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[Burning Issue] Groundwater Depletion in India

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Context

The theme of this year’s World Water Day was ‘Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible’. The primary focus is to draw attention to the role of groundwater in water and sanitation systems, agriculture, industry, ecosystems, and climate change adaptation. Groundwater helps reduce the risk of temporary water shortage and caters to the needs of arid and semiarid regions, but its value has not been fully recognized in policymaking. Due to its high storage capacity, groundwater is more resilient to the effects of climate change than surface water. The international conference on ‘Groundwater, Key to the Sustainable Development Goals’ and the UN­Water Summit on Groundwater are part of global initiatives to highlight the significance of groundwater in sustainable development.

Important Facts

  • Estimates: 85% of the rural and 50% of the urban population in India is dependent on groundwater for fulfilling their needs.
  • With an annual groundwater extraction of 248.69 billion cubic meters (2017), India is among the largest users of groundwater in the world.
  • Almost 89% of the groundwater extracted is used for irrigation and the rest for domestic and industrial use (9% and 2%).
  • High water stress: India is one of 17 countries facing extremely high water stress, according to a report by the World Resources Institute.
    • According to the Fifth Minor Irrigation Census, the groundwater level in India has declined by 61 percent between 2007 and 2017. It was further observed that more than 1,000 blocks in India have become water-stressed.
  • Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), 2018 by NITI Aayog: The water demand will exceed the supply by 2050. Groundwater in India depleted at 10-25 mm per year between 2002 and 2016.
    • 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are declining.
    • It added that about 40% of India’s population possibly would have no access to drinking water by 2030.
  • Extraction value: According to the Central Ground Water Board, the annual groundwater withdrawal is considered to be safe when the extraction rate is limited to below 70% of the annual replenishable recharge.
    • Available data indicate that the level of extraction for the country in 2017 was 63%, from 58% in 2004.
  • Variation across regions: However, the level varied across regions. Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry have crossed the 70% mark.
    • Of 534 districts in 22 States/UTs, 202 districts had stage of extraction ranging from 71% to 385%. NITI Aayog has set the 70% extraction value as the target to be achieved by 2030.
    • Recent studies suggest that groundwater levels are declining in several parts of northern India, especially in regions of high population densities.
  • Quality concern: A quantity­wise safe district may be vulnerable due to deterioration of water quality. Fluoride, iron, salinity, nitrate, and arsenic contamination are major problems.
    • As many as 335 districts reported nitrate pollution compared to 109 in 2006. A high level of nitrate affects human health.
    • Sources of nitrates are mainly anthropogenic and depend on local actions.
    • Biological contamination has also been reported from different parts of the country.

Reasons for Depletion

  • Increased demand for water for domestic, industrial and agricultural needs and limited surface water resources lead to the over-exploitation of groundwater resources.
  • Limited storage facilities owing to the hard rock terrain, along with the added disadvantage of lack of rainfall, especially in central Indian states.
  • Green Revolution enabled water-intensive crops to be grown in drought-prone/ water deficit regions, leading to over-extraction of groundwater.
  • Frequent pumping of water from the ground without waiting for its replenishment leads to quick depletion.
  • Subsidies on electricity and high MSP for water-intensive crops is also leading reasons for depletion.
  • Water contamination as in the case of pollution by landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, and overuse of fertilizers and pesticides leads to damage and depletion of groundwater resources.
  • Inadequate regulation of groundwater laws encourages the exhaustion of groundwater resources without any penalty.
  • Deforestation, unscientific methods of agriculture, chemical effluents from industries, and lack of sanitation also lead to pollution of groundwater, making it unusable.
  • Natural causes include uneven rainfall and climate change that are hindering the process of groundwater recharge.

Impact

  • Lowering of the water table: Groundwater depletion may lower the water table leading to difficulty in extracting groundwater for usage.
  • Reduction of water in streams and lakes: A substantial amount of the water flowing in rivers comes from seepage of groundwater into the streambed. Depletion of groundwater levels may reduce water flow in such streams.
  • Subsidence of land: Groundwater often provides support to the soil. When this balance is altered by taking out the water, the soil collapses, compacts, and drops leading to subsidence of land.
  • Increased cost for water extraction: As the depleting groundwater levels lower the water table, the user has to delve deep to extract water. This will increase the cost of water extraction.
  • Contamination of groundwater: Groundwater that is deep within the ground often intermingles with saltwater that we shouldn’t drink.
  • Constraints in food supply: If groundwater availability faces difficulties then there will be hindrances in agricultural production leading to a shortage of food.
  • Limitations to biodiversity and creation of sinkholes: Water table plays a major role in sustaining biodiversity. Often, sinkholes are created when the water table lowers. These sinkholes are dangerous for buildings and towers.

Policy challenges

  • Estimation of groundwater resources: There is a lack of data available for estimation of groundwater sources and even if they are available, they are indicative and not representative.
  • Crop pricing and water-intensive crops: Decisions such as cropping pattern and cropping intensity are taken independent of the groundwater availability in most areas.
    • Minimum Support Price (MSP) is also available for water-intensive crops leading to widespread cultivation of such crops.
  • Energy subsidies: The challenge is to find a balance between the needs of farmers and the need to ensure the sustainable use of groundwater.
  • Inadequate regulation: Lack of proper regulations and their further implementation has been one of the major challenges in managing groundwater levels in India.
  • Lack of local management: There is a lack of local management of groundwater resources. Local communities have an important role to play in groundwater management and there is a need for devolution of power for local management of such resources.

Government initiatives

(1) National Water Policy (2012) by Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. The policy advocates –

  • Rainwater harvesting and conservation of water.
  • Highlights the need for augmenting the availability of water through direct use of rainfall.
  • Conservation of river, river bodies and infrastructure in a scientifically planned manner through community participation.

(2) Creation of a new Ministry of Jal Shakti for dealing with all matters relating to water at one place in an integrated manner.

(3) Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal): It is a Central Sector Scheme, for sustainable management of groundwater resources with community participation in water-stressed blocks.

(4) Mass awareness programs (Training, Seminars, Workshops, Exhibitions, Trade Fares and Painting Competitions, etc.) are conducted from time to time each year under the Information, Education & Communication (IEC) Scheme.

 (5) Encouraging farmers to adopt micro-irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers.

  • The government has initiated schemes like the DRIP program, more drop per crop, Krishi Sinchai Yojana to ensure economical water use practices in agriculture.

(6) Use of tensiometer: The tensiometer gives visual information about the availability of soil moisture conditions. Irrigating the field based on this information will help conserve groundwater.

Way Forward

  • Routine survey at regular intervals: There should be regular assessment of groundwater levels to ensure that adequate data is available for formulating policies and devising new techniques.
  • Assessment of land use pattern: Studies should be carried out to assess land use and the proportion of agricultural land falling under overt-exploited units.
    • This will help in determining suitable crop patterns in water-stressed areas.
  • Changes in farming methods: To improve the water table in those areas where it is being overused, on-farm water management techniques and improved irrigation methods should be adopted.
    • Methods for artificial recharge of groundwater are also welcome.
    • Bottom-up approach by empowering the local community to become active participants in managing groundwater.
    • Creating regulatory options at the community level such as panchayat is also one among the feasible solutions.
    • Traditional methods of water conservation should be encouraged to minimize the depletion of water resources.
  • Reforms in power supply subsidies for agriculture: The agricultural power-pricing structure needs to be revamped as the flat rate of electricity adversely affects the use of groundwater.
  • Monitoring groundwater extraction: There should be a policy in place to monitor the excessive exploitation of groundwater resources to ensure long-term sustainability.
    • Water meters could be installed to monitor overuse.
    • There should be restrictions to cut off the access to groundwater in areas identified as “critical” and “dark zones”, where the water table is overused or very low.
    • There is a need to treat water as a common resource rather than private property to prevent its overexploitation
  • Preventing groundwater pollution – Steps to minimize and control the dumping of industrial waste into surface water and underground aquifers should also be taken to prevent groundwater from getting polluted.
    • Problems and issues such as waterlogging, salinity, agricultural toxins, and industrial effluents, all need to be properly looked into.
  • The synergy between Central, State and Local governments – Steps need to be taken to achieve optimum benefits of groundwater conservation schemes.
    • This can be done by ensuring coordination between all the ministries and departments of government at the Central, State, and Local levels.
  • Water to be brought under Concurrent List – If water is brought under the Concurrent List of the Indian Constitution, this can help in the development of a comprehensive action plan.
    • Consensus between the centre and states will result in better conservation, development and management of water, including groundwater.
  • Surface water body management: Restoration of ponds, lakes and other traditional water resource structures should be an integral part of the development projects of urban and rural areas and it will substantially develop groundwater potential.
  • Wastewater management: Dual sewage system for grey water and black water and promoting reuse of the recycled water in agriculture and horticulture.
    • Industries should also be encouraged to increase water use efficiency, effluent treatment, reuse of used water, zero liquid discharge, etc.
  • Implementing Mihir Shah Committee (2016) recommendations: Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board could be united and a national water framework with an integrated perspective developed.
    • There is also a need to work out local­level plans covering water resources in all their forms: rainwater, surface water, soil water and groundwater and the resource use sectors.

Conclusion

Groundwater depletion is becoming an alarming issue day by day. It is high time that the causes are paid attention to and appropriate measures are taken to prevent a possible water crisis in the future. Leveraging schemes like Atal Bhujal Yojana which seeks to strengthen the institutional framework and bring about behavioral changes at the community level for sustainable groundwater resource management is vital.

The new paradigm for groundwater management is a socio­ecological challenge, where localism matters. It warrants technical, economic, legal and governance remediation with space for active public participation and community regulatory options to maintain groundwater balance at the village/watershed level.

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