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Addressing groundwater depletion: Lessons from India, the world’s largest user of groundwater

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pictured above: Women draw water from a well in the drylands of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. By Yavuz Sariyildiz via Shutterstock (November 9, 2014).
India is home to 16% of the world’s population, but only holds 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. Not only is water scarce in India, but the extraction of groundwater has been on the rise for decades. Since the 1960s, the government’s support for the “green revolution” to ensure food security has increased the demand for groundwater for agriculture. Rapid rural electrification combined Show MoreIndia is home to 16% of the world’s population, but only holds 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. Not only is water scarce in India, but the extraction of groundwater has been on the rise for decades. Since the 1960s, the government’s support for the “green revolution” to ensure food security has increased the demand for groundwater for agriculture. Rapid rural electrification combined with the availability of modern pump technologies has led to an increase in the number of borewells to meet that demand. Over the last 50 years, the number of borewells has grown from 1 million to 20 million, making India the world’s largest user of groundwater. The Central Groundwater Board of India estimates that about 17% of groundwater blocks are overexploited (meaning the rate at which water is extracted exceeds the rate at which the aquifer is able to recharge) while 5% and 14% , respectively, are at critical and semi-critical stages. The situation is particularly alarming in three major regions – north-western, western, and southern peninsular. Groundwater pollution and the effects of climate change, including erratic rainfall in the drier areas, put additional stress on groundwater resources which serve about 85% of domestic water supply in rural areas, 45% in urban areas, and over 60% of irrigated agriculture. Current overexploitation rates pose threats to livelihoods, food security, climate-driven migration, sustainable poverty reduction and urban development. The World Bank has been working with the Government of India to enhance groundwater management in affected areas. The lessons below stem from the experience of World Bank groundwater management projects in India, and are part of a broader IEG evaluation of the World Bank’s support for sustainable and inclusive natural resource management.   Integrated demand and supply side solutions offer the best option for sustainable use. IEG case studies in Rajasthan, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh showed that the success of supply-side measures, such as watershed management programs, aquifer recharging and tank rehabilitation activities, did not lead to sustainable use in the absence of demand-side action. Measures such as surface water harvesting through farm ponds and check-dams, the installation of water-efficient irrigation systems (e.g. more efficient drips and sprinklers) and growing less water intensive crops, need to be integrated on the demand side for improved management and reduced depletion. Weak regulatory action to limit demand for groundwater can hinder the success of programs in reversing groundwater depletion. Weak regulations result in the expansion of groundwater irrigated areas and drilling of additional wells. This can more than offset water savings created by demand-side measures, or the water increases created by supply-side measures, leading to further depletion. The government of India regulates groundwater exploitation in water-stressed states through “notification” of highly overexploited blocks that restrict development of new groundwater structures (except those for drinking water). However, only about 14% of the overexploited blocks in the country are currently notified. Local level regulatory action in all threatened blocks before they reach the “overexploited” stage is vital to avert depletion. Strengthening community participation and rights in groundwater governance can improve groundwater management. World Bank projects in peninsular India, where more spread out and specifically defined hydrological sites prevail, were successful on several fronts by implementing the Participatory Groundwater Management approach (PGM). The PGM approach empowers communities in a defined aquifer area by providing governance rights, community awareness, capacity development, and knowledge and motivation for social regulation and the implementation of coordinated actions. However, there are limits to the success of the PGM approach. It did not work when local institutions were weak, supply-side interventions failed to replenish groundwater or when tanks failed to store water due to recurrent droughts, leading to increased overexploitation. The approach is also unlikely to work in areas with extensive alluvial aquifers that require coordination among large numbers of users. World Bank interventions support local institutional capacity for groundwater governance, but such institutions are often not viable after the end of the project. Two local institutions are mainly involved in groundwater management in India: Water User Associations (WUA) and groundwater management committees (GWMC). WUAs are formal institutions with a wider mandate to manage irrigation systems (surface and groundwater) and have budget allocations for maintaining the systems and collecting user charges. In contrast, GWMCs are informal groups created through World Bank–supported projects to facilitate PGM. These committees become dormant and dysfunctional once projects close. The key institutional challenge for groundwater governance is strengthening local institutions and helping the informal groups to remain viable during the post-project phase. Power subsidies for pumping groundwater accelerate the depletion of aquifers in stressed areas. Several states affected by depletion of groundwater provide free or heavily subsidized power (including solar pumps) for pumping groundwater for irrigated agriculture. This creates perverse incentives that enable overexploitation and depletion of scarce groundwater resources. In the long-run, sustainable groundwater management will depend on cross-sectoral reforms to address the water-energy-agriculture nexus and providing the right incentives to resource users. This requires better coordination of policy, market and regulatory measures as well as repurposing current distortive public support to more climate-smart solutions. Strengthening World Bank analytical support and investments in these directions would be useful for future. Groundwater extraction has allowed rural families to reduce short-term vulnerability but may incur trade-offs and increase the risk of depletion and ultimately increase vulnerability in the long term. Increased access to groundwater resources and extraction allows households to boost agricultural production in the short term. Many farm households owning wells indicated that their vulnerability is lower partly because of income growth and diversification and buffers provided by social safety nets. However, without sufficient regulation or replenishment of aquifers, the increased access to and use of groundwater for irrigation could lead to declining water tables and increasing water scarcity, which risks escalating long-term vulnerability. pictured above: Women draw water from a well in the drylands of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India. By Yavuz Sariyildiz via Shutterstock (November 9, 2014).

So, you want to reduce fiscal and financial vulnerabilities to better prepare for the next crisis?

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Image of man holding an umbrella to shield from the sun. Adapted from shutterstock
Proactively strengthening institutions for crisis preparedness can make the difference between whether a country bounces back quickly from an unexpected shock or struggles for years to regain its footing.Proactively strengthening institutions for crisis preparedness can make the difference between whether a country bounces back quickly from an unexpected shock or struggles for years to regain its footing.

Addressing Country-Level Fiscal and Financial Sector Vulnerabilities

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Addressing Country-Level Fiscal and Financial Sector Vulnerabilities
This evaluation assesses World Bank Group support to client countries to build resilience to exogenous shocks. Proactively reducing fiscal and financial sector vulnerabilities and strengthening frameworks and institutions for crisis management can make the difference between whether a country bounces back quickly from an unexpected shock or struggles for Show MoreThis evaluation assesses World Bank Group support to client countries to build resilience to exogenous shocks. Proactively reducing fiscal and financial sector vulnerabilities and strengthening frameworks and institutions for crisis management can make the difference between whether a country bounces back quickly from an unexpected shock or struggles for years to regain its footing.

World Bank Support to Aging Countries

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shutterstock/ Ja Crispy
This evaluation is the first at the Independent Evaluation Group to assess the World Bank’s contribution to diagnosing client countries’ demographic issues related to population aging. This evaluation is the first at the Independent Evaluation Group to assess the World Bank’s contribution to diagnosing client countries’ demographic issues related to population aging.

Benin: Ninth and Tenth Poverty Reduction Support Credit (PPAR)

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Benin was a low-income country with a gross domestic product per capita of $1,291 at the time of preparation of the Poverty Reduction Support Credit (PRSC) 9 and 10 series in 2014. Its economy was driven by agricultural production (of cotton in particular) and reexport and transit trade with Nigeria. As a result, Benin’s economy was vulnerable to trade policy changes or economic downturns in Show MoreBenin was a low-income country with a gross domestic product per capita of $1,291 at the time of preparation of the Poverty Reduction Support Credit (PRSC) 9 and 10 series in 2014. Its economy was driven by agricultural production (of cotton in particular) and reexport and transit trade with Nigeria. As a result, Benin’s economy was vulnerable to trade policy changes or economic downturns in Nigeria. The development objectives of this series were to: (i) promote good governance and high-quality public financial management, and (ii) strengthen private sector competitiveness. Ratings for the Ninth and Tenth Poverty Reduction Support Credit project are as follows: Outcome was moderately unsatisfactory, Risk to development outcome was substantial, Bank performance was unsatisfactory, and Borrower performance was not applicable. This assessment offers the following lessons: (i) Relevant lessons from previous operations need to be taken on board when designing new DPF operations. (ii) Prior actions need to be substantive, that is, be critical to reforms with value added. (iii) The World Bank should design projects with a clear understanding of the likely “winners and losers;” failure to do this makes it more likely that projects will not be implemented as planned or sustained over time. (iv) Distributional impact analysis from DPF-supported reforms should inform the design of operations.

What do cities need to grow equitably, sustainably and build resilience?

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City view of Bogotá, Colombia on January 11, 2016. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Cities will be home to 2 billion new residents by 2045. Accommodating this growth will require large-scale development of land in and around urban areas. For lower‐income cities, this will be challenging since they tend to grow through slums and other informal settlements. Along with a  lack of adequate and equitable access to public services and economic opportunities, slum residents Show MoreCities will be home to 2 billion new residents by 2045. Accommodating this growth will require large-scale development of land in and around urban areas. For lower‐income cities, this will be challenging since they tend to grow through slums and other informal settlements. Along with a  lack of adequate and equitable access to public services and economic opportunities, slum residents   are more vulnerable to diseases, especially highly communicable ones such as COVID-19, and they are likelier to bear the brunt of natural disasters associated with using land that is environmentally sensitive, unprotected, or more susceptible to  disasters. In 2014, an estimated 880 million urban residents lived in slum conditions, compared with 792 million in 2000 (UN 2019). This number is likely to keep growing unless urban spatial expansion is planned and managed well.   IEG recently assessed the World Bank’s support to client countries on managing urban expansion, particularly through its work on land administration, land‐use planning, and land development. These three key factors determine how urban areas grow. Land administration Land administration is the process of establishing, recording, and disseminating information about the ownership, value, and use of land and its associated resources. Making available such fundamental reference information through wider records systems is key towards recognizing a continuity of property rights and ensuring the security of tenure. This, in turn, will motivate households to invest in dwellings and contribute towards creating functioning land markets, which are crucial for the development of cities. World Bank support to land administration is successfully strengthening property rights through land titling, which contributes to land market development. However, countries eligible for IDA, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries, have faced challenges with land titling and land records data management systems, which, in turn, affects their ability to develop land markets. This is partially due to limited technical capacity locally and issues related to political economy. Government planning and policies regarding land administration may not be sufficiently adapted to the local context, including the diverse and, sometimes, conflicting political and economic incentives and motivations that are at play at the local level. The political economy around land administration laws is often complex, and the time taken to reform them typically goes beyond the duration of related projects, and at times, political cycles. Land‐use planning Land-use planning helps regulate the use of space, focusing not only on the physical aspect, but also the economic functions, social impact, and the location of different activities within the urban environment. One of the critical functions of land-use planning is the allocation of land to private and public uses, including infrastructure and services. World Bank support to clients on land-use planning has generally been successful, but it rarely supports implementing land-use planning tools that focus on preventing the emergence of new slums or informal areas. This is critical to managing urban spatial growth. The Bank has been encouraging the establishment of independent planning agencies, which help develop preventative approaches, but it has not provided the operational support that is needed for such agencies.  Land development Land development is the transformation of land through investments and this evaluation assessed it through two components: first, urban upgrading, which is the improvement of conditions in existing slums and preventing the growth of new ones, and second, urban transport, which includes integrating transportation with land use. These components shape how land is used and how its use evolves over time, in turn, defining how productive and inclusive cities will become in the future.   World Bank support to land development has been generally successful, but Bank projects on urban upgrading have tended to focus on upgrading existing slum areas and improving the access of slum-dwellers to infrastructure and housing. It has focused less on preventing the emergence of new slums and informal areas. On urban transport, because of the traditional focus on mobility and access, the Bank’s support does not systematically consider land prices and land markets. Excluding land market assessments from urban transport projects leads to underestimating the total economic benefits of these projects as well as not fully accounting for the benefits and opportunities that an increase in the value of land offers to various income groups, especially those from lower-income segments.    There is also a lack of systematic geolocation of the World Bank’s investments, which further limit the Bank’s ability to support countries in assessing changes in land use, increases in land values, and the associated distributional impacts. Lessons learned and way forward There are three specific areas where the World Bank can enhance its support to countries in managing their urban spatial growth. Adopting a framework that links determinants of urban expansion with strategies for managing it, in an integrated way: The framework could act as a reference for the design and delivery of the Bank’s lending and analytical work on urban spatial growth. The framework could reflect the approach of the Planning, Connecting, and Financing Cities report, the World Bank Group housing framework, the transport-oriented guidelines and recent findings from Pancakes to Pyramids: City Form to Promote Sustainable Growth report. Adopting preventive approaches in addition to curative ones: This could be done by securing rights of way and financing basic infrastructure in emerging neighborhoods to accommodate new urban dwellers. The World Bank should support the use of public transit, walking, and cycling as primary modes of transportation. It should also expand the use of land‐based planning tools and approaches, such as scenario planning, which is a process to support informed decision-making helping urban planners navigate future uncertainties. Identifying and recording precise project locations and collecting land market data: The World Bank should strengthen its data collection protocols and increase the use of technologies such as the Geo‐Enabling Initiative for Monitoring and Supervision and the Smart Supervision Application. It should also improve the collection of land market data, including mainstreaming land market assessments in World Bank investments in urban areas. When countries manage well the factors that determine urban expansion, it can lead to fewer slums, efficient and resilient use of land, functioning land markets, and integrated urban transport systems. These, in turn, will ensure that the expansion in urban areas occurs in ways that are sustainable, efficient, and equitable. The World Bank Group will need to adopt new approaches, frameworks, and technologies that enhance its ability to support clients, especially IDA countries, on urban expansion. This will contribute directly to Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 11, which address the need for equitable, inclusive, and sustainable use of and access to economic resources, including land, and will help the World Bank Group respond more effectively and efficiently to the twin goals – poverty reduction and shared prosperity. In addition, this will also support countries in managing their urban expansion in ways that consider the infrastructure and services that are needed to help them be more resilient towards chronic stresses and future shocks, such as pandemics and natural disasters. This will facilitate the World Bank Group’s goal of green, resilient, inclusive development. Read IEG's Evaluation: Managing Urban Spatial Growth World Bank Support to Land Administration, Planning, and Development   pictured above: City view of Bogotá, Colombia on January 11, 2016. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Managing Urban Spatial Growth

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Contrasting the rapid growth of informal settlements  and high rise buildings in the city of Salvador, Brazil—taken with a drone January 2021—by Johnny Miller / Unequal Scenes
This evaluation offers IEG’s first systematic assessment of the World Bank’s support to the management of urban spatial growth. This evaluation offers IEG’s first systematic assessment of the World Bank’s support to the management of urban spatial growth.

The World Bank Group’s Experience with the IDA Private Sector Window: An Early-Stage Assessment

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Employees of Vita Foam working in Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 19, 2015. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
This report is an early-stage assessment of the World Bank Group’s experience with the International Development Association (IDA) Private Sector Window (PSW).This report is an early-stage assessment of the World Bank Group’s experience with the International Development Association (IDA) Private Sector Window (PSW).

The private sector in low income and fragile countries needs more than credit

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Kitabi Tea Processing Facility A worker sorts the green leaf tea before it reaches the main processing floor. The Kitabi Tea Processing Facility in Kitabi, Rwanda has a capacity of 48 000 tons of green leaf per day. The facility employs 200 people during its peak season and about 70 during the rest of the year. Photo: A'Melody Lee / World Bank
Lessons from the early implementation of the IDA Private Sector Window (PSW)Lessons from the early implementation of the IDA Private Sector Window (PSW)

Meet the Evaluator: Bekele Shiferaw discusses the nexus between natural resources and human development

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Meet the Evaluator: Bekele Shiferaw discusses the nexus between natural resources and human development
As IEG marked World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought earlier this month, we spoke with Bekele Ambaye Shiferaw, who spent much of his long career focused on environmental degradation and how to stop it. Along with describing his journey to the Independent Evaluation Group, after a 25-year career in development, Bekele spoke to us about the importance of addressing the nexus between Show MoreAs IEG marked World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought earlier this month, we spoke with Bekele Ambaye Shiferaw, who spent much of his long career focused on environmental degradation and how to stop it. Along with describing his journey to the Independent Evaluation Group, after a 25-year career in development, Bekele spoke to us about the importance of addressing the nexus between natural resource degradation and threats to human development, and the way forward. IEG · Meet The Evaluator: Bekele Ambaye Shiferaw