By 2025, many parts of India could run out of groundwater!
By Tehelka Bureau
The water table across India drops at the mean rate of one metre every three years. By 2020, severe groundwater shortage will hit several Indian states, especially Delhi and Mumbai. By 2025, many parts of India could run out of groundwater! About 80% of the country’s rural water supply for domestic uses is met by groundwater. At the same time, farmers’ dependence on it has grown phenomenally over the last century, as over half of India’s irrigated land is fed by groundwater. Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, Director, School of Environmental Studies (Kolkata) best explains the situation: “If we compare the total amount of available water on earth to a water bottle containing 18 litres of water, the available surface freshwater is only three teaspoons.”
That groundwater is invisible leads to it being taken for granted. Since it is a key resource for poverty alleviation and economic development, the obvious results are over-exploitation and contamination. In the past decade, arsenic groundwater contamination has been reported in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. It appears that a good portion of the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra plain – an area of 569 749 sq km and population over 500 million – may be at risk from groundwater arsenic contamination.
Water contaminated by microbes remains the greatest single cause of human illness and deaths globally. These pollutants enter water systems through agricultural run-off; domestic and industrial effluents, inadequately treated wastewater discharge; erosion; mine and landfill leachate; litter disposal etc. Every aspect of our lifestyle and economy endangers the water sources we depend on.
Granted, the UN declared 2005–2015 the International Decade for Action (Water for Life), ‘to enhance international cooperation in addressing the exploitation and degradation of water resources’. But seven years on, there is hardly any effective move for inter-governmental agreements to protect trans-boundary freshwater systems, or a commitment to cut use of pesticides and toxins that poison water worldwide.
When we trace the growth of our so-called ecological footprint, water is the biggest victim. While the world’s population increased by 300% in the 20th century, water usage increased by 700%! It may not be too late yet. Reducing stress on groundwater systems requires reducing land-based pollution, rehabilitating degraded habitats and conserving water resources. Similarly, replenishing water tables may require more than artificial recharging.
It would be simplistic to expect one piece of legislation to regulate or control the overexploitation of groundwater across India. For instance, while Arunachal Pradesh has developed barely 0.04% of its groundwater resource, Gujarat has tapped into 76%. A composite solution, therefore, should focus on a clutch of measures tailored to every state’s peculiar conditions.
While in agriculture-intensive states, regulating government subsidy for electricity to farmers could bear results, in others, development of surface irrigation networks would take the pressure off groundwater as the predominant source of irrigation. Most importantly, however, a shift in mindset is essential — groundwater needs to be viewed as a community resource, not an individual asset.