Groundwater: Manage or Perish

The specter of global climate change and erratic rainfall pattern makes one ponder-how are we going to manage our water? Most of us remain under a false notion that groundwater in unlimited and we can keep drawing as much as we need. It should always be remembered that groundwater is like a bank account. If you keep on withdrawing money from your account without depositing any, you turn in to red in no time. Similarly if there is less or no rainfall or if the surfaces of the habitats are all concretized rain water does not reach the groundwater reservoirs and the groundwater account turns red.

Less rainfall mean a drought.

A country like India depends much upon rainfall for a normal crop. Less rainfall means the entire economy going haywire. Yet another serious problem that emerges is the severe shortage of groundwater because it is drawn in excess of availability to meet the demand of irrigation of crops.

Out of net irrigated area of 58.5 m ha in India, the area irrigated through groundwater accounts for 35.0 m ha (60%) says KD Sharma of National Rain-fed Area Authority, New Delhi in one of his recent paper in Current Science. Over the years India has shown remarkable progress in the field of irrigation. Between 1951 and 2007 irrigation from groundwater has risen by 6.3 times. This is mainly due to various government sponsored schemes for tube-well irrigation, including highly subsidized rates of power for drawing water for irrigation. A census of minor irrigation schemes conducted during 2000-2001 revealed that about 80% dug wells and 60% tube-wells were constructed by the farmers using their own savings. A few states did provide technical assistance to farmers in drilling the wells. In other words drawing water from subsurface is now a kind of joint venture of the government and the farmers.

Is it good for the society in the long run or should it be further controlled by the government? As said earlier the availability of groundwater is like money in the bank. In a normal account the individual knows the balance available after each withdrawal. Here the situation is different. Groundwater account is like a joint account where the account holders are like spoiled sons of a rich father. They squander money, here the society believes that groundwater is perennial and there is unscrupulous exploitation. The net annual groundwater availability is 399 billion cubic meters (bcm) says Sharma. The annual groundwater draft is 231 bcm out of which 213 bcm is utilized for irrigation and 18 bcm is consumed by the domestic and industrial consumers.

The scenario is not very bright. This is mainly because the managers of groundwater (administration of the states) work in development mode without going in to details of demand and supply. This has lead to overexploitation and some of highly productive states like Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan are now water stressed. There is overexploitation of groundwater to the tune of 109 to 145%. Whereas there are areas like Bihar, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa-all facing crisis have 58 to 82% groundwater which is still unutilized for irrigation. Other major food grain producing states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have an annual groundwater draft of 45-85%.

Groundwater is mainstay of the country's food-grain production. In fact a rapid expansion in the use of groundwater for irrigation between 1960 and 1980s has increased the crop output by many folds. Overall the stage of groundwater development in the country is 58% says Sharma. Based upon the groundwater development he divides the major food grain producing states in to three groups.

Group one States include Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. They along with U.P. contribute on an average 97% of wheat and 51% of rice to the central pool. Groundwater development in these areas is more than 100% says Sharma. The group two states include Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In these states the groundwater utilization ranges between 45 and 85% and they are able to provide reasonable household food security. Though these states have 39% net sown area under food grains production, they produce only 32% quantum of food grains in the country due to a lower productivity. 

According to Sharma the states under group three which include Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal have a larger number of poorer farmers. There the groundwater is underutilized to the tune of 58 to 82%. Though the government's policy and implementation is same for these states too, but the individual farmer is too poor to butt in his share of money to bore tube wells or make dug cum bore wells. These regions have been invaded by water ?sharks?. They monopolize extraction and supply of ground water. As such these areas are able to produce only 22% of the food grain for the central coffers because only 30% net sown area in these states is irrigated. 

Under exploitation and overexploitation both are bad. While the Tamil Nadu government has subsidized the power for the farmers heavily so that they can run their tube wells uninterrupted, the farmers on the contrary sell their water to the contractors supplying water to the water starved towns of Tamil Nadu, including Chennai. Not contended with supplying water, once the well dries up due to excessive pumping, these farmers extract sand from the bore hole and sell it too for the skyscrapers to come up. Such malpractices need to be checked sternly. 

The rivers of Ganges system have a peculiar pattern-most of them either supply water to the aquifer or take water from the aquifer. This give and take continues all along the length of the rivers in the plains. Excessive drawl of water from the tube-wells affects the flow of the rivers and vice versa. Rivers have already become a refuse carrier. Along urban areas municipal and industrial waste is dumped on the river banks. Surface being sandy and porous, all hazardous chemicals reach the river water in no time during the rains. From the rivers they travel to the aquifer and finally to the crops. In this regard the government has to be extra vigilant, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where the rivers like Gomti have shown a high arsenic content. Areas fed by the Ganga River in West Bengal are already notorious for their arsenic toxicity.

At present Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Basins have abundant groundwater supply. One needs to carry out a holistic planning of groundwater development in those areas. Once water efficient the states will certainly prosper as the irrigation facilities will drastically improve. While developing irrigation facilities through tube wells in these areas the recharge of groundwater has to be kept in mind. Unlike the northern states where excessive drawl has been allowed, which has made the ground water account turn 'red' in the northeastern states such mistakes can be avoided. Water demand management focusing on need based allocation and pricing, involvement of stakeholders, effective implementation of regulatory mechanisms, capacity building and fostering a sense of identity are some of the measures suggested by KD Sharma for sustainable utilization of groundwater in the years to come.

Please remember that our planet has no mechanism to produce water. Whatever water we have today in any form is a gift from the skies. In case the rain god stops favoring our urban planet then the future generations may just perish. It is high time to learn to conserve water.   


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

Top | Environment

Views: 3535      Comments: 2

Comment Thank you. Great to know about your article. Will surely read it.

27-Nov-2010 09:47 AM

Comment This is a very timely topic one should read. I treated this in a more comprehensive manner in my article 'The Hidden Treasure' published in boloji 7 years ago in 2003.

26-Nov-2010 00:28 AM

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