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Chapter 1 - Introduction

The project on which this paper is based began as an attempt to evaluate the implications of groundwater overabstraction in key countries for food production and food security (China and India). The concept for the project emerged from discussions at the World Water Forum in The Hague in March 2000. There, much attention focused on a preliminary estimate by Postel (1999) that as much as 10 percent of global food production could be at risk from overabstraction. Postel’s estimate was based on information collected from many sources and synthesized with input from a cross-section of experts. Although only a first cut, it generated substantial discussion and contributed considerably to recognition of both the role groundwater plays as a key resource for global food production and the threats now emerging as the resource is developed in a rapid and unregulated manner (Burke and Moench, 2000).

In formulating the current project, the aim was to move beyond Postel’s numbers. By focusing on a few countries, the hope was to be able to locate substantial amounts of information from publicly available sources that would allow a more detailed evaluation of the extent to which groundwater overabstraction threatens food security. It was hoped that through a combination of contacts with experts in the focus countries and the rapidly expanding resources available through the World Wide Web (including the many organizations that have been developing and refining online access to their data) it would be possible to locate more basic data and information on groundwater than had been available to Postel. However, the real information available online is limited and generally consists of syntheses (or syntheses of syntheses) rather than basic data. Even where the area under groundwater irrigation is reported and professional estimates evaluated (FAO’s Aquastat database), the actual dependency upon groundwater remains obscure (Burke, 2002). To date, it has only been possible to distinguish the contribution in crop yields and production from rainfed and irrigated agriculture (FAO, 2002a). Furthermore, as the search for information intensified (also through direct access to the basic data collected by the central and state governments in one of the focus countries, India), the less clear the equation linking groundwater and food security appeared. Nonetheless, the macro contribution of groundwater as a lead input for irrigated agriculture in all semi-arid and arid countries is evident. It is important to work towards a more refined understanding of this contribution in order to inform future management initiatives before the limits of pumping and groundwater quality are reached.

Available information indicates that groundwater overabstraction is a major emerging problem in many parts of the world. In many areas, overabstraction is severe and water levels are declining at rates of 1-3 m/year, a pattern documented by various researchers (Moench, 1996; Postel, 1999; Seckler et al., 1999; Shah et al., 2000). However, the areas where water levels are actually falling on a continuous basis remains poorly documented, also in the data sets compiled by government groundwater departments working at local levels. Variability within and between regions is high. Furthermore, overabstraction estimates and water-level decline information represent only one component in the equation linking groundwater, food production and food security. Water-level fluctuations can have equally great impacts on access to water (and thus food production) as can overabstraction and long-term declines. Other important elements of the equation such as yields, extraction economics and the composition of demand for water are often poorly documented. Finally, the question of groundwater and food security is a product of interacting and dynamic systems. As the relevant hydrological, economic and agricultural systems are dynamic and often undergoing rapid change, historical data may be of limited usefulness for predicting future conditions. As a result, any estimate of the impact of groundwater overabstraction on food security would contain substantial uncertainty.

This paper focuses on the question of how well the interaction between groundwater and food security is understood and what types of information are essential to improve this understanding. It follows the definition of food security in the FAO terminology database (derived from the World Food Summit 1996) that: "Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life". The paper explores issues such as data availability, the dynamic nature of systems and the interaction between systems. The overall question of groundwater and food security is introduced from the perspective of both resource availability for production and the larger question of entitlements and access. The paper then focuses on groundwater issues per se and on how the combination of data limitations and regional-temporal variability constrains accurate assessment. It then draws implications for the analysis of food security and for groundwater management. The paper concludes with a discussion of the potential ways for addressing concerns relating to groundwater and food security.

The results of the analysis suggest two avenues for future work. The first involves the development of a detailed research programme to harvest groundwater data directly from governments and other sources within key countries in order to develop a more complete picture of groundwater use and conditions. This type of picture is essential in order to develop more informed assessments of the implications of groundwater conditions for food security and to develop scientifically founded courses of action for managing the resource base. The second avenue for work focuses on the development of adaptive responses to water problems and of policy approaches that reflect and respond to uncertainty and change. Inherent limitations in the nature of scientific information in conjunction with the dynamic process of social and institutional change occurring in many parts of the world make this second avenue of work no less important than the first. The most effective approaches to addressing overabstraction problems may lie not in attempts to manage the resource base but in strategies that assist populations to lessen their dependence on groundwater or that allow them to adapt as water availability changes. Furthermore, experience with common-property resource management suggests that the ability to reach effective management agreements tends to be inversely proportional to the number of individual actors whose participation is essential. This can be resolved in the case of surface systems by designing management approaches as a series of nested organizations with defined boundaries in relation to their share of the resource (Ostrom, 1993). In locations such as India and China, there can be tens of thousands of individual farmers tapping shallow stratiform aquifers that underlie large areas. In such cases, a critical challenge is to define boundaries at a sufficiently small scale for nested institutions or ‘cells’ to function and replicate.

The above observation reflects the frequent tension between access equity and sustainability that is one of the many contradictions inherent in most attempts to manage natural resources. It also reflects the dynamic nature of social change that is ongoing in many parts of the world. In the past decade, many farmers have indicated that, while they are aware of groundwater problems, they are using the income generated through agriculture to invest in alternative livelihood strategies (education, businesses, etc). Microirrigation using low-head and low-cost technology, including drip and treadle pumps, has shown promise where local markets exist (e.g. near towns and cities) but much of this initiative is not captured in official national irrigation data. The focus of rural populations in many areas is changing and many individuals have more incentive to use the income from irrigated agriculture to build non-agricultural livelihoods. Helping them to make this transition could yield major benefits for the sustainability of groundwater resources while at the same time responding to their own perceived goals and interests as shaped by much larger processes of social change (Plate 1).

Plate 1 - Subsidized groundwater pumping in the Zhob Valley, Baluchistan

[J. J. Burke]

Contradictions are inherent in any robust, dynamic system. They reflect the checks, balances and points of duplication essential to respond to change, uncertainty and surprise. For FAO, this implies a need to approach groundwater through multiple lenses: management where that appears practical, adaptation where it appears less viable, and common sense in both situations.

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