India- Farmers Threatening Long-Term Water Supply By Heavy Pumping of Underground Reservoirs

By Venkata Vemuri

NEW DELHI—India has been struggling with a drought in its northwestern regions. But a more severe, long-term threat to the country, scientists say, may be chronic over-pumping of water from underground reservoirs by farmers trying to meet the nation’s need for food. 

Even before the low-rain fall this year,  scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States, in cooperation with India, were documenting a sharp drop in the level of underground water in India and noting that it was not being replenished.

The research shows that in the six years ending in 2008, more than 26 cubic miles or 109 cubic kilometers of underground water was depleted – double the capacity of India’s largest reservoir and three times the capacity of the largest reservoir in the United States. The replenishment each year has been running about 30 percent less than withdrawals.

“This is probably the largest rate of groundwater loss in any comparable-sized region on Earth,” said V.M. Tewari and his coauthors in a new, soon-to-be published book growing out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration data.  For the research, the American scientists used satellites orbiting at 300 miles above the earth. The book written by Mr. Tiwari along with J. Wahr and S. Swenson is titled Dwindling Groundwater Resources in Northern India, From Satellite Gravity Observations.

American and Indian scientists are working to find a way to balance the use of water and to keep the underground reservoirs from eventually running dry. Matt Rodell, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States, said that “if measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage,” farm production in India could collapse. Drinking water, already in short supply, could become even more difficult to obtain.
The government of India is encouraging farmers to try new varieties of rice that require less water yet produce several crops a year. Rice is India’s staple food crop. Scientists are now testing another new variety called ‘Sahbhagi Dhan.’

Farming has been crucial to India’s growth and development. According to a report on the state of the environment issued this summer by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, heavy irrigation has resulted in “incredible growth in crop production” and “contributed greatly to the national economy and to India’s food security,” The report, citing data from the World Resources Institute, said that 92 per cent of India’s available water goes into farm irrigation.

More than 600 million people live in the north-western states of Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab and the population is growing rapidly. The heaviest irrigation of corps in India is in the states of Haryana and Punjab.

The World Bank has cautioned India that environmental shocks could lead to “irreversible losses.”  The government says in its environment report that urgent measures are needed.  The New Delhi-based | National Water Policy of India estimates that by 2025 demand for water in India may be a about 3,681 billion cubic feet or about 1,122 billion cubic meters annually, very close to the country’s estimated capacity, which would leave little water for coping with unanticipated situations.

Though the drought is not the cause of India’s problem, Dr. Raja Gupta, the New Delhi-based South Asia Coordinator of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, said it was making matters worse.  Nearly 300 of India’s more than 600 administrative districts are dealing with drought. When farmers are getting less rainfall, Dr. Gupta said, “they are pumping a lot more water than the government expected.” So, he said, the water table falls further. The situation is at its worse in the northwestern region.

Bridget Scanlon, a hydrologist at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin, said the problem is a manifestation of “an age-old cycle of human need and activity,” the need “for irrigation to produce food.”  Moreover, she said, it was not just India’s problem. That age-old cycle, she said, “is now overwhelming fresh water reserves all over the world.”

Into The Heart Of Dryness

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Some experts contend that many answers to dealing with problems like drought and the depletion of underground water are already known.  James G. Workman, an American journalist, has written a book that tells how Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of Africa have responded to water shortages.  His book, Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, tells how the Bushmen came up with ingenuous strategies to find and conserve water. Mr. Workman says they had no choice. They never had much water. Mr. Workman spoke about the Bushmen and water in a cable television interview with the Bloomsbury’s Channel.

The Bottle Cap As Symbol of Water Crisis

PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire, United States—Christine Destrempes, an American painter and print-maker, has set out to showcase the problem of water scarcity and deaths from water-borne diseases. She started by scooping up bags of clear plastic water bottle caps from a recycling plant here.  She strung the bottle caps on nearly invisible monofilament line and hung them on a square metal grid to form a cube-like structure. She counted 13,699 bottle caps and that number is the name she gave her creation.

Destrempes said her goal was to make people aware of the multitudes of people around the world who die every day from preventable, water-borne diseases. The main reason for the deaths is that the people lack access to clean drinking water. The United Nations estimates that 1.8 million people or about 5,000 a day die from preventable water-borne diseases. Most of the victims are children under five years of age

Ms. Destrempes designed her creation so that visitors would literally walk through a blizzard of bottle caps.  “Being enveloped by so many bottle caps,” Ms. Destrempes said, “evokes a visceral experience of the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis.”

Destrempes has been travelling to cities around the United States, exhibiting her work in schools and colleges and other institutions.
Her work is on display at the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire through November 24. #


Image Courtesy NASA

Underground water or aquifer.

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