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India’s hidden groundwater crisis

  • Published in Editorial

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 for domestic, industrial, agricultural, energy and environmental needs, a rapidly mushrooming middle class demanding an increasingly more protein-rich diet requiring significantly more water to produce, absence of any serious and sustained attempts at central or state levels to manage water quantity and quality, lack of implementation of existing laws and regulations, pervasive corruption and poor adoption rates of new and cost-effective technologies, are only some of the causes why water situations in all the Indian states are likely to continue to become progressively worse.

In spite of 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, results have been steadily deterioration in the country’s water situations.  

At the Centre, the last truly competent water minister was Dr K. L. Rao, who was in office more than half a century ago! Not surprisingly, India’s water situations have become progressively worsened since the departure of Dr Rao.

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 centres of population are now grossly polluted with organic and hazardous pollutants. Interstate water disputes over river water allocations are becoming increasingly more intense and widespread. Not a single Indian city can provide clean water that can be drunk from the tap on a 24x7 basis. There are no signs that the situations are likely to improve in the near future. 

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

Groundwater extractions are increasing very significantly and have become increasingly unsustainable for over the last five decade. 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. Lack of proper wastewater treatment from domestic, industrial and mining sources have meant that groundwater is being progressively contaminated by known and unknown pollutants, increasing the potential health risks to humans and ecosystems. 

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

It is thus 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 over stressed 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 lack of reliable surface irrigation. The problem is compounded by the Indian laws which extend exclusive rights to landowners over groundwater. These factors, plus free electricity for pumping, have contributed to an increase in groundwater use from 58% in 2004 to 62% 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 been also invisible to the Indian politicians and bureaucrats in terms of taking any timely policy actions.

Take monitoring of groundwater quantity, quality and use. 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 the need for 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 already facing a rising number of interstate and trans-boundary river conflicts. Recurrent droughts have led to growing incidence of violence, political turmoil sand water rivalries between the states, the latest of which has been on the river Cauvery, between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Both of those states fall under “semi-critical” groundwater extraction category. The Ravi-Beas dispute between Punjab and Haryana is another example, where both states are in “over exploited” category. More worryingly, declining groundwater levels in the Indus Basin will most likely exacerbate rising frictions between India and Pakistan over water. 

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% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of domestic water use now depend 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 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 of the 1970s, that the farmers must have 24-hours free electricity, this policy did have short-term benefit of increasing food production. However, this ill-conceived policy has had long-term costs, serious groundwater depletion and heavy losses suffered by the various State Electricity Boards because of provision of free electricity to farmers. 

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

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

Accelerating groundwater extractions have also 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 to India’s food, water, energy, environment and health sectors. Nearly half of India’s employments are now in the agricultural sector. If the current trends continue, by 2030, nearly 60% of the Indian aquifers will be in critical conditions. This means that some 25% 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 rival is which means person using the same river. Unless India can improve its water management significantly more efficiently, states will be rivals of each other as will be different water types of water users. This will be a dangerous development for the most populous country of the world during the post-2025 period.

Asit K. Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada and Udisha Saklani

(Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Cecilia Tortajada is 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.)