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The price of water must reflect its cost

August 13, 2009
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More reports this week about India’s imminent water crisis – one, using satellite data, catalogues a worrying drop of 4cm per year in the water table in a large region that includes Delhi, while another by the Indian environment ministry paints a grim picture of water scarcity, finding that 45% of the country’s environment is degraded.

The government is contributing to the problem, though. By subsidizing electricity for farmers, it has effectively turned the country into a giant water pump. Every village I visited there has tube-wells and pumps, extracting tonnes of water – often fossil water that will never be replaced – from the ground.

But I did see examples of sustainable practice that could be copied elsewhere, including a village in Gujarat that recharges its water table by cleverly diverting the monsoon rains, and another in Andhra Pradesh.

Government subdidies are also encouraging poor water use by funding unsustainable agriculture. Rice, a thirsty crop, receives price support to the extent that farmers I spoke to said that it was more economical for them to produce a poor rice harvest than to plant a successful semi-arid crop, like millet. This is clearly crazy: crops should be planted to produce as much nutrition per drop of water, in other words, India is going to have to become less reliant on rice.

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