Among the barrage of threats to human survival – economic crises, terrorism, inequality – perhaps the most urgent but least prioritized lies underfoot: groundwater. The World Economic Forum ranks water crises the world’s third greatest risk by impact, and extreme weather the top risk by likelihood. According to a 2016 study, aquifer depletion in agricultural regions could threaten nearly half the world’s food sources and deny 1.8 billion people reliable access to water by 2050. The same study projects that aquifers in India’s Upper Ganges basin may be depleted within 25 years. This alarming vulnerability calls for immediate policy action from national and local governments. India, despite its history of weak national- and state-level water policies, has an opportunity to be a global exemplar.
Mounting Evidence of Crisis
Statistics about India’s groundwater depletion are depressing. The array of problems cuts across urban and rural areas, and the scale is nationwide. According to a 2016 report by the Indian parliamentary committee on restructuring the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board, “the growing dependence on groundwater has taken the form of unsustainable over-extraction, which is lowering the water table and adversely impacting drinking water security.” India extracts more groundwater than any other country in the world. India accounts for 25 percent of the world’s extracted groundwater, more than the next two countries, China and the United States, combined.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
India’s groundwater depletion is a national crisis. More than half of wells show declining groundwater levels. Declining surface water availability is further prompting desperate and agitated farmers to increase groundwater extraction. The challenge is particularly acute in northwestern India, where baseline water stress is extremely high. If current trends continue northern India may face steadily declining agricultural outputs and severe shortages of potable water.” Parts of Delhi consistently suffer serious water shortages every summer. The crisis, however, is not isolated to the north. A recent decade-long study of wells in Maharashtra, a west-central state, found that 70 percent show a decline in groundwater levels.
In addition to scarce supply, water quality is a serious threat. India’s groundwater reserves are not only overexploited and 60 percent vulnerable, but also contaminated. The parliamentary report stated that deep-level groundwater is contaminated by sewage, fluoride, arsenic, and uranium. Incidence of arsenic contamination, as measured by number of affected habitations, doubled between 2013 and 2016. In early 2017, the Union Minister for Water Resources River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation stated that the need to raise awareness about arsenic contamination is urgent. In one West Bengal village, residents have been drinking arsenic-contaminated water unwittingly for two decades. All 200 wells are affected and NGOs are intervening to provide villagers with affordable water.
Groundwater is under constant threat from both agricultural and urban uses. Declining rates of natural replenishment are threatening the sustainability of aquifers in the Indo-Gangetic Basin, which constitute one of Asia’s most densely populated and agriculturally productive regions.
In the early 1980s, groundwater overtook surface water as the primary source for irrigation. It now serves more than 60 percent of India’s net irrigated area compared to 30 percent for surface water. The Indus Basin, which accounts for a significant share of India’s population and food production, was declared in a 2015 NASA study to be the second most overstressed aquifer in the world.
At the same time, urban groundwater is threatened by untreated effluent and a dearth of sewage treatment facilities. According to India’s 2011 census, only one third of urban residents have access to piped sewage infrastructure. Given the increasing importance of cities in the Indian economy, this crisis has the potential to impact not only public health but also further economic development. This threat is especially urgent with growth water-intensive industries like thermal power and mining, particularly as poor treatment of industrial waste has created concentrated areas of contamination throughout India. For example, Gujarat, well known as an economic beacon, suffers high levels of industrial pollution affecting water bodies and aquifers.
Although estimated time horizons vary, United Nations estimates that India will become the world’s most populous country in 2024. With rapid population growth, increased demands for food and energy and consistent poor management, water stress is worsening in regions where groundwater is already overdrawn. While air pollution has drawn recent attention due in part to stunning visual evidence circulated in the global media, the invisible crisis underground has been mostly ignored even though it is likely to have an equally calamitous impact. There have been no meaningful public outcries or effective policy interventions.
Policy Interventions: From Evidence to Action
Fortunately, there are many policy options for addressing groundwater depletion. Unfortunately, political will seems lacking. According to ANU’s Quentin Grafton, the global water crisis “is not just a water problem; it is a people problem.” This implicates not only individual consumption behaviors but also the priorities of politicians and planners. Assuming Indian policymakers are willing to heed overwhelming evidence, a good place to start will be data. Reports by the World Bank and satellite-generated maps from NASA may capture global headlines, but more granular evidence linking local groundwater depletion to declining public health and welfare is needed. Agencies at both the national and local levels should cooperate by monitoring the same variables, committing to the same frequency and robustness of data collection, and sharing the results even if they generate competitive pressure or embarrassment. Water is a greater public concern than individual political image. This approach is possible with proper incentives from federal government.
As data begins to provide a more comprehensive view of the groundwater crisis, a reasonable assumption could be that more government policy attention and resources will be devoted to mitigation efforts. There are several areas for such intervention. First, unplanned and rapidly expanding urban areas contribute to steadily declining groundwater levels. Urban development boundaries can curtail sprawl encroachment on sensitive wetlands and agricultural areas, while permeable pavement and other “sponge city” measures can increase rainwater absorption and minimize the shock effect of flash floods. Second, Indian cities have haltingly adopted rainwater harvesting programs. Scaling up such efforts through implementable policy frameworks and additional incentives can significantly improve water availability. Cities like Singapore provide examples of how harvesting and catchment planning can be done effectively.
Third, existing delivery infrastructure must be improved to more efficiently manage the water that is extracted. Delhi’s water system currently loses 40 percent of supply through leakages and thefts. This needs to be reduced to single-digit. Good maintenance should be neither politically nor technically complicated.
Finally, treatment and reuse of wastewater practices and processes must be significantly improved. Much groundwater contamination is a product of untreated wastewater discharged into urban water bodies. Thus, more intensive treatment measures are essential. Additionally, Indian cities should more aggressively adopt wastewater reuse programs, including purification systems that enable water to be cycled back for agricultural, industrial, and even household use. The latter will depend on public trust of government actions, largely absent in India.
These measures, in addition to conservation awareness campaigns and innovative technologies can arrest continued groundwater loss and possibly reverse it. They would also boost the quality and supply reliability of urban water, reducing incentives for households to install private water pumps which exacerbate groundwater depletion. Until now, many local initiatives have proven insufficient. They have lacked sustained political backing, foresight, and coordinated guidance from the federal government. Elevating the groundwater crisis to the national policy agenda is essential, and the federal government must oversee a system that is at once distributed, standardized and robustly monitored. National un-governability of water can no longer be a cop-out. India’s social, environmental and economic future will pivot on water. Politicians and public must respond.
Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a Research Affiliate at the Center for New Structural Economics at Peking University, and a Nonresident Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.REUTERS/Brijesh Singh