Why drip irrigation will not solve Maharashtra’s water woes

Published on: 11/17/18
Written by: Harsh Dubey

(image source: https://govinfo.me/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Spray-Drip-Irrigation-Scheme-for-Tribal-Farmers-in-Maharashtra.jpg)

(image source: https://govinfo.me/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Spray-Drip-Irrigation-Scheme-for-Tribal-Farmers-in-Maharashtra.jpg)


In July 2017, Maharashtra’s state government announced that drip irrigation would be mandatory for all sugarcane farmers, in the hope that the measure would address the state’s worrying water scarcity. They followed this up with a promise to subsidize ninety percent of the capital costs associated with drip infrastructure as an incentive to already-cash-strapped farmers.

This decision was made for very understandable reasons. According to a recent report by the state’s Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA), forty seven percent of Maharashtra’s villages and districts will be water scarce in 2018-19. With droughts becoming increasingly common and groundwater tables decreasing by more than a meter in seventy one percent of the state, Maharashtra is going through a water crisis that is both urgent and severe.

On the surface, drip irrigation seems to be the perfect solution to these problems. Cheap, accessible, and effective, drip irrigation is nearly twice as water-efficient as conventional flood irrigation. It can increase crop yields by as much as fifty percent and incomes by a factor of two. Combined with solar power, drip irrigation could also play a crucial role in bringing down carbon emissions from the agricultural sector, and in fixing Maharashtra’s horribly-distorted agricultural energy market.

However, to assume that water savings on an individual level would amount to an overall reduction in water usage would be to miss the forest for the trees (or perhaps the farm for the sugarcane stalk). In this study, Trevor Birkenholtz shows why the incentives that individual farmers face prevent drip irrigation from reducing water use on a basin-wide level in Rajasthan.

Simply put, farmers who adopt drip irrigation are doing it for the increased productivity gains, and not necessarily with the goal of reducing water consumption. As a result, farmers who install new drip systems also switch to more water-intensive crops, and/or increase the area of their fields under irrigation. In this way, installing drip irrigation increases farmer incomes, yields, and water efficiency – without decreasing groundwater use.

In energy and conservation, there’s an established term for this: the “Rebound Effect.” It’s something we’ve seen before as well. Between 1970 and 2005, the average mileage of passenger cars in the United States nearly doubled – yet so did U.S. motor gasoline consumption. Increasing fuel efficiency made driving cheaper, and people took advantage of that by driving more rather than the same amount. We can think about drip irrigation and groundwater use in much the same way.

What is the Maharashtra government to do, then? Should it abandon drip irrigation and attempts to increase water efficiency? Not quite. The switch from flood irrigation to more water-efficient technologies is a step in the right direction – but only a step. Comprehensive irrigation reform must accompany such a push, along with attempts to regulate groundwater consumption. Electricity pricing could potentially do the job, but policymakers should tread with caution – as this study shows, electricity pricing may not be as effective as some economists like to think.

Realistically speaking, the Indian agricultural energy-water nexus is far too complex for a one-size-fits-all solution – even within a single state. Different areas vary enormously in their groundwater and energy markets. For example, in some areas of Gujarat farmers with a pump are able to sell excess water to marginal ones that have no pump or well. In places like these, the effects and equity implications of agricultural electricity pricing would be quite different from areas with more uniform landholding patterns.

That said, Maharashtra and India need to take action, and drip irrigation seems to be the start of something worthwhile. Hopefully Maharashtra can take the required follow-up actions, so that this beginning has an end.