Racing Towards Doomsday: The Complicated And Ignored Issue Of Ground Water Depletion

Posted on June 11, 2013 in Environment

By Riya Rana:

Imagine a future where our country faces a huge never-ending drought, where farmers are committing suicide, states are fighting over common rivers, everything is chaotic, various species are dying and the only available water is as good as poison. Fighting for survival seems the only way as water gets scarcer. Imagine it once again- Because this is where we seem to be heading towards. Ground-water tables are falling at a rapid pace, worldwide.

Our water resources are divided in two broad categories: ocean water (97%, unfit for drinking) and freshwater (3%- glaciers, rivers etc). The world has been abusing surface-water resources for years. As rivers, lakes and tube-wells are drying up, we have ventured towards overusing ground-water for all our needs. It is fresh water located in the pores of soil and rocks, or flowing in aquifers below the water table and is relatively protected from contamination by overlying soil and sediments.

Ground water is vital as it accounts for over 65% irrigation water (compared to 15% in 2005), 85% of drinking water supplies in India. Our dependence on surface water has reduced due to extreme pollution. Yamuna, a once mighty river has been declared officially dead. Would you use water from a river which has dead bodies, garbage, pollutants, and is black?


Many villagers have stopped farming. They are pumping out water and selling it to potential buyers- mainly factories. This new trend of ‘Water mining’ or ‘farming of water’ is seen as risk-free. However it’s actually producing a vicious chain of events- Water sources are polluted so we drill out ground water. But since its depleting, we drill deeper and deeper. Subsequently these areas face water shortage and produce lesser crops; therefore more drilling from nearby areas leads to a shortage there. Hence- water shortage everywhere.

India pumps out 46 cubic miles of ground-water yearly, while nature refills only 29 cubic miles (through rain). A fall of 4m/year has been recorded. Note that it takes a lot of pumping to lower the groundwater level since they are generally massive in volume. What will happen when it finishes? Loss of irrigation water means end of agriculture, especially for arid regions. How will we feed a population of 1.2 billion?

Simply running out of groundwater is not the only crisis. As wells are drilled deeper, water extracted shows high concentration (above the permissible limit) of arsenic and fluorides, dissolved from hard rocks. When this drinking water is pumped, it leads to fluorosis which causes crippled limbs, deformed teeth and stunted growth. In most districts of Andhra Pradesh, ground water has already become unsuitable.

Globally the scene is equally terrible. In the Unites States, almost a fifth of the huge Ogallala aquifer has been pumped up till now. Its levels have fallen up to 30 metres in some places. Libya is taking 7 million litres of water per minute from aquifer systems in Sahara. In some areas of Dhaka water tables have fallen beyond 40 metres, due to the 1300 bore-wells drawing out water. The Hai basin in China records a shortfall of 40 billion tons of water annually. When this aquifer is depleted, the harvest will drop by 40 million tons, directly affecting 125 million people.

Possible solutions  like crops which require less water are being worked upon. Much of the irrigation water is wasted and lost due to flooding of fields (by farmers) and sprinklers (evaporation). Technologies are being developed to solve such problems. To tackle the ‘water mining business’ economic actions (such as alternative livelihoods like textiles) will lower reliance on ground water for income. The government can only influence ground water usage till a certain extent. Cooperation towards long term goals should be placed ahead of personal benefits. We have treated water as being cheap for too long. If this continues it will eventually wreak havoc on us. Increased awareness, smart usage, careful research might be our only key to a better future or rather existence of a future.

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