Photo Essay: High Prices, Low Returns

The slide show below was part of ongoing research being conducted  in Northern Gujarat, India by the Columbia Water Center, a part of the Earth Institute. The Columbia Water center’s work is key to understanding the water crisis facing the globe, and developing creative policy solutions through scientific research. Working with external partners, the Columbia Water Center has implemented sustainable models on the local, regional, and global levels.

Gujarat, as a state, has one of the highest investments in irrigation infrastructure. This has led to a vibrant and productive agricultural sector. However, farming has been sustainable way since the Green Revolution. Today the state faces acute water problems.  A Columbia water Center study found that the groundwater levels have been “decreasing steadily over the last 15-20 years, and have dropped to over 600ft below ground level, risking irreversible salinization of aquifers. The declining trend is seen in observation wells and confirmed by farmers’ own recollection of water depth. The rate of decline is anywhere between 9 to 20 feet per year.” Based on these findings, the Columbia Water Center scientists began developing an approach to help farmers in the region save water. The current payment structure for farmers has them paying a fixed bi-monthly rate, dependent on the horsepower of their generator, for agricultural power, in exchange for up to eight hours per day  to power their tube well generators. Scientists at the Water Center determined that a successful approach would give farmers an incentive to implement water saving approaches (tensiometers, drip irrigation, furrow irrigation and mulching among others). The pilot scheme completed a year of field implementation in June 2012. Goals of the scheme were to provide farmers with the support, and incentives, to alter their farming patterns, and in the process, help them reduce the power they use to acquire water.


Ishvar Singh Thakur, the former Sar Paanch (Village Head) of Bilodra, lamenting the way the water crisis has harmed his livelihood. Currently 74, he has been farming since the age of 18, and has had four tube wells on his land.

(TDS is Total Dissolved Solids.) The increased levels of Fluoride lead to deteriorating tooth enamel, as well as arthritis. In several villages, people can purchase 10 Liters a day of water for a monthly rate of 50-80 rupees (1-1.5 USD).

Children pumping water from a lake near Ubkhal.

Location Map of Pilot Area.
In partnership with UGVCL, the local utility company, the Columbia Water Center has put in to place a water saving scheme in 13 villages in the Mansa, Vijapur, Visnagar, and Mahesana districts of Gujarat.

A 75 horsepower pump in Kalol, Gujarat. Farmers have been benefiting from the scheme by receiving compensation for when they do not use their generators to pump water.

Crop prices are set by traders, not farmers, which increases the challenge of altering crops.

An overhead drip irrigation system in Kalol, Gujarat. Drip Irrigation facilitates water effective irrigation by uniformly distributing water from above (as show in this image) and ground level.

Tangled drip irrigation tubes waiting to be sorted, repaired, and installed. Installing drip irrigation is challenging, particularly for small farmers who lack access to the same credit facilities as their larger counterparts.

The drilling of a 750 foot tube well in Bapupura, comissioned by a professional living in Ahmedabad. His goal for doing so was to maintain the land he has inherited, in order to sell it when industrialization reaches the area.

Soil samples from varying depths in Bapupura. The depth at which water can be obtained has been decreasing at a rate of 9-20 meters/year.

The materials necessary to construct a tube well–its estimated that each additional foot costs Rs. 650 to dig, in addition to the cost of materials.

Built with a Rupees 10 million donation by a Non Resident Indian, this dam has remained dry since it was constructed a decade ago.

“Don’t keep your taps open don’t invite disaster” reads this sign at Charada’s communal laundromat. Awareness of the worsening water situation is widespread, and town leaders are encouraging citizens to conserve water.

A young girl transports water outside of Ubkhal. Villagers in Gujarat receive 1-2 hours of water in their homes each day, which is often insufficient. Carts such as this offer additional water for sale.

With economic migration steadily increasing, women are often left to work on the farms, as their husbands seek non-agricultural employment.

Farmers are turning to the dairy industry as an alternate source of income. Pictured here are cattle belonging to a family in Fatehpura. The wife bought cows with a loan from the local women’s micro-finance organization. She tends to the cattle as her husband works on the farm.

A pump (illegally) siphoning water from the Narmada canal: one is visible nearly every 30 meters on either side of the canal. The Columbia Water Center scheme has been implemented in a region of Gujarat that does not receive water from the canal, so farmers are at a disadvantage with regard to their access to cheap water.

Below average rainfalls, and the decreasing water tables have contributed to the Sabermati river nearly drying up.

Despite the lack of rainfall, and decreasing water tables, farmers are ekking out a livelihood with water from their tube wells.

Farmers all hope that future generations will leave farming and pursue careers in industry or as professionals, which offer a steady income. This goal decreases long term dependency on agriculture, as well as lessening long term regard for the resources they use.

Monsoon clouds hover above the Narmada Canal. India is experiencing its fourth drought in a dozen years, and farmers are struggling to keep up amidst soaring costs of water.

Results of the UGVCL study

Saachi Gupta started as an intern at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University in June, 2012. Over the summer, she worked on a project in Mehsanna, India for the Columbia Water Center. Her work involved evaluating a ground water saving scheme run by the Columbia Water Center and Uttar Gujarat Vij Company Ltd. (UGVCL), and interviewing farmers and community leaders. Saachi was a senior at Millburn High School, New Jersey, where she enjoyed physics and debate.

Project completed Summer, 2012