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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Air pollution: Delhi’s smog problem is rooted in India’s water crisis


Every winter, Indian capital Delhi’s toxic air is fuelled by farmers burning crop stubble. But the fires don’t stop. Why? The answer lies in water, writes climate expert Mridula Ramesh.

India loses an estimated $95bn (£70bn) to air pollution every year.

From mid-March to mid-October, when Delhi’s air quality varies from good to moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups, there is little discussion about air pollution and its causes.

But then there’s winter. Pollution in any city mixes vertically in the atmosphere, and the height at which this occurs decreases by more than half in the winter, increasing pollution concentration. Two new sources have also been added to the mix. By the end of October, when the rains have stopped, winds from the northwest begin to blow in, carrying fumes from burning fields. Then there’s Diwali, the popular festival of lights, when millions of people light firecrackers to celebrate.

Both of these contribute significantly to the increase in pollution. When Delhi’s air quality reached dangerous levels in the first week of November 2021, stubble burning accounted for 42 percent of the city’s PM2.5 levels – these are tiny particles that can enter the lungs.

Governments have outlawed the practise, imposed fines, and even proposed alternative uses for crop residue such as straw. Farmers, however, continue to burn stubble. Why?

Consider the fields that are on fire. They only receive 500-700mm (19-27 in) of rain per year. Nonetheless, many of these fields grow both paddy and wheat. Paddy alone requires about 1,240mm (48.8 in) of rainfall per year, so farmers rely on groundwater to make up the difference.

The northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which grow a lot of paddy, extract about 48 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater per year, which is not much less than India’s total annual municipal water requirement: 56bcm. As a result, groundwater levels are rapidly dropping in these states. According to official estimates, Punjab will run out of groundwater in 20-25 years, starting in 2019.

The burning fields are a symptom of India’s deteriorating relationship with its water.

Farmers used to grow crops based on locally available water. Tanks, inundation canals, and forests all contributed to smoothing out the inherent variability of India’s volatile water.

However, in the late nineteenth century, the land began to change as the British sought to secure India’s northwestern border against possible Russian incursion. They constructed canals that connected the rivers of Punjab, bringing water to arid lands. They cut down forests, supplying wood to railways that could transport produce from newly watered fields. They also imposed a fixed tax payable in cash, which encouraged farmers to grow crops that could be easily sold. These changes led farmers to believe that water could be shaped regardless of its source – a critical shift in thinking that is still affecting us today.

Smoke from farm fires is a major cause of Delhi’s air pollution

Following India’s independence from the British in 1947, repeated droughts compelled the Indian government to succumb to the “green revolution.”

Rice, a water-intensive crop, had previously been considered a marginal crop in Punjab. It was grown on less than 7% of the farms. However, beginning in the early 1960s, paddy cultivation was encouraged by showing farmers how to access a new, seemingly limitless source of water that lay underground in a cost-effective and convenient manner.

The flat power tariffs used to power borewells were reduced and eventually eliminated, removing any incentive to conserve water. Farmers were taught that water did not need to be managed; it only needed to be extracted. During the heady early years of the revolution, fields began to produce paddy and wheat, and India gained food security. However, after a few decades, the water began to sputter.

To conserve groundwater, a 2009 law prohibited farmers from sowing and transplanting paddy before a predetermined date based on monsoon onset. The goal was to have the borewells run less frequently during the peak summer months.

However, the delay in paddy planting reduced the time between paddy harvest and wheat sowing. And the quickest way to clear the fields was to burn them, resulting in the smoky plumes that contribute to the air pollution in northern India.


As a result, the toxic smog is merely a visible manifestation of India’s shambolic relationship with its water.


Paddy cultivation is drying up India’s groundwater

To address this issue, Indians must re-respect their water, which is a tall order after decades of neglect.


Consider people’s food and crop preferences. Most Indians ate hardy millet a century ago, which could withstand the vicissitudes of India’s water. Because there are far more Indians today, and they eat rice and wheat rotis (flatbreads), millets are an unappealing crop for farmers to grow.


And pricing water, either directly or indirectly through the electricity that powers the borewells, is regarded as political suicide. Meanwhile, as the air quality improves from hazardous to (very) unhealthy, people, courts, and political leaders have moved on – at least until November of next year.


However, the ticking time bomb of depleting groundwater continues. When that is depleted, the November air may be cleaner.


What, however, will India do about food?


Mridula Ramesh is a leading climate and water expert and the author of two books: Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It and The Climate Solution: India’s Climate-Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It.


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