Delhi smog – consequence of groundwater regulation?

Arvind Kumar writing in the Sunday Guardian links increased air pollution in Delhi to a shift in the timings of cropping – and stubble burning – in Punjab and Haryana.  Around mid-October the winds blowing into Delhi start coming more from the north than the west and bring the crop smoke with them.  There appears to be some remote sensing data from NASA to support this.  Arvind suggests that the changed timings are a response to the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act 2009.  The act was first proposed in 2006 and Punjab government efforts to change crop patterns, particularly rice date from around that time.  The Haryana Subsoil Presevation Act was also passed in 2009.

The linking of crop-diversification to groundwater preservation that Arvind makes is disturbing but not surprising.  We might perhaps separate the corporate capture of arguments for groundwater sustainability from the problem itself.  Whether farmers should be encouraged to grow Monsanto genetically modified plants in the name of groundwater preservation is one thing.  However, the use of non-renewable groundwater to irrigate water intensive crops like rice for export in a semi-arid region appears to be a short-term trap threatening India’s food security.

A study by Alok Bhargava in Environmental Research Letters using in situ data finds that rice production negatively affects groundwater levels in North India.  This unsustainable extraction is relatively recent.  A study by Himanshu Kulkarni and Mihir Shah states that tubewells accounted for just 1% of India’s irrigated area in 1960-61 but 40% by 2006-7.  55% of these tubewells are located in Pubjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.  Extraction also appears to be increasing, perhaps reflecting market pressures on farmers; Punjab’s groundwater extraction jumped from 145% to 170% between 2004 and 2009.  A study by Dalin et al in Nature observes that groundwater now accounts for a third of global freshwater use and agriculture is the main component of this.  The authors say that around 11% of non-renewable groundwater in irrigation is for export crops, two-thirds of which are exported by Pakistan, India and the USA.

So Arvind Kumar’s article does an excellent job in demonstrating how metropolitan centres can no longer afford to ignore their hinterlands and the role of multi-national agribusiness lobbies in the situation it appears slightly weaker on the threat to future livelihoods and food security in the region posed by unregulated extraction from underground acquifers.

image: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier, view from Jama Masjid facing west