Millennium Post

Groundwater depletion & contamination

Five years ago, when Ramakant Desai, 55, hired a drilling rig to sink a borewell to irrigate his maize fields, he struck water at 200 ft. Today, the rig he hires must drill more than four times as deep to 900 ft.

This is a common story in Desai’s village of Gargoti in the southern Maharashtra district of Kolhapur, as it is 682 km to the north in Jalgaon district’s Bhusaval, where Rajendra Nad, 52, narrates a similar story, complicated by fertiliser overuse. “Overuse of fertilisers has contaminated our groundwater,” said Nad, who farms millet, sorghum, and groundnut.

In a country where 74 percent of farmland is not irrigated and water shortages are growing–this report by EA Water, a water consultancy, warns India will become “water scarce” by 2025–depleting groundwater levels add to an ongoing farm crisis. In recognition of groundwater declines, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said his government would spend Rs 6,000 crore on “groundwater management”, but the details are unclear.

India draws more freshwater annually compared to any other country–761 billion cubic meters per year for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use, according to four-year (2011 to 2015) World Bank data. The scarcity has worsened because more than half of that water is now contaminated, mainly by industry and sewage, sparking diarrhoea, typhoid, and viral hepatitis.

With larger population, China uses 28 percent less freshwater than India
A common argument is that India’s growing water use in inevitable. But China, with 1.4 billion people, uses 554.1 billion cubic meters of freshwater every year–that’s 28 percent less than India.

The consequence: India’s annual per capita availability of water fell 74 percent over 69 years, from 6,042 cubic metres in 1947 to 1,545 cubic metres in 2011, according to this water policy report of the Delhi government.

“The political economy of subsidies has resulted in unsustainable extraction and use of groundwater and eventually to its depletion,” said Ayan Biswas, a water-management expert. Farmers using cheap, subsidised electricity are encouraged to draw groundwater without restriction, he said.

Water depletion in rural India is a result of unsustainable agricultural practices, such as farms in water-scarce regions with water-hungry crops–paddy, cotton, and sugarcane.

More than half of India’s groundwater is contaminated
The other aspect of the water crisis is contamination. Surface and groundwater are laced with fluoride, nitrate, arsenic, and iron.

As many as 650 cities and towns lie along polluted rivers, which contaminate groundwater, according to the latest report of the Central Pollution Control Board.

“Poor environmental management systems” in industries lead to toxic and organic waste discharges of water, the report said. This has resulted in “pollution of surface and groundwater sources from which water is drawn for irrigation and domestic use”.

More than half of India’s groundwater is contaminated, according to a Central Groundwater Board report. As many as 276 districts have high levels of fluoride, 387 districts report nitrates above safe levels, and 86 districts have high levels of arsenic, said the report.

On average, contaminated water caused 10 million cases of diarrhoea, 740,000 cases of typhoid and 150,000 viral hepatitis cases between 2007 and 2011, the groundwater board said.

Back in Jalgaon, Nad’s village is falling back on traditional methods to fight the crisis. “We are looking at reviving the watercourse, to water pooling,” he said. “Hopefully, these will provide water for drinking and crops during dry spells.” 

(In arrangement with, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Sandeep Pai is a freelance journalist and a member of Prathamesh Mulye is a New Delhi-based journalist a member of The views expressed are strictly those of IndiaSpend)
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