Here today, gone tomorrow: India’s groundwater conservation efforts offer little hope no chance if not accompanied by systemic changes in agriculture | Image: Down To Earth

Stressed Out: India in groundwater catch-22

An alarming report on India’s groundwater reserves has been submitted by the expert committee formed under the National Green Tribunal (NGT). 54% of the groundwater monitoring wells across India have reported a decline — most notably in Haryana, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Close to a third of the 6,584 wells assessed are in over-exploited, critical or semi-critical areas, and only about 10% of these have been notified by India’s Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA). 

With climate change driving increasing uncertainty around rainfall and availability of surface water, agriculture has become increasingly dependent on groundwater which meets 62% of India’s irrigational needs. India also extracts 25% of the world’s groundwater reserves by volume – which is the world’s highest. A new analysis zeroes in on poor agricultural efficiency as a primary driver of water stress in India, despite relatively high volumes of rain. The KUSUM scheme, through which the government plans to add 1.75 million stand-alone and 1 million grid-connected solar pumps by 2022-2023 may further increase stress in drought-prone regions if not planned in conjunction with supplementary sources and micro-irrigation.

Prominent among the recommendations for the agricultural sector made by the expert panel is introducing registration of agricultural groundwater extraction devices such as borewells, ostensibly as the first step in regulating water use.

Such measures, however, run catastrophic risks if not accompanied by systemic agricultural changes. Indian farmers have already been bleeding losses each year due to unpredictable weather. Yields of major crops are also expected to fall in future decades while efforts to climate proof India’s agriculture remains in limbo.

It should only be a matter of time before these recommendations make it to the government’s guidelines regarding groundwater. But a dearth of reliable data or scientific assessments of groundwater and climate change impacts, and the lack of coordination between agencies and departments (as noted in the committee report), could end up adding nutrition to India’s list of stressed resources.