Groundwater management is critical for survival

Even as the Met department's prediction of monsoon rain deficit in the country is affecting forecasts of country's economic buoyancy, the consequent danger of stress on groundwater resources posed by it is less highlighted. On an average, 61 per cent of net annual available groundwater is consumed for various purposes. The states facing severe groundwater overdraft are Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. The picture, as provided by NASA's satellite data (2009) is grim, and shows that in northern India, the ground water levels are declining by an average of one foot per year! Additional extraction of groundwater due to deficit monsoon is likely to take the level of stress to danger levels.

The depletion of ground water is faster in recent years due to various factors: increasing demand for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses; change in cropping pattern, especially growing of paddy and cash crops in non-traditional areas, large extraction of ground water due to drought; subsidised electricity price for ground water extraction in some states; rapid pace of urbanization resulting in blocking of natural recharging of aquifers, and so on.

Chronic overdraft of ground water resources has adverse consequences such as land subsidence, increased energy costs and water quality degradation which impact on surface water rights and the ecosystem. Since the water system is interconnected, when ground water is depleted stream flow depletion takes place which also affects aquatic habitats. A recent report of groundwater contamination in villages around the Kali river in western UP due to river water contamination reaffirms the symbiotic relationship between surface and ground water in many ways, and calls for holistic action for water resources management.

There are 14 principal aquifers in the country. In the past, certain initiatives such as the mapping and management of entire aquifers were undertaken by the Central government. The progress so far is not significant. Out of about 23 lakh square kilometer mappable area, only about 6 lakh square km has been mapped by the central government. Unfortunately, using such maps for aquifer management (including their recharging) along with stakeholder participation is yet to make a visible impact on the ground. What we also need is establishment of ground water management entities at the local level to effectively implement this program.

Who owns the groundwater? Current water rights system assigns the ownership of groundwater to the person who owns the land above the ground water. Thus the 'tragedy of commons' starts: each person's need of ground water is met irrespective of the health of the common ground water resources. There is a big challenge in effectively managing ground water aquifers with multiple owning entities and overlapping jurisdictions. The legislative and policy response to address this problem has yet to take place.

The supply-side augmentation of ground water through scientific development of ground water resources or finding new resources through using advanced technology has to be pursued with much vigour. Similarly demand-side management of ground water through increasing water use efficiency, using proper pricing mechanism, etc, has also to be carried forward across the states.

Since ground water is mostly used in agriculture, increasing water use efficiency in this sector is extremely important. Certain efforts in this direction are noticeable in western and southern India like use of drip and sprinkler irrigation, but other parts of the country have not yet given this aspect a high priority. Improving such efficiency in agriculture also implies a relook at the cropping pattern in states, especially where there is a groundwater overdraft. Motivating farmers to change their cropping pattern requires a massive mobilization program, for which the NGOs/CSOs can be useful partners with the governments.

Integrated water management is necessary for sustainable water management. There is a need to undertake efforts to move 'wet year water' into ground water storage for its use during drought conditions. Volatility of surface water supplies due to climate change impacts will have adverse effect on use of groundwater resources in the coming years. The immediate challenge is to ensure that policy makers realize that effective groundwater management is as crying a need for India's development as socio-economic reforms.