Groundwater Depletion

Need for a New Water Policy

Groundwater Depletion
Groundwater Depletion

Water is the most basic need for all living organism. So, water found anywhere be it groundwater, surface water or from rainfall is boon for life on earth. It is impossible to imagine life without water. Among the different sources, groundwater plays an important role because it is used for fulfilling various needs like irrigation, potable water, water for livestock and also water for various industrial processes. Availability of water is also important for global security as both food and energy security are also dependent on water.

 In India, 90% of rural water supply, 50% of urban water supply and about 70% of agricultural water supply depends on groundwater stored in the aquifers which are porous and permeable layers of earth. This dependency on groundwater indicates the critical importance of groundwater in India. Apart from this groundwater is the primary source of water for domestic use. Statistically, 4/5th of population in india depends on groundwater for their needs. Besides human needs, groundwater is also needed to maintain the ecological water cycle as it is a source for recharging of lakes rivers and wetlands. Groundwater is a more preferred source than surface water because it is cheaper, more convenient and less vulnerable to pollution compared to surface water. Human beings and all animals are dependent on trees for food, oxygen and soil conservation and the trees are further dependent on groundwater for their basic needs like photosynthesis. The interlinked network of plants, animals and human beings is incomplete and would fail without groundwater.

India’s Groundwater Scenario: A Crisis in The Making

India is facing an imminent dilemma of meeting the increasing demand of water of the geometrically increasing and unequally distributed population. Economic and social changes triggered by rapid urbanization have changed the entire water requirement and consumption network and primarily so in areas with hard and impervious soil where access to groundwater is difficult. The major issues being faced is from indiscriminate usage along with wastage of groundwater for agricultural purposes. Over 70% of consumption of available groundwater at a fast rate is hampering the usual slow rate of groundwater recharge due to which groundwater level is decreasing at an alarming rate. Around 80% of total groundwater consumption is for agricultural purposes and irrigation.

Adding to the woes are the various faulty approaches like rampant cultivation of water guzzling crops- sugarcane and paddy instead of less water consuming crops like maize, pulses and oilseeds. This callous way of cultivation mainly in areas of water scarcity adds to the water stress. Furthermore, old irrigation infrastructure and techniques combined with faulty legal framework the Easement Act 1882 which has given the right to access groundwater to landowners on whose land water is found has led to excessive loss of water. This legal provision being followed from decades has encouraged exploitation of groundwater by landowners who view groundwater as their own property and use it as a source of economic gain by selling water to others and completely neglecting the responsibility of recharging it.

India is primarily an agricultural economy which is heavily dependent on rainfed irrigation. But the irregular monsoon has shifted the entire burden to groundwater. At the same time due to this insufficient rainwater from short span of rainfall the recharging of groundwater table from surface runoff has been adversely affected. In addition due to excessive heat the upper water layers in soil are drying up resulting in capillary rise of water from the lower layers and subsequently groundwater level decreases more and more without any input.

Populist, short-term and irresponsible government policies in some states like subsidized/free power to farmers fails to make the farmers realize the importance of water as they indiscriminately pump out water for cultivation. This fact can be seen from government reports which states that groundwater is being pumped at 70% faster rate than estimated. Also illegal encroachments on floodplains of river due to lack of proper management adversely affects the groundwater recharge. Besides all discussed factors the major issue of pollution remains to be tackled. Pollution of groundwater by industrial wastes, seepage of harmful substances from chemical fertilizers, products like gasoline, road salts and  organic pollutants like coliform bacteria make groundwater unfit for use.

Repercussions Of Groundwater Pollution, Depletion And Ways To Tackle It

Due to excessive use of groundwater number of major cities of India like Delhi, Jaipur, Chennai Kanpur, Lucknow, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad are facing difficulty in access to pure and safe water. The Water Stress Index ranks India as 46th highest water risk country in the world. Groundwater shortage causes ecological damage as it adversely affects water cycle thereby causing depletion of river water and an increased stress on surface water sources. Studies show that about 110 cubic kilometer of groundwater was used up between 2002 and 2008 which is double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir. The main areas of depletion in India are north and northwestern states with a depletion rate of around 50 millimeter per year and subsequently it affects the major food grain producing regions like North Indian Ganga basin.

Groundwater depletion will affect surface water and will lead to an infinite loop of environmental degradation which will trigger global warming, decrease in food production and energy production and an increase in the rate of natural disasters. This in turn will further aggravates the current death of about 2 lakh people every year due to extreme water stress and the lack of safe water.

According to NITI Aayog report ‘the current depletion rate will cause a 6% loss in GDP by 2050 and demand for potable water will overtake supply by 2030.’ Lack of proper steps will also cause food security risk and will affect other water dependent sectors like textiles, paper etc. Groundwater depletion will give rise to loss of vegetation leading to increase in desertification changing hydrology and will damage a lot of flora and fauna. Resultant stress from decreasing groundwater will also cause excessive use of surface water like ponds and lakes and will lead to the drying up thereby  turning it into a disease breeding ground of fatal diseases like ebola, zika etc. The indiscriminate use of groundwater will also increase farmers financial burden as they are dependent on private investment for accessing groundwater .

Few  prompt and serious precautionary steps needs to be taken in order to prevent groundwater crisis. First, the government must do away with unnecessary provision of giving ownership of groundwater to land owners and government must bring to action the public trust doctrine which will decentralize the regulation of groundwater and people directly dependent on water source will need to be guided to wisely use and protect water for their own benefit at present as well as in future.

Second, government must ban setting up off industries in areas already suffering from water stress and must introduce a cap on water consumption to regulate industrial water usage. Thermal power plants require huge quantities of water and steps must be taken to replace water by renewable source of energy like solar and wind energy and steps must be taken to disallow water intensive industries in water scarce areas.

Third, steps must be taken to utilize ocean water by building desalination plants so burden on groundwater is reduced. Further, government must promote use of water saving technologies for agriculture like hydroponics, aeroponics, sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation, ridge and furrow irrigation and must also promote water conservation by rainwater harvesting, developing the existing old agricultural infrastructures, intensive afforestation, water shafts/wells for recharge of groundwater.

Fourth, government needs to adopt a long-term plan by doing away with power subsidies for farmers simultaneously giving incentives and monetary rewards for use of less water consuming crops and for saving power along with water. Besides, this the government must strive to increase its export of less water consumer consuming crops like oilseeds, pulses, maize etc. because presently India is an exporter of water intensive crops and it is unwise to ‘export water on one hand while struggling with water scarcity on the other.’

Fifth, government must efficiently use water footprint network to identify water availability and hence make strategic plans to use it sustainably. Moreover, regular audits for an analysis of water management and compliance checks will prove to be beneficial. Lastly, government necessarily needs to adopt a proper PPP model and data-based decision making and competitive network in order to improve water management. This can be accomplished by using developed technology like remote sensing data monitoring example India’s ENVISAT for estimating variation of groundwater with respect to location and other geographical aspects and weather conditions.

National Water Policy

The National Water Policy was formulated by Ministry of Water Resources in order to plan and promote sustainable development and water usage. The first national water policy was adopted in 1987 and subsequently it has been revised and updated twice in 2002 and later in 2012. The  last update in 2012 focused on certain areas for water management for example emphasis on need for uniform national level water law, water important for purposes like drinking, sanitation food security etc. is of primary significance. In order to increase efficiency a system of benchmarks like water footprint, auditing etc. is to be developed. The policy recommended setting up of water regulatory authority and also recommended incentives for efficient use of water, reuse and recycle. It also aimed to address and make up the gap between urban and rural water supply. The main point of focus was the policies recommendation for adopting a model with community participation and encouraging private players for delivery of services. The policy also talked of adequate economy assistance to states for overall planning and management and evaluation of water resources. Lastly, the modified policy aimed to maintain the natural flow regime of rivers and also took into account the changes in climate that affect water management.

In 2017, the Ministry Of Water Resources, River Development And Ganga Rejuvenation came up with ‘Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill’ which was in line with National Water Policy guideline like decentralization of groundwater control recognition of water as public and not private, government security plans etc. This is an improvement over first model bill of 1970s which had failed to sort out the issue of giving landowners unlimited control over groundwater.

Included with the national water policy other approaches have also been taken by the government like NITI Aayog’s ‘Strategy for New India @ 75’ document has highlighted adopting an integrated River basin organization management approach and also setting up water resources regulating authority. NITI Aayog report ‘Composite Water Management Index : A Tool For Water Management’ aims to monitor water resources and bring about required modifications for further development. ‘Jal Shakti Abhiyan’ aims to achieve water security in one 1592 water stressed blocks in 256 districts. In India water is under state list so individual states also have adopted measures for management of water resources. Example Rajasthan’s ‘Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan’ 2016 aims to make villages self-sufficient in water, ‘Neeru Chettut Program’ aims to make Andhra Pradesh free from draught, Maharashtra’s ‘Jalyukt Shivan Abhiyan’ 2015-16 aims to remove water scarcity from 5000 villages by using Geo tagging mobile technology.

However, even after efforts of the government certain lacuna exist in the policy approach like governance remains fragmented which causes mismatch of policies between center and states, the decentralization and giving responsibility of water management to local people was enshrined in older versions but in reality it has been left only on paper and has not yet been properly implemented. The approach fails to recognize that access to water as a fundamental right. Further, the focus is stuck at constraints like faulty Easement Act, 1882 granting water ownership to land owners, subsidized water pricing, poor efficiency of irrigation systems, indiscriminate use of water in agriculture which are not real constraints rather have arose only due to mis-governance. As a result, the diverted focus fails to address real issues of unnecessary stacks of pending PILs burdening the courts, no progress in actual beneficial reforms like Dam Safety Bill and National Water Framework Law. Also, certain goals like providing irrigation water to all farms, utilizing surface water to its full potential ensuring zero discharge of untreated waste etc. are not feasible within the targeted short span of 5 years. Lastly, populist policies like subsidized and free electricity have not been removed and the recommendations made are mainly distant from ground reality.

The issues can be overcome by giving up on conventional approach and deploying strategies based on demand of the hour. There is an urgent need to create for awareness for importance of water and put in place stringent punishments in case of wastage of water and opt for long term goals instead of short-term populist policies. Mainly the center and state should act harmoniously without conflict to establish a stable water management framework. Also, there is a need to analyze causes of failures of previous approaches and subsequently decide what needs to be done to overcome the issues by implementation of achievable targets. The basic and major lacuna affecting proper management is lack of efficient implementation and it needs to be addressed adequately.


Water is of utmost importance for present as well as future and its sustainable management is crucial. Indian government can learn from developed approaches of Israel like 99% penetration level of micro irrigation. A PPP model is needed and all private players, public and government must act in sync in order to ensure proper groundwater management. Government’s approach Like ‘Nal se Jal’ is laudable and must be properly implemented. Remodified, re-energized policy approach with long-term goals based on ground conditions will prove to be beneficial and will help mitigate the impending water crisis.


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