February 4, 2020

Can Indian farmers adapt to water loss?

A study on the impact of borewell failure on small-scale farmers shows that it directly leads to a decline in agricultural income.

5 min read

Over the last few decades, groundwater has become the major source of irrigation for Indian agriculture. Pumped by millions of privately-owned tube-wells, it contributes 60 percent of the water used for irrigation, having grown by 105 percent since the 1970s. However, India is now facing a severe crisis of groundwater depletion, and the most vulnerable are the hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers who crucially depend on irrigation water for their livelihoods.

The manner in which these farmers will cope with and adapt to these changes will have dramatic implications for global food security, social stability, and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are broadly two views on how farmers might adapt to depletion in groundwater. According to optimists, they may adopt new agricultural practices or technologies, such as rainwater harvesting or drip irrigation, that can enable them to manage with less water and maintain their agricultural income. Pessimists however warn that as water runs out, farmers may adapt by shifting labour to non-agricultural sources of income generation, or by migrating to areas with better employment opportunities, creating massive waves of ‘water refugees’.

Related article: “Agriculture alone cannot provide for our teeming millions.”

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A recent study on adaptation strategies taken post long-term water loss in rural Karnataka helps inform this debate.

The nays have it: there is little evidence that agricultural incomes are maintained

The study collected detailed data from 1,500 farmers in 100 villages across Karnataka—a state that is reeling under the pressure of persistent drought and depletion of groundwater resources. It was found that the drying up of wells was extremely widespread: over 60 percent of farmers in the sample have had their wells dry up.

To understand the effects of this on farmers, researchers compared farmers whose first well had dried up or failed, with those farmers residing in the same village who had drilled equally deep wells in the same year, but whose wells were still functional. Specialised cameras inserted into the borewells revealed a complex and variable geology, indicating that well failure is random and a matter of fortune. Because of this irregularity, it was possible to find farms with a dried-up well right next to farms still irrigated by active wells. This allowed the study to attribute differences in the socio-economic status of farmers in the sample to the condition of their wells i.e. whether they were functional or not.

Here are four key findings from the study:

There was a decline in agricultural income and not enough adaptation

Households suffered a dramatic decline in agricultural income following the loss of access to groundwater due to the drying up of their first borewell. There was little evidence that households can adapt enough to maintain agricultural incomes.

Less than 25 percent of the respondents expressed an intention of attempting to drill another borewell, with 93 percent of them blaming the high costs involved.

The study found that though households could potentially have drilled additional wells as a means to adapt to the failure of their first borewell, the cost and risk of doing so prevented most households from pursuing it. Less than 25 percent of the respondents expressed an intention of attempting to drill another borewell, with 93 percent of them blaming the high costs involved—each failed borewell costs close to INR 50,000.

Failure of the first borewell also led to a decline in the probability that a household uses irrigation at all. There was a decrease in the cultivation of horticultural crops, which require a more controlled, consistent, and reliable supply of irrigation water than most field crops, and a partially compensating increase in the cultivation of field crops. Horticultural crops—such as fruit and vegetables—generally fetch a better price in the market, and so this shift further impacted agricultural income. Dry-season cultivation, in which irrigation is more important, had a larger change in cropping.

children playing at a borewell in indian farm_farmers

Failure of the first borewell led to a reduction in school enrolment and a rise in employment among children old enough to be employed. | Picture courtesy: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Barbara Kinney

Households were able to offset the loss in agricultural income through increased off-farm income

The study showed that households were able to largely offset the loss in agricultural income through increased off-farm income. Failure of the first borewell led to a decline in own-farm cultivation and a compensating increase in employment off the farm. These trends were more pronounced in the dry season.

However, the reallocation of labour was achieved without substantial migration or even employment in nearby villages, arguing against the idea that groundwater decline will result in large waves of ‘water refugees’.

The average borewell failure in the sample occurred about ten years prior to the survey. Hence, these adaptations could be understood as medium- to long-term strategies, rather than temporary, short-term coping mechanisms.

There were negative impacts on school enrolment and assets held by the farmers

Even though overall income was maintained post the failure of the first borewell, the lives of these farmers were negatively affected in other ways.

Borewell failure pushes households to make greater investments in the human capital of their younger children.

There was a reduction in school enrolment and a rise in employment among children old enough to be employed (12–18 years old). Interestingly, the enrolment rates among younger children (6–11 years old) increased. One explanation is that borewell failure reduces the potential of young children to contribute to the farms, thereby reducing the opportunity cost of attending school. Another explanation is that borewell failure pushes households to make greater investments in the human capital of their younger children, in order to prepare them for non-agricultural employment.

The failure of the first borewell also affected the assets and debts of farmers. While there was no evidence that farmers sold off land in response to borewell failure, there was a devaluation in non-land assets—specifically a decline in livestock, bicycle, and refrigerator ownership, as well as a substantial decline in gold holdings. Further, both the probability of having outstanding debt, and the absolute amount of debt, increased. The reasons for this could be attempts to smooth consumption and the costs of drilling another well.

Areas with higher industrial development were more likely to maintain incomes

The study categorised the villages in the sample as ‘low-development’ and ‘high-development’, depending on the total number of workers employed by large firms located within 5 kilometres of the village.

Related article: P Sainath—The water crisis is not caused by drought

Households in both low- and high-development areas displayed a similar decline in on-farm employment. However, households in high-development areas displayed a larger shift toward off-farm employment, and those in low-development areas experienced a larger increase in unemployment.

Additionally, the decline in farm income in high-development areas was smaller, but insignificantly so. The increase in off-farm income, however, was significantly larger in high-development areas. As a result, there was a sizeable difference in incomes in both areas.

To summarise, evidence from the study suggests that loss of access to irrigation water reduced income through agricultural activities, with little indication that households adapted to these losses through shifts in agricultural practices. On the other hand, they seemed to be relatively successful in off-setting agricultural income losses through a reallocation of labour to off-farm employment, leaving total income little affected. The ability of households to adapt their income through non-agricultural employment, however, depended on the structure of the local economy, specifically the presence of large firms in their vicinity.

Know more

  • Read the full study with more detailed insights on American Economic Review.
  • Watch a short summary of the study, including a snippet from the field.
  • Read a similar study on the impact of water scarcity on farmers in the state of Gujarat.

Do more

  • Connect with two of the authors of the original study: Ram Fishman and Veena Srinivasan.
  • If you are interested in partnerships through which Israeli experience and technology in water use efficiency can be adapted, tested and put to practice in the Indian context, get in touch with Ram’s lab (Nitsan lab) at Tel Aviv University.


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Saahil Kejriwal-Image
Saahil Kejriwal

Saahil Kejriwal is an International Innovation Corps Fellow, currently working as a consultant at Learning4impact, a knowledge partner of USAID/India. Previously, he was a programme associate at Centre for Effective Governance of Indian States (CEGIS), and before that, an associate at IDR. Saahil has completed the Young India Fellowship, a postgraduate diploma in liberal studies, from Ashoka University, and holds a BA in economics from Hansraj College, University of Delhi.