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The World Economic Forum had reported cases of water crises, one of the least prioritized issues in the world as the world’s third most significant risk to human survival. It is a matter of grave concern for India, being the second most populous country in the world. Due to increase in the overall population of the nation over the years, a 15% decline has been observed in the per capita annual availability of water. Groundwater is one of the most reliable sources of usable water; it is used extensively in the country for agricultural, industrial and household purposes. India accounts for a 25% share of the world’s total groundwater extracted, which is higher than the combined shares of the United States and China. The result of such usage has led to“ the growing dependence on groundwater has taken the form of unsustainable over-extraction, which is lowering the water table and adversely affecting drinking water security.” This has been taken from the reports of Indian parliamentary committee and the Central Ground Water Board. This pattern of continued excess usage has to lead to speculations regarding the reliability of groundwater as a source of usable water due to it’s declining quantity and quality. Specifically, the decline in the level groundwater is acute in northwestern parts of India, which comprises of roughly 600 million people. In these areas, groundwater is not available till the depth of 40 meters. A recent study revealed that within 25 years from now, aquifers (an underground layer of water-bearing rock) in India’s Ganges basin might be completely depleted.

One of the major causes for this alarming situation of groundwater depletion can be attributed to the agrarian nature of India’s economy, i.e. 61.5% of the population is dependent on agriculture. Irrigation sector consumes the majority of groundwater extracted in the country, i.e. 89%. Along with this, the decline in the availability of surface water (one of the substitutes for groundwater) has forced the farmers to switch towards the intensive extraction of groundwater for irrigation purposes. Compared to 30% of surface water, groundwater is now used for the 60% of the net irrigated land. Especially, northwestern India has extreme levels of baseline water stress (the ratio of total withdrawals to the overall renewable supply of water in a given area.) A higher percentage means that now, more of the population needs to compete for limited water supplies and in the absence of sufficient consideration; it can lead to severe scarcity of water. In a recent 2015 NASA study, Indus Basin was declared as the second most stressed aquifer in the world. Another study based on the reports of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) shows that the most intensively irrigated areas of northern India has the most substantial rate of groundwater loss.

In addition to overexploitation, quality of the groundwater is also of paramount concern. Water quality is under constant threat due to the continued reckless usage of agricultural and by people in urban areas. As per the parliamentary report, due to poor management of sewage disposals services harmful chemicals such as fluoride, arsenic, and uranium further contaminate the groundwater. It has been observed that the concentration of arsenic has doubled between 2013 and 2016. It has also been further revealed that 68 districts in 10 states are affected by this high arsenic concentration in groundwater. Some of these states are Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, and Karnataka. As per the same study, it has also been discovered that about 60% of all the districts either have contaminated or depleting level of groundwater.

One of the primary reasons behind this plight of groundwater in the country is due to problems inherited in the groundwater regulation system. In a broad and geographically diverse country such as India, it is an arduous task to monitor and regulate the groundwater systems efficiently. Also, the availability of energy subsidy for farmers has led to a substantial increment in deep down boring and tube wells. As per the statistics of International Water Management Institute, there has been a drastic increment in the usage of tube wells, i.e. less than 1 million in 1980 to 15 million in 2010. During this period the Indian Government began to subsidize much of energy consumption cost associated with extraction of groundwater, and these subsidies are still in place.

When trying to brainstorm solutions, one method would be to revise the provision of the energy subsidy to facilitate sustainable use of groundwater. Findings of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) ‘Economic Survey of India’ 2011, revealed that a gradual phase-out of current energy subsidy should take place. This should be followed along with the identification of farmers who are below the poverty line and the provisions that can set in place to provide subsidies for them. This approach will help the farmers to eventually get adjusted to non-subsidized electric prices and reduce the chances of low-income farmers being deprived of their livelihood. Another way is to develop an efficient groundwater management system at the community and sub-community level. Variation in the cropping pattern can be adapted in acute water-scarce areas with more importance given towards the crops that require a lesser water supply. Development of new sources of water supply should take place to recharge the groundwater level along with more efficient channelization of rainwater. If the current trend in the quality and quantity of groundwater continues, India will find itself amidst huge water crisis. Apart from these suggestions, it is crucial that the government prioritizes the issue of depleting groundwater and takes the sufficient measures to counter this problem at the earliest possible stage.


Advancing Earth and Space Science. (2016, December 15). Limits to global groundwater consumption. Retrieved on June 8, 2018, from AUG 100: Advancing Earth and Space Science website https://news.agu.org/press-release/agu-fall-meeting-groundwater-resources-around-the-world-could-be-depleted-by 2050s/

Planning Commission, Government of India. (2011, October 2). Sustainable Ground Water Management. Retrieved on June 8, 2018, from Planning Commission website http://planningcommission.gov.in/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp12/wr/wg_susgm.pdf

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World Watch Institute: Vision for Sustainable World. (2018, June 13). Reforming Energy Subsidies Could Curb India’s Water Stress. Retrieved on June 8, 2018, from Worldwatch Institute website http://www.worldwatch.org/reforming-energy-subsidies-could-curb-india%E2%80%99s-water-stress-0

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Written By Surabhi Shree

Economics Graduate '18

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