by simultaneously engaging with scientists and policy makers. This practice for directly tackling the scocio-economic environmental challenges related to the improvement of the energy-irrigation nexus by engaging with various stakeholders and for its strong potential for replication."

Asked what plans he has to find means of replication, Shah smiles. "I can only hope the science behind this nexus is also recognised by people who make our policies."

Similar models need to be adopted by other energy sector, such as the solar energy sector, which is now big in India. Shah says the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission launched in 2010 with an ambitious target of deploying 20,000 Mega Watt of grid connected solar power by 2022, also gives subsidies to small farmers as well as huge power plants. "These subsidies have to be balanced out somewhere in order to make solar power sustainable and affordable."

Why the focus is on India

This year's UN 'Water for life' awards also made special mention of a ground water management project in Andhra Pradesh that involves farmers in water management. In another category, 'Pan in the Van', an awareness generation project providing opportunities to about 12,000 women and girls to participate in improving community sanitary status, was also recognised.

India has not looked into critical water availability during droughts

The spotlight on India in the water-energy nexus seemed obvious considering the fact that it is poised to become the most populous country in the world in coming decades. Engin Koncagul, UNESCO's programme officer for the World Water Assessment Programme says India is a case study on how critical government departments such as water and energy fail to share and collaborate at a policy level.

"Thermal power generation is quite important for India, which will become the most crowded country in a decade or two. But the government has not looked into critical water availability during droughts. This is going to hurt them in the long run."

Water and energy experts are coming together globally to stress that unless the two seemingly inter-dependent entities are consciously linked by national governments, it would be impossible to sustain either in the long run.

Linking water and energy is a profitable business case

At the World Water Day (March 21) celebrations experts called for creation of a 'business case' to bring the two life sources together, while effectively using science as the backbone for their advocacy. "Governments, including that of India, will have to realise the economic benefits of linking water and energy — for instance, in employment generation or as something that richly contributes to the GDP," Adeel Zafar, Director of United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health told Nature India.

Scientific estimates say that the inter-relationship between water and energy is most evident in the Asia-Pacific region, considering its huge population and size. The Word Water Development report 2014 released last week said 61% of the world's people were expected live in the region amounting to a population of five billion by 2050. This would put tremendous pressure on the region's resources.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that developing Asia has an average 6% annual GDP growth, and forecasts a massive rise in energy consumption in the Asia-Pacific region: from barely a third of global consumption to more than half by 2035.

According the the World Coal Association, China and India together extract more than half of the world's total output of coal. Both coal and biofuels require vast amounts of freshwater, and some areas within the region are already deemed water-scarce, according to the report.

The water-energy imbalance will also have significant fall outs on the climate change scenario. "I hope the figures in this report turn out to be incorrect because if they are true, we are not on the right track to limit global warming at 2°C by 2050," warned Michel Jarraud, chair of UN Water.