India’s groundwater is overexploited, depletion reaching at tipping point: UN Report

Close-up shots stop the current flowing out of the plastic pipe into the rice field near the mound of dry grass.

New Delhi: United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in its report warned that India’s groundwater is “overexploited” and its groundwater depletion is close to reach at tipping point.

According to the report, 78% of wells in Punjab are considered overexploited, and the north-western region as a whole is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability by 2025.

“Agricultural intensification combined with new technologies and policies that make groundwater cheaper to use has accelerated extraction rates, leading to alarming levels of aquifer depletion” the report said.

The north-western region of India serves as the breadbasket for the nation’s growing 1.4 billion people, with the states of Punjab and Haryana producing 50 per cent of the country’s rice supply and 85 per cent of its wheat stocks.

The report ‘Interconnected Disaster Risks Report 2023’, which looks at six environmental tipping points. accelerating extinctions, groundwater depletion, mountain glacier melting, space debris, unbearable heat and an uninsurable future.

The report also found that 27 of the world’s 31 major aquifers are depleting faster than they can be replenished.

Around 30 per cent of the world’s fresh water is stored as groundwater and occasionally brought to the surface through springs, lakes or streams, or is extracted from wells drilled into the aquifer.

Over 2 billion people rely on groundwater as an essential supply of drinking water but around 70 per cent of all groundwater withdrawals are used for agricultural purposes.

Groundwater is an essential freshwater resource stored in underground reservoirs called “aquifers”. “These aquifers supply drinking water to over two billion people, and around 70% of withdrawals are used for agriculture. However, more than half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished. As groundwater accumulates over thousands of years, it is essentially a non-renewable resource,” the report said.

The tipping point in this case is reached when the water table falls below a level that existing wells can access. Once crossed, farmers will no longer have access to groundwater to irrigate their crops. “This not only puts farmers at risk of losing their livelihood, but can also lead to food insecurity and put entire food production systems at risk of failure,” it added.

The report said Agricultural intensification is a major factor pushing us towards a groundwater depletion risk tipping point.

Groundwater irrigation sustains the production of approximately 40 per cent of the world’s crops, including a large portion of staple crops like rice and wheat.

“By the mid-1990s, farmers were pumping around 19 trillion litres per year, and Saudi Arabia became the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporter This vast overextraction is estimated to have depleted over 80 per cent of the aquifer” it added.

The demand for groundwater-depleting crops puts both the exporting and importing countries at risk.

“The demand for food from abroad drives increasing groundwater depletion locally, as farmers are incentivized to grow and sell for an international market” it said.

The USA exports 42 per cent of its crops grown from depleted groundwater, mostly corn, to other places like Mexico, China and Japan but if the groundwater is depleted, then these countries will no longer be able to rely on the US as a source of food.

However, as unsustainable groundwater extraction continues, around 40 per cent of the aquifer’s area will not support irrigation by the year 2100.

“Since the United States exports almost half of its groundwater-dependent crops to other countries, places like Mexico, China and Japan will also suffer the impacts. Additionally, India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, exceeding the use of the United States and China combined”it added.

The report also cautioned for drastic changes in our global agricultural system to be mindful of the limits of groundwater systems and our ability to access this water.

“We need regulations and technologies to ensure the sustainable use of groundwater and preserve this resource for when we need it most” it added.


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