Pumped dry: India’s accelerating and invisible groundwater crisis

Pumped dry: India’s accelerating and invisible groundwater crisis

Acute ​political and ​policy failures ​have put India ​on the edge of ​a full-blown ​groundwater ​catastrophe, ​write Asit K ​Biswas, Cecilia ​Tortajada and ​Udisha Saklani. ​


India is ​facing a ​perfect storm ​in managing ​water. ​Centuries of ​mismanagement, ​political and ​institutional ​incompetence; ​indifference at ​central, state ​and municipal ​levels; a ​steadily ​increasing ​population to ​at least 2050 (​estimated at 1.​7 billion) ​which will ​require more ​and more water; ​and a rapidly ​mushrooming ​middle class ​demanding an ​increasingly ​protein-rich ​diet requiring ​significantly ​more water to ​produce. ​

On top of that ​there is an ​absence of any ​serious and ​sustained ​attempts at ​central or ​state levels to ​manage water ​quantity and ​quality; a lack ​of implementation ​of existing ​laws and ​regulations; ​and pervasive ​corruption and ​poor adoption ​rates of new ​and cost-​effective ​technologies. ​Those are only ​some of the ​reasons why ​water ​situations in ​all the Indian ​states are ​likely to ​continue to ​become ​progressively ​worse. ​

Despite this ​sad state of ​affairs, there ​are no real ​signs that ​politicians are ​waking up to ​the rapidly ​deteriorating ​water situation ​all over the ​country, or are ​willing to take ​hard but ​essential ​political ​decisions. ​Actions are ​mostly cosmetic.​ Policies are ​primarily ad-​hoc, incorrect, ​incoherent and ​rarely properly ​implemented. ​

Politicians ​are looking for ​visible but ​mostly quick ​and temporary ​results from ​one election ​cycle to ​another. It ​does not matter ​which party had ​been in power, ​the results ​have been the ​steady ​deterioration ​of the ​country’s ​water situation.​

India is now ​facing a water ​situation that ​is significantly ​worse than any ​other previous ​generation has ​ever had to ​face. All ​Indian water ​bodies within ​and near ​population ​centres are now ​grossly ​polluted with ​organic and ​hazardous ​pollutants. ​Interstate ​disputes over ​river water ​allocations are ​becoming ​increasingly ​intense and ​widespread. Not ​a single Indian ​city can ​provide clean ​water that can ​be drunk from ​the tap on a ​24×7 ​basis. There ​are no signs ​that this ​situation is ​likely to ​improve in the ​near future. ​

Surface water ​conditions in ​the country are ​bad. However, ​the groundwater ​situation is ​even worse. ​

Groundwater ​extractions are ​growing in ​their ​significance ​and have become ​increasingly ​unsustainable ​over the last ​five decades. ​Consequently, ​in many parts ​of the country, ​groundwater ​levels are ​declining ​steadily. In ​some parts, ​levels are ​declining by ​more than one ​metre per year. ​A lack of ​proper ​wastewater ​treatment from ​domestic, ​industrial and ​mining sources ​has meant that ​groundwater is ​being ​progressively ​contaminated by ​known and ​unknown ​pollutants, ​elevating the ​potential ​health risks to ​humans and ​ecosystems. ​

The monitoring ​of surface ​water quality ​is poor. ​However, ​monitoring of ​groundwater ​quality is ​truly dismal. ​

It is, ​therefore, no ​coincidence ​that the ​highest number ​of protests by ​farmers and ​suicides have ​occurred in the ​Andhra Pradesh, ​Gujarat, ​Maharashtra, ​Karnataka and ​Tamil Nadu ​where ​groundwater ​blocks have ​become ​overstressed ​due to decades ​of over-​extraction and ​poor management.​

During the ​last three ​decades, there ​has been an ​explosive ​growth of ​private tube-​wells in farms ​because of a ​lack of ​reliable ​surface ​irrigation. The ​problem is ​compounded by ​Indian law ​which extends ​exclusive ​rights to ​landowners over ​groundwater. ​These factors, ​plus free ​electricity for ​pumping, have ​contributed to ​an increase in ​groundwater use ​from 58 per ​cent in 2004 to ​62 per cent in ​2011. There are ​no indications ​that this rate ​is levelling ​off.

In order to ​develop ​policies for ​sustainable ​groundwater use,​ it is ​essential that ​reliable data ​on groundwater ​availability ​use and quality ​be systematically ​collected. ​Sadly, ​groundwater is ​not only an ​invisible ​resource, but ​it has also ​been invisible ​to the Indian ​politicians and ​bureaucrats in ​terms of taking ​any timely ​policy actions. ​

The monitoring ​of groundwater ​quantity, ​quality and use ​is a prime ​example. ​Despite having ​four separate ​central bodies ​regulating ​groundwater, ​there is no ​single ​groundwater ​database for ​the entire ​country. In ​2016, the ​Standing ​Committee on ​Water Resources ​of the Indian ​Parliament ​finally ​recommended ​having a ​national ​groundwater ​database which ​could be ​updated every ​two years. ​However, when ​this will ​actually happen ​is anybody’​s guess. ​

Intensive ​groundwater ​extractions ​will continue ​at least over ​the medium term.​ The current ​situation has ​already ​contributed to ​serious ​economic, ​social, ​political and ​environmental ​problems. India ​is also facing ​a rising number ​of interstate ​and transboundary ​river conflicts.​

India’s ​failing ​groundwater ​regime is not a ​new policy ​challenge. ​Groundwater use ​in India ​started to ​accelerate with ​the beginning ​of the Green ​Revolution ​during the ​early 1960s. ​Growth in ​groundwater ​irrigation has ​increased ​exponentially ​since that time.​

Data on ​groundwater ​availability, ​use and quality ​are patchy and ​mostly ​unreliable. The ​best estimate ​is that at ​present India ​uses 230–​250 km3 of ​groundwater ​each year. This ​accounts for ​about one-​quarter of the ​global ​groundwater use.​ More than 60 ​per cent of ​irrigated ​agriculture and ​85 per cent of ​domestic water ​use now depends ​on groundwater. ​India now uses ​more groundwater ​than China and ​the United ​States combined.​

Farmers using ​groundwater ​obtain twice ​the crop yields ​compared to ​surface water. ​This is because ​groundwater ​irrigation ​gives the ​farmers more ​flexibility as ​to when to ​irrigate and ​the amount of ​water they can ​use because ​they have total ​control as to ​when to pump ​and for how ​long. ​

This expansion ​in groundwater ​use has been ​mostly due to a ​government ​policy of ​providing free ​electricity to ​farmers, ​irrespective of ​their income ​levels and ​needs. ​Encouraged by ​external donors,​ who made it a ​condition of ​their loans for ​several ​agricultural ​development ​projects in the ​1970s that ​farmers must ​have 24-hour ​free electricity,​ this policy ​did produce a ​short-term ​benefit of ​increasing food ​production. ​

However, this ​ill-conceived ​policy has had ​long-term costs,​ with serious ​groundwater ​depletion and ​heavy losses ​suffered by the ​various State ​Electricity ​Boards because ​of the ​provision of ​free electricity ​to farmers. ​

According to ​official ​assessments by ​the Indian ​Ministry of ​Water Resources,​ in 2004 29 per ​cent of ​groundwater ​blocks were ​critical, semi-​critical or ​overexploited. ​It also ​concluded that ​the situation ​was deteriorating ​rapidly. In ​2014, the ​Central ​Groundwater ​Board noted ​that the number ​of overexploited ​districts ​increased from ​3 per cent in ​1995 to 15 per ​cent in 2011. ​

In 2009, NASA ​studies ​reported that ​the Indus Basin ​was the second ​most overstressed ​aquifer in the ​world. This ​basin includes ​the states of ​Punjab and ​Haryana, which ​constitute ​India’s ​granaries. This ​study also ​noted that the ​rate of ​depletion of ​groundwater ​levels in North ​India is about ​one metre every ​three years. ​This is 20 per ​cent higher ​than the ​earlier ​assessment by ​the Indian ​Water Ministry ​and indicates ​the true ​gravity of the ​situation. ​

Accelerating ​groundwater ​extractions ​also have major ​quality ​implications. ​In coastal ​aquifers, ​declines are ​adding to ​seawater ​intrusion. In ​addition, there ​are serious ​risks due to ​various types ​of geogenic ​contamination, ​including by ​fluoride and ​arsenic. These ​problems are ​already being ​witnessed in ​several states. ​

Unless urgent ​steps are taken ​to manage ​groundwater ​scientifically, ​there will be ​very serious ​adverse ​implications ​for India’​s food, water, ​energy, ​environment and ​health sectors. ​Nearly half of ​India’s ​jobs are now in ​the agricultural ​sector. If the ​current trends ​continue, by ​2030 nearly 60 ​per cent of ​Indian aquifers ​will be in a ​critical ​condition. This ​means that some ​25 per cent of ​agriculture ​production will ​be at risk. ​This would ​aggravate ​India’s ​employment ​situation. ​

The root of ​the English ​word ‘​rival’ is ​from the Latin ​world rivalis ​which means a ​person using ​the same river. ​Unless India ​can significantly ​improve its ​water ​management, ​states will ​become each ​other’s ​rivals, with a ​similar rivalry ​springing up ​between ​different types ​of water users. ​This will be a ​dangerous ​development for ​the world’​s most populous ​country during ​the post-2025 ​period. ​

Asit K Biswas,​ Cecilia ​Tortajada and ​Udisha Saklani ​

Policy Forum |​ March 10, 2017 ​

Asit K Biswas  is the ​Distinguished ​Visiting ​Professor, Lee ​Kuan Yew School ​of Public ​Policy. ​National ​University of ​Singapore, ​Singapore. ​  Cecilia Tortajada  is a senior ​research fellow ​at the ​Institute of ​Water Policy, ​Lee Kuan Yew ​School of ​Public Policy, ​National ​University of ​Singapore. ​  Udisha Saklani  is an ​independent ​policy ​researcher ​working in ​association ​with the ​Institute of ​Water Policy, ​Lee Kuan Yew ​School of ​Public Policy ​in Singapore. ​

Source: http://bit.ly/2lLOfkw