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Groundwater Institutions And Governance In China And India In Comparative Perspective: Experiences And Lessons Learnt

World Water Congress 2015 Edinburgh Scotland
2. Revisiting water paradigms
Author(s): Falendra Sudan (Jammu
Jammu and Kashmir
Ishita Singh

Department of Economics, University of Jammu, Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir – 180006, India1

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 2: Surface water and groundwater,



The main objectives of present paper are to overview the groundwater economy of China and India, to review the experiences of groundwater governance in China and India focusing on institutional aspects and to draw lessons for concrete policy measures. In this context, relevant questions are: How to govern and protect groundwater resources while also guaranteeing a reliable supply despite rapidly growing demand? What are institutional arrangements and instruments available for groundwater management in China and India? What are key issues regarding the way forward in groundwater governance in China and India? What is likely to succeed where and under what set of conditions? How successful experiments may be replicated in other country?


To answer aforesaid objectives and questions, the paper has made extensive review of available literature on groundwater institutions and governance in China and India in comparative perspective. The study has utilised the potentially rich sources of secondary data available through the publications of the international institutions, the Governments of China and India and the research conducted by individual researchers.

Results and Discussion

Groundwater is largely used for irrigation in two most populous countries, India and China, which is about half of the world's total annual use. India is largest groundwater user in the world, with above 20 million wells and an estimated usage of around 230 km3 per year. China has an estimated 3.5 million agricultural tube wells, withdrawing 100 km3 of water per year. India and China have the largest groundwater-use areas respectively at 39 million ha and 19 million ha. However, there are sharp regional variations in the groundwater use.

For instance, southern China has abundant surface water, whereas the North China Plain and large parts of North India have heavy dependence on groundwater for irrigation. Before the 1960s, a small proportion of China's water supply came from groundwater. China was ignoring groundwater development until the late 1960s. Since mid-1970s, the groundwater use has increased dramatically, and China has entered an era of groundwater exploitation. At present, China uses 62% of total freshwater for irrigated agriculture, which generates 70% of total grain production but experienced multiple stresses especially in northern China. Groundwater abstraction accounts for over 70% of the irrigated area in northern China. The highest on-farm energy consumer is pumping groundwater for irrigation. By 2030, China will need 407-515 km3 water for food production, which would likely to deteriorate water resource further. The water demand in China's urban and industrial sectors is also likely to increase rapidly. It will compel to reallocate scarce water resources away from agriculture.

In India, about 60% of the irrigation is dependent on groundwater. The booming groundwater use has significant role in livelihood and food security in India. The contribution of groundwater irrigation to India's gross domestic product (GDP) is estimated at around 10% and the size of the India's groundwater irrigation is estimated at around $50-55 billion. With phenomenal growth in use of groundwater in India, nearly one-third of groundwater blocks are in semi-critical, critical, or overexploited categories. Like India, extensive groundwater use has led to serious groundwater depletion in China.

In China, groundwater management appears unregulated and disconnected from the official water bureaucracy. Compared with India, water administration at grass roots seems to be stronger in China, however, groundwater management are still weak at local levels. In India and China, numerous policy instruments have been implemented, including groundwater laws, licensing and permit systems, tradable property rights and pricing of groundwater, however, groundwater governance structures have proven to be very ineffective. Main policies affecting groundwater governance in India are without any statutory status and lack legal enforcement. China has enacted groundwater laws starting with 1988 National Water Law. Whether these laws are indeed implemented with due diligence or not? India's water laws fail to achieve the desired groundwater regulation. In contrast, China is way ahead in legislative and regulatory measures to rein in groundwater withdrawals.

New water law in China requires all the pumpers to get a permit, but this is yet to be enforced. In deep tube well areas of the North China Plain, the tube well owners are obliged to get individual permits. In other areas, the village as a whole holds a permit to use groundwater. Besides, groundwater use is still almost free in China. India is not able to make a groundwater law to regulate more than 20 million irrigation pumpers, despite having a draft model groundwater bill for more than three decades due to high transaction costs of enforcing groundwater regulation. In China, adoption of water-saving technologies is low in agriculture due to lack of economic incentives to save water and inadequate water rights. However, there is huge potential to realize co-benefits in water and energy savings through improved irrigation technology in China. India's farmers use subsidized energy worth $4.5-5 billion/year to pump 150 km3 of groundwater mostly for irrigation. Governments are unable to eliminate energy subsidies due to stiff opposition from the farmer lobby. The political feasibility of switching to volumetric electricity pricing is weak compared to using flat tariff and help lower groundwater use by 15-18 km3/year. Besides, energy pricing to users can offer powerful tools for agricultural groundwater demand management and can serve as a useful 'surrogate' for pricing groundwater entailing high transaction costs.


China has attempted to regulate groundwater use in agriculture through a water use rights system designed to reduce surface water quotas for farmers to transfer agricultural water to other sectors. However, farmers compensate the losses of surface water by using more groundwater to maintain production practices and yields. Therefore, regulation of groundwater use is very difficult in China. India's groundwater recharge through user participation offers a window of opportunity for better groundwater governance, whereas such initiatives are lacking in China. Therefore, users' acceptance and understanding of water requirements are prerequisite for ensuring support for measures aimed at protecting groundwater resources. A 'one-size-fits-all' approach to groundwater governance is inadequate. There is need to tailor a package of measures to local hydro-geologic and socio-economic setting. Besides, improvements in 'irrigation water-use efficiency' can be a key to increasing water productivity and reducing energy use.

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