Overvaluing Participation in Groundwater Resource Management


by Joseph Jammal


The generally agreed upon approach to addressing groundwater consumption has been to work through communities to implement consensus driven conservation policies. The problem is that this approach has not proven effective, and it is necessary to begin considering in greater detail the factors that have caused policy implementations to succeed or fail.


Two of the largest users of groundwater for irrigation are India and China, and the contrast in these countries’ approaches is particularly informative. Specifically, what is clear through examining local policy interventions in detail is that state capacity rather than consensus is critical to implementing a successful policy intervention.


Before moving directly into a brief discussion of different policy agendas, it seems worth taking a second to clarify The World Bank’s perspective on groundwater. Admittedly, The World Bank is not necessarily the end all be all of development theory, however, at the very least seeing how they view an issue can be informative.


The World Bank clearly states as their recommended best practice, “Empower stakeholder organizations and avoid patronizing ‘officials know best’ postures, since it must be accepted that stakeholders have to be the main actors in the participatory management process with the government assisting them in identifying strategic issues and implementable solutions.” The bank positions itself as advocating for bottom-up resource management, with the state functioning primarily as an advisor that provides information to local groups.


While, I am not a development practitioner, I am a recently graduated and currently unemployed ex-student using the World Bank as a foil, but nevertheless I have to ask, has this been an effective approach to curbing groundwater usage? In the case of both India and China, it would appear that the answer to this question is no.


The reality is that in certain locations both countries have successfully implemented policies to reduce groundwater usage, the issue is that the successes do not match with the World Bank’s prescription. In China, the results of efforts in Ningxia demonstrate the importance of state capacity and the relative unimportance of consensus building.


In Ningxia, the Provincial Water Bureau was reportedly quite familiar with the different types of water ownership models that were available to them, and after selecting contracting as their mode of operation, aggressively pushed to break-up collectives and implement private ownership models. Furthermore, based on field interviews, the residents and policy makers in Ningxia emphasized that the reason for the success of their system was “shaping incentives, authority, checks and balances, and contract design and enforcement”.


The government was also willing to make the relatively high cost investment to enable monitoring power use by irrigation pumps. As such, the government was able to compare total power use to the amount of power generated and was able to determine whether or not there had been line losses. Additionally, the government implemented irrigation cards, a pre-paid debit system that was required to use the electricity system. Both monitoring and ICs were met with resistance at the local level, however because the state’s power outweighed the strength of village collectives they were able to implement these two systems and significantly increased the amount of information available for subsequent policy decisions.


These were not collaborative decisions between the village and the government, but top down decisions that the government was able to make to solidify its position because it had the economic resources and political will necessary to take unpopular actions.


In India, Gujarat’s attempts at decreasing groundwater usage have been unsuccessful due to a lack of state capacity brought about by intense political competition and the participatory nature of the political process. As an example, in 2003 the Government of Gujarat attempted to raise the electricity usage tariff in the state. Immediately following the announcement of the proposed tariff increase, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), a peasant farmer coalition, rallied hundreds of thousands of farmers to protest in Gandhinagar, the capital. Due to the BKS opposition, the government ended up reducing the proposed tariff by 28 percent, to 17 dollars per HP.


While this rate was still below the national average, the fact that the tariff increased was viewed as a political defeat and large groups of farmers left the BKS to join a different more radical party the Khedut Sangarsh Samiti (KSS).  The key takeaway from this sequence of events is that even when the government succeeds in making incremental change, it results in a redoubling of opposition efforts and further radicalization.


Further, Guajarat has not made the capital investments necessary to allow for monitoring, while there are demographic reasons that make monitoring particularly challenging, nevertheless the government has been unwilling to take serious steps towards increasing their ability to monitor and make informed decisions. Instead, water usage is treated as a political tool for winning votes, which distorts policy decisions.


In Ningxia there was minimal political opposition to water policies, the government was able to build a coalition with a select group of its constituents and implement policy. The government was actively engaged on the issue of groundwater use, had coherent policy objectives, and was able to maneuver politically to reach its goals. Finally, Ningxia had the knowledge and technological capacity to implement its agenda. By contrast, in Gujarat water usage became a political issue and participation hampered effective policymaking.


While this is by no means an exhaustive examination of attempts to curb groundwater usage, these cases nevertheless suggest that participation may be overvalued when trying to implement an effective conservation policy.


Joseph Jammal is a recent graduate from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where he concentrated in International Economics and China Studies.