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Surface irrigation won't improve 'dramatic' groundwater depletion in North India

By BN Navalawala* 

Thousands of years old, our vedic scriptures such as Vedas, Upvedas and Purans make special mention, extensively and frequently, about water as one of the five basic elements (पंच तत्त्व) vital for the living world (सजीव सृष्टि), while stating that 'जल ही जीवनम \’.Water is the most essential resource now for major economic and societal headway anywhere in the world.
India occupies 4% of the land but holds 16% of world population, thus water resource -- its spatiotemporal availability and increasing withdrawal with time. Climate change and contamination of water are among the key factors that are responsible for producing additional stress in last couple of decades on water resources.
Groundwater is a critical resource for food security, providing 40% of the world’s irrigation. Millions of farmers depend on groundwater irrigation to help produce 40% of the world’s agricultural production. Post-green revolution in India, overexploitation of groundwater, mainly due to intensive irrigation, has posed serious problems for groundwater management in India. Food grain self-reliance has come largely at the cost of reckless groundwater exploitation, which has resulted in to water insecurity.
Such water crisis is going to be further exacerbated due to growing demand for food grains; which is projected to be 450 million matric tonnes by the year 2050. At the same time, the availability of water for agriculture is likely to go down further (proportionally) as a result of fast increasing use of water by the industry and domestic consumers. As such, this calls for optimizing the efficiency for Water Resources Management for agriculture.
 Overexploitation paves the way for many collateral hazards like, decline of water tables, dwindling yield of wells, seawater ingress in coastal aquifers, rising groundwater pollution etc. As per the latest estimation by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB, 2017) in about 17%, area of the country the annual extraction is more than annual recharge, falling in overexploited category.
 Dramatic regional aquifer depletion is observed, particularly in the northern regions such as Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, where the Green Revolution took root and much of the national grain production comes from.
 If we still continue with recklessness through unplanned and un-sustained extraction of groundwater, the crisis would further aggravate. Groundwater depletion is becoming a global threat to food security, yet the ultimate impacts of depletion on agricultural production and the efficacy of available adaptation strategies remain poorly quantified. Various studies suggest that, given current depletion trends, cropping intensity may decrease by 20% nationwide and by 68% in groundwater-depleted regions.
 Even if surface irrigation delivery is improved as a supply-side adaptation strategy, which is being widely promoted by the Indian government, cropping intensity will decrease, become more vulnerable to inter-annual rainfall variability, and become more spatially uneven. Since, groundwater and canal irrigation are not substitutable, additional adaptation strategies will be necessary to maintain current levels of production in the face of groundwater depletion.
 Climate change is acting as a force multiplier; it is enhancing groundwater's criticality for drought-proofing agriculture and simultaneously multiply the threat to the resource. Extreme events in rainfall reduces the recharge to groundwater since flash floods in place of gradual runoff badly affect recharge.
 Of late, the dialogue on water and the environment has significantly shifted towards ways in which the environment cannot only be conserved but to be managed to meet human needs on sustainable basis and with a focus on working with nature to produce co-benefits for both people and nature. Nature-based (friendly) Solutions for Water has significantly contributed to such dialogue.
 The option of building more surface water reservoirs is increasingly limited mainly due to environmental concerns and rehabilitation issues. The fact is that the most cost-effective and viable sites have already been used. In addition, increasing temperatures lead to increased water loss through evaporation. As part of this shift, groundwater and the subsurface environments that contain it, i.e. aquifers, are increasingly seen as strategic and integral resources for providing water supplies and other natural ecosystem services that support human development and resilience.
BN Navalawala
 Following to population growth, progressively increasing demands for groundwater and climate along with environmental changes have made the current situation more complex. As such, it is now critically important to enhance, manage and sustain services, derived from nature-based infrastructure of aquifers, through managing and optimizing underground water storage to enhance resilience in dry periods or seasons of uncertain and variable climate.
 Deterioration in groundwater quality due to various causes is another serious issue. A contaminated groundwater, even it is available in plenty, cannot be considered as a utilizable resource. The deadly arsenic contamination is increasing day by day and now being reported from 163 districts of 21 states.
 Besides, high salinity, fluoride, nitrate and iron are common water quality issues. Many researchers argue that contamination is rising as the overexploitation of resource is expanding.
Direct links between rights to groundwater and land ownership excludes vast number of landless from direct access to this resource
For protection, conservation and management of ground water resources in the country the Government of India in the Ministry of Water Resources has drafted Model Ground Water (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2016 and circulated to the states/UT’s for implementation with a view to overcome the below listed four main obstacles in achieving sustainable management of this resource:
i. Overbearing power of landowners on access to and control over groundwater leads to failure of regulation in tackling over-exploitation, contamination and protection on a larger scale,
ii. Direct links between rights to ground water and land ownership excludes the vast number of landless people from a direct access to this resource,
iii. Existing groundwater legal regime fails to incorporate many legal developments and Supreme Court pronouncements that have taken place over the past few years, and
iv. Existing groundwater legal regime fails to integrate the fundamental right to water that has been a part of Indian Law for past few decades.
For effective implementation of the Ground Water (SM) Bill 2016, it is critically important to address certain key issues namely:
i. Delinking of land rights from water rights and the possible legal alternatives and likely consequences of such separation,
ii. Right to water to be recognized as a fundamental right under Article (21) of the constitution,
iii. Prioritization of uses with the right to drinking water, being the highest should be recognized under law,
iv. Comprehensive understanding of legal regimes in which environmental and other multiple use values would be required for incorporating in any new legal regime.
Realizing the criticality of groundwater resources, Government of India has also initiated several schemes to address various issues asunder:
  • National Aquifer Mapping Programme is going on for detailed mapping of aquifers since 2012,
  • Atal Bhujal Yojana has been initiated to encourage the stake holders to save groundwater,
  • PMKSY- ground water has been initiated to develop further assured irrigation by extracting untapped groundwater,
  • Jal Jeevan Mission to supply tap (piped) water in all rural households, where groundwater based supply plays a major role,
  • In MGNREGA, the largest poverty alleviation programme in the world, major work components are related to rain water harvesting and artificial recharge. Increased awareness among the various stakeholders and political and administrative determination, through various measures will create significant impact.
*Advisor to the Chief Minister of Gujarat; former Water Resources Secretary, Government of India. This is the inaugural speech delivered by BN Navalawala at the virtual national seminar on “Resilience of Groundwater Resources for Accommodating Changing Climate Scenarios”, organized by the Indian chapter of the International Association of Hydrogeologist, Indian National, the largest association of groundwater professionals globally with branches in more than 160 countries


N k bhandari said…
Very clear thinking and way to sustainable water management strategy. 🙏
Unknown said…
Excellent justice to pros and cons and recommendations are with crystal clarity
Humble appreciation sir,


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