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This is the twelfth story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

It’s time for a pop quiz! Don’t worry, this will be easy. On a piece of paper, describe the images that come to mind when you hear the term ‘water conservation’. Did you describe a dripping tap? Fair enough. Cleaning lakes in cities? Maybe. But how about electric lines, water pumps, and the beautiful Himalayas? 

If you are wondering where this is going then let me introduce you to Aditi Mukherji. She is a Research Group Leader at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) where she leads the Climate Change, Adaptation and Resilience group. She has also worked as the Theme Lead for Water and Air at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. For more than two decades, she has been researching the impacts of our policies on the water-energy-food nexus. Put simply, this means understanding how our water and energy requirements impact agriculture/food production and vice versa. Mukherji holds a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Cambridge and is also the first recipient of the annual Borlaug Field Award (2012) for her research on groundwater in West Bengal. She has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and more recently was part of the editorial team of The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report which is the first comprehensive report to cover this region. She is also a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report.

In short, this small paragraph does not do justice to Mukherji’s exhaustive work in the field of water management. Her research is exemplar of how wide and varied the impacts of water conservation can be. Over emails and phone calls, she responded to my questions about her research and the need to establish better water-related policies – or should I say about electric lines, water pumps and scenic Himalayan springs.

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Aditi Mukherji’s exhaustive work in the field of water management is exemplar of how wide and varied the impacts of water conservation can be.

Where does your interest in water research stem from? 

Right after my Masters and M Phil from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay respectively, I started my first job as a Junior Researcher at IWMI, Anand, Gujarat. I was interested in agriculture in general, but my work at IWMI steered me towards water-related issues, particularly issues around policies governing groundwater and electricity. I realised it was important to understand how these factors play a crucial role for farmers to access irrigation, grow food and do all the things that we often take for granted. The experience was an eye-opener. I also had the good fortune of working with one of the best and most innovative minds on water policies in India and around the world, Dr Tushaar Shah of IWMI. The lively discussions, the range of issues around water which my other colleagues worked on, exposure to global knowledge and the expertise that one gets while working at an international organisation – all of these factors helped spark this interest in water that has stayed with me for almost 20 years now.

Your work in the state of West Bengal has revealed some interesting connections between energy policies, groundwater use and politics. Please can you tell us a little bit about that?

You have asked me something that I am very passionate about. After working at IWMI for two and a half years, I left to pursue a PhD degree in 2003. By then, I was fascinated with everything about groundwater and was intrigued by the fact that most of the work on groundwater usage focused on water-scarce regions in the states of Gujarat, Punjab or Tamil Nadu. Based on my prior fieldwork in West Bengal, I found that the usual narratives around groundwater scarcity were not applicable everywhere. Data clearly showed that groundwater in most districts of West Bengal was under-utilised. Yet, the political and media discourse was about restricting farmers' access to groundwater through stricter laws and policies. For my PhD at Cambridge University, I looked at groundwater access in West Bengal, and I found that even though groundwater quantity was not a problem, the state had one of the strictest groundwater laws. Farmers could not even get an electricity connection for their borewells without a prior permission from the state’s groundwater department. These permissions were often denied and farmers had to rely on expensive diesel fuel to run their pumps.

In 2007, the state started metering its electric tubewells, which was a good move in terms of energy accountability, but it pushed the small and marginal farmers outside the ambit of informal water markets. While farmers found it difficult to electrify their pumps, metering of existing electricity connections changed the incentives for pump owners to sell water. They would normally sell water to small and marginal farmers who now lost access to the resource. Hence, there was a large unmet demand for affordable electricity. My research – both PhD and postdoctoral which was again done at IWMI – found evidence that it was this lack of access to affordable irrigation that was slowing down the agricultural growth rate in the state. As a result of the continued work at IWMI, which I lead, we recommended removing the requirement for a groundwater permit for electricity connection to tubewells. This was based on the fact that electric tubewells were already metered and were being charged at unsubsidised rates – so there were enough economic checks and balances to discourage farmers from over-pumping. In short, the administrative permit was not really helping. If anything, it had created a system of corruption and caused a lot of inconvenience to the farmers. 

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Unable to get electricity connection for borewells due to denied permissions by the state’s groundwater department, farmers rely on expensive diesel fuel to run their pumps. A privately owned diesel pump in West Bengal.

I was invited by the Planning Commission of India to present our research findings to the newly formed government in West Bengal in 2011. The government accepted those findings and in November 2011, through an executive order, the Groundwater Act of West Bengal-2005 was modified. This resulted in a threefold increase in the number of electric pumps in the state; from less than 90,000 electric pumps between 2007-08 to more than 300,000 pumps between 2018-19. This work earned me the Inaugural Borlaug Field Award given by the World Food Prize and endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation. 

Did this have an impact on the farmers’ livelihoods, and can this learning be used elsewhere? 

Yes, it did. In fact, we recently completed a study that looked at the impact of the increase in the number of electric pumps in West Bengal. We found that in districts located in the northern part of the state (which are also water abundant and have rich alluvial aquifers) where the majority of these pumps had been installed, there was a massive increase in area and production of summer boro paddy. This crop brings in both income and food security for the farmers. In other districts, the impact was less than what we expected. We hypothesise that it was because of a very high electricity tariff (one of the highest in the country) and high costs of cultivation combined with low returns.

Looking at ways in which farmers access groundwater in relatively water abundant parts of the country has been my core area of research for the last 15-16 years. I have been following the West Bengal experiment on energy and groundwater policy changes very carefully. I have also been looking at the broader discourse on the water-energy-food nexus. In the latest series of research, I am managing a four-country (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan), four-year project on solar irrigation pumps in both water-deficient and sufficient regions. This work is funded by the Swiss Development Cooperation, and we are interested in learning how we can ensure that solar irrigation pumps do not aggravate the already dire groundwater situation in deficient regions. We also hope to understand the issues surrounding equity in regions where groundwater itself is not a problem. We are looking at different places with different challenges. But what we want to understand is how do we make sure that benefits from solar irrigation pumps are not captured by the rich and male farmers alone? 

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"We found that in districts located in the northern part of the state (which are also water abundant and have rich alluvial aquifers) where the majority of these [electricity] pumps had been installed, there was a massive increase in area and production of summer boro paddy." Diesel pumps being used to irrigate in West Bengal.                Photograph: Aditi Mukherji/IWMI

What is the energy-irrigation-food nexus, and how can we use this concept to address challenges of groundwater regulation? 

This is an excellent question and goes into the heart of what I have been working for the last two decades. IWMI researchers like Tushaar Shah and I have always argued that groundwater depletion in India is a result of the interlinked water, energy and food (WEF) policies. These policies have given rise to a nexus where growth in agriculture has been supported by unsustainable trends in the water and energy sectors. Basically, there are policies that determine whether farmers have access to electricity for pumping groundwater, and if they do have access, how it is priced and what is the mode of tariff. We have also noted that this access was absent in many states in eastern India, like in the case of West Bengal, and is still missing in places like Bihar and Assam. For example, when farmers are charged a high, flat tariff - a fixed amount of money that they have to pay irrespective of how many hours they pump (as they used to be charged in West Bengal before 2007) they have a huge incentive to sell water to other farmers and recover the electricity bill. However, if the flat tariff is trivial or very low, and if groundwater itself is scarce, farmers have very little incentives to sell water. They are more likely to utilise all the water they pump for their own use – as we have seen in Punjab. 

Metering again changes the incentive structure for selling water because now farmers pay only as much as they pump and feel no pressure to sell water to others to recover electricity bills. Now that there is a policy shift towards solar irrigation pumps, the concern is that low or zero marginal costs of pumping will encourage over-pumping. The challenge is how do we incentivise the process so farmers can pump less. One of the things that IWMI has experimented with successfully is a novel scheme where solar irrigation pumps are connected to the grid, and farmers are paid for sending electricity back to it. The government’s PM-KUSUM (Pradhan-Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyaan) scheme has a similar component. We will now have to test this premise rigorously to see if providing a buy-back option for electricity actually helps in reducing pumping hours.

Let’s talk about your work in the Himalayas. People usually don't connect the Himalayan region with water scarcity. Why do you think this is the case?

Yes, that is correct. At IWMI my work focused on water issues in the plains. In 2013, I moved to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development as the Theme Leader for water. This was when I started realising how vital the Himalayan region was for the water security of our entire country. As we all know, mountains are the water towers, and in case of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, all ten major Asian rivers originate from them. Given our ideas of snow-clad mountains and the perennial snow and glacier-fed rivers, it is very easy to forget how susceptible the Himalayas are to climate change. One of the assessment reports that I was involved with is called the Hindu Kush Assessment and was published in 2019. It brought home the message that the Himalayas are warming at a rate faster than the plains. Even if the world can keep its pledge of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees (which is very unlikely as we all know), 1/3rd of Himalayan glaciers will still be gone by 2100. If warming continues at the current rate, then up to 2/3rd of the glaciers will cease to exist. The situation is pretty grim because whatever happens to the Himalayan glaciers also affects the rivers. Western rivers like the Indus are more susceptible to the impacts of melting glaciers than eastern rivers like the Ganga and Brahmaputra, as they derive a larger share of their flow from the monsoon rains. However, we have to keep in mind that these mighty rivers mostly serve the populations downstream. The mountain dwellers don’t really rely on them because they flow in deep valleys, and most mountain settlements are on ridges at the top. Local sources like water from the springs sustains them in this case.  

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Glacial melt water flowing through snow in Himalayas of north Indian state of Uttarakhand. Photograph by Sharada Prasad CS, courtesy Wikimedia Commons under the CC BY 2.0 license.

What are some of the biggest threats that the springs in the Hindu Kush region are facing? 

As I mentioned, springs are absolutely indispensable for the people who live in these high altitudes. They depend on the springs for every aspect of their lives – drinking water, water for agriculture and for recreation. Springs are basically groundwater sources that flow out from cracks and fissures, and the springs in this region are increasingly drying up. Climate change certainly plays a role. Although we do not have enough studies to establish the causality very well, there is some evidence that declining rainfall leads to lower recharge of springs. Additionally, we have been seeing that developmental infrastructure like roads and hydropower plants have been disrupting the natural flow of springs. The recharge area of springs gets disconnected from the discharge area when a major construction happens in a spring shed or region.  

Could you explain what discharge and recharge points are for a spring, and can drying springs be recharged?  

Recharge areas are regions where the rain water falls and then seeps through the cracks and fissures in the mountains, to be discharged again at certain points. Discharge points are the springs themselves – where the water comes out. Springs can be recharged, and Sikkim sets a good example for this. The idea is to identify the recharge areas, which can be done through the use of simple field-based geology and by taking local knowledge into account. Once they have been identified, one can undertake a number of watershed-like interventions – such as constructing water harvesting pits to ensure the recharge points have access to water. Local knowledge plays an important role in understanding these sources. It's fascinating how often the elderly people in the village know about recharge areas and other aspects.

Recharge of springs has been tried successfully using funds from NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) by the Sikkim government and has also been implemented in other Indian states. Neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bhutan have also made successful attempts in recharging spring water. Spring revival is a top agenda among all mountain states, and it needs to be done more systematically by involving the local governments and the local people. This cannot and should not be a top-down program. It needs to be a participatory program with full-fledged involvement from the people who depend on these resources.

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 Aditi Mukherji is the first recipient of the annual Borlaug Field Award (2012) for her research on groundwater in West Bengal.

Several reports highlight the effects of hydropower projects on springs. Do impact assessments factor in springs while devising these projects? Would you say springs are ignored in this context and at the policy-level?

We have a lot of anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that blasting and subsequent compacting of mountainside layers leads to drying up of springs or diversion to another part of the mountain. As far as I know, the impact of hydropower on springs is not accounted for in impact assessments, and this is a big drawback. While people do get some kind of compensation for say, if their house develops cracks due to blasting, the community gets no compensation if their springs dry up due to hydropower construction projects. It certainly needs to change. When I was working in Bhutan, I was told that many of the officials suspect that the spate of incidents of springs drying up was related to their Farm Road Development programme. I also believe that roads disrupted the flow path of the springs in the region. We hear similar stories from Nepal as well. Given how fragile the Himalayan ecology is, how complex its geology is and how catastrophic the outcomes of ill-planned development can be; it makes sense to exercise extreme caution while undertaking infrastructure and construction activities in the Himalayas. For instance, it should not be difficult to map all the springs, their recharge areas, and conduct a detailed geological mapping to understand the impacts of infrastructure on springs. This could help plan proper mitigation measures.

What kind of water conservation initiatives would you like to see in the Himalayan regions? 

Given the fragility of the region, there is no doubt that the solutions have to be nature-based. The 14th Finance Commission in 2015 set excellent precedence by incentivising the process for the mountain states to conserve their forests in lieu of a larger share from the central funds. This has been called the world’s largest ecological fiscal transfers by some, and I feel it is quite comparable to the Green for Grain program of China. While preliminary analysis by Busch et al. showed that there was no impact of this incentive on the state governments' forestry budget, the incentives were continued in the 15th Finance Commission. This goes to show that there is the emphasis to reward states for high forest cover. Mountain states will certainly benefit, as they should, for being the custodians of our country’s water towers. 

Tell us about your involvement with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report? 

I am currently leading the Water chapter of IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report (AR6), and this chapter looks at ways in which climate change-induced changes in the water cycle affects the way our society uses water. We also look at adaptation solutions and ways in which they can be mainstreamed. Of course, there are no silver bullets, and all solutions have to cater to the most vulnerable. I will also be involved in writing the Synthesis Report of the AR6 cycle. IPCC recently announced names of 30 scientists from around the world who will be involved in this report, and I was glad to see that Indian scientists are well represented. There are four from India, including me.