Since the 1960s, India’s groundwater irrigation has increased dramatically, playing an important role in its economy and people’s lives — supporting livelihoods of over 26 crore farmers and agricultural labourers who grow over a third of India’s foodgrains. These benefits, however, have come at the cost of increased pressure on groundwater reserves.
India is the world’s largest user of groundwater and, since the 1980s, its groundwater levels have been dropping. The severity of the problem is particularly acute in the northwest, where levels have plunged from 8m below ground to 16m, so that water needs to be pumped from even greater depths. Worse yet, much of this is non-renewable since recharge rates are less than extraction rates and replenishing this resource can take thousands of years.
This won’t last
Using up such “fossil” groundwater is unsustainable. Moreover, the future of monsoon rainfall remains uncertain; while some climate models predict an increase, others forecast a weakening monsoon, although changes in monsoon variability are already underway and will continue into the future. Historical records show the number of dry spells and the intensity of wet spells have risen over the past 50 years. As climate change alters the monsoon, the large stresses on India’s groundwater resources may increase.
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