Adaptation to persistent drought and groundwater depletion: Evidence from Karnataka

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  • Water stress is becoming the leading constraint on Indian agriculture. Groundwater resources are being fast-depleted and rainfall disruptions are increasingly frequent. Understanding how farmers adapt to this dual challenge is crucial for India’s agricultural growth, and transformation.
  • The study seeks to investigate the combined impacts of persistent drought and continuing groundwater depletion in Karnataka on various household outcomes, and the adaptation strategies adopted by farmers.
  • Early results indicate that farmers with access to irrigation/groundwater are better able to adapt and cope with the threats posed by multi-year droughts and continued groundwater depletion.

Water stress is becoming the leading constraint on Indian agriculture. Groundwater resources, on which the country’s food production is critically dependent, are being depleted. Meanwhile, the rainfall disruptions expected to result from climate change may already be underway, with dry spells and drought events becoming more frequent. These two trends are both projected to have large negative impacts and to reinforce each other, since lack of access to irrigation limits farmers’ capacity for adaptation to precipitation shortfalls.

Few studies have rigorously examined the impacts of persistent or permanent environmental change on households in developing countries. This study sought to fill this gap.

We found that household income was highest for families with operational borewells. Similarly, households with wells reported higher asset ownership. Because households lacking access to groundwater possess so few assets, they may struggle to make the necessary investments to successfully adapt to climate change, or to transition to income-generating activities that are less environmentally sensitive. Indeed, the lack of groundwater access may lead to a depletion of existing assets and resources as households try to cope with hydrological stress.

We also reported the actual expenditure for households, compared with hypothetical expenditure had rainfall been ‘normal’, across food, health and education. The largest differences between the actual and hypothetical expenditures are seen in food expenditures in households with failed borewells. This suggests that they may suffer greater losses during bad monsoons than households with borewells.