What is the reason behind the fall in water reserves?

What is it?

  • India’s groundwater resources have been overexploited, as experts have been warning for some time now.
  • According to a sample assessment in 2011, groundwater in 19 of India’s 71 districts — about 26% — were critical or exploited, meaning that nearly as much or more water was being pulled out than their reservoirs’ natural recharge ability.
  • In another assessment in 2013, they included groundwater blocks in districts that had gone saline, and this percentage was up to 31%.
  • Groundwater is exploited unequally.
  • The maximum overdraft is in the northwestern States of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.
  • The latter two are key wheat granaries and, despite developed canal-networks, rely extensively on groundwater.
  • The overall contribution of rainfall to the country’s annual groundwater resource is 68%, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures, taken together is 32%.
  • Moreover, the population increase has meant that the national per capita annual availability of water has reduced from 1,816 cubic metre in 2001 to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011, a 15% reduction.

How has this come about?

  • There are many reasons for the decline. Statistics show that right from the mid-1960s, India’s canal network was not keeping pace with farmers’ water demand.
  • Therefore, many of them started installing tubewells to keep up with the needs of Green Revolution-crops that required more water and fertilizer.
  • Free electricity, to pump this water, too helped.
  • Over the last two decades, an overall decline in the quantum of pre-monsoon rainfall has increased dependence on groundwater. For instance, India has registered a sharp decline in its pre-monsoon rainfall this year. Between March 1 and the first week of May, the country should have got at least 70 mm of rain, but has only got 55 mm, or a 20% deficit.
  • The immediate signs of deficit are visible in water storage.
  • According to figures from the Central Water Commission, India’s key reservoirs are, as of this week, 10% short of their decadal average for this time of the year.
  • Less water from these sources means increased pressure on India’s groundwater reserves for irrigating the summer crop, and drinking and industrial use.
  • The fracas between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing of Cauvery waters also has a groundwater angle.
  • The Supreme Court, in a major judgment in February, directed that Tamil Nadu use 10 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of its groundwater instead of banking on Cauvery waters from Karnataka.
  • The judgment even said groundwater, if not extracted regularly, “would be wasted,” thus sanctioning the use of groundwater as a reserve to be exploited at will.

Why does this matter?

  • Other than groundwater being a reserve to be used judiciously, over-exploitation poses health risks. West Bengal, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand face severe problems of arsenic contamination, and one of the causes is drawing water from increasingly greater depths.
  • Punjab and Haryana have for years reported a spike in cancer cases owing to chemical fertilisers leaching into the soil.

What lies ahead?

  • There have been several attempts to get the States to use groundwater more responsibly.
  • The Centre has a ‘model’ groundwater Bill that is not binding on the States.
  • However, 11 States and four Union Territories have adopted it. But the legislation has had limited impact on groundwater exploitation.
  • Last year, the Union Water Ministry brought in a Bill that would require various classes of users to pay for the groundwater they use.
  • More importantly, it tries to change how groundwater is viewed as a resource.
  • Currently, the owner of a piece of land is deemed the owner of the groundwater below it.
  • This Bill attempts to put the State as the custodian of the groundwater.
  • It remains to be seen whether the States will come around to this perspective.


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