Wake up! Squeezing more groundwater can be disastrous

Wake up! Squeezing more groundwater can be disastrous

Wake up! Squeezing more groundwater can be disastrous

India extracts about a quarter of the global groundwater

Rahul Bhandari, IAS

Incessant monsoon rains inundating a major part of the region may be insufficient to make up for mindless depletion of ground water. The statistics represent a harrowing picture of the situation.

Reports suggest that more than 230 billion metre cubes of groundwater is drawn out for irrigation every year in India. The figure is significant because it makes India shoot to the top slot of the countries which extract groundwater for different purposes. The situation in India is alarming because the country accounts for about a quarter of the total groundwater extracted globally. We lead even if the water extracted by the USA and China is combined. A recent report by WaterAid – a non-profit organisation – all other countries in the world together excluding India use 76% groundwater.

According to a report published in The Hindu in November last year, groundwater recharge had declined between 1996 and 2016 in northwest and northcentral India due a reduction in low-intensity rainfall. Low-intensity rainfall during the monsoon was responsible for groundwater recharge in northwest and northcentral India.

A team of researchers from the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Gandhinagar substantiated that a majority of districts in India had experienced significant depletion in groundwater storage. The study was based the data of about 5900 wells collected by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) between 1996 to 2016. The results were published in American Geophysical Union’s journal Earth’s Future, The Hindu reported.

Closer Home

The study had also highlighted substantial decline in groundwater table in a few districts of Punjab. The study said that the depletion in Punjab was at a rate of 91 cm per year. Punjab witnessed a steep fall in groundwater table since 1996.
The figures indicate that the state could face a serious challenge if the depletion is not checked. The farmers in Punjab must get out of the vicious rice-wheat cycle as “rice is the least water-efficient grain and wheat has been the main driver in increasing irrigation stress.”
The problem is not confined to groundwater depletion due to agriculture. Even non-agricultural use of groundwater adds to the problem. Look at the statistics:

  • 9% of extracted groundwater is used for domestic purposes.
  • 2% of groundwater is used in industries.
    Groundwater caters to 50% of the urban water requirements.
  • 85% of groundwater caters to the rural domestic water requirements.
  • 60% of the districts in the country either have issues related to groundwater depletion or degrading quality of groundwater.

The government on its part has been doing its bit to prevent groundwater depletion. The recent formation of Jal Shakti Mantralay to specifically look into water-related issues is a commendable step. The generation of CPCBs and the Water Quality Assessment Authorities as well as the decision of the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath (1997) establishing the Public Trust Doctrine imposes an obligation of Union and State governments to look specifically into the prevention of depletion of natural resources.

The solutions to this problem can be manifold:

  • Instead of taking the plea of ‘individual right’ over the natural resources of one’s land under the Indian Easements Act 1882 everyone must understand their responsibility to save underground water resources.
  • Farmers must be encouraged to cultivate less water consuming crops and subsidy should be provided on the same.
  • The system of hand pumps and tube wells must be replaced by much simpler methods such as using sprinklers in the farms.
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