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Depleting groundwater: Why India needs to rethink many agri practices

Major crops like sugarcane, rice, cotton, and wheat are becoming more and more difficult to cultivate, given their water-intensive nature.

New Delhi, India Today, UPDATED: Feb 23, 2024 20:25 IST

Posted By: Ashutosh Acharya

Groundwater is vital for farming in India. But overexploitation — years of it — has led to steadily drying aquifers. Major crops like sugarcane, rice, cotton, and wheat are becoming more and more difficult to cultivate, given their water-intensive nature. Yet, government policies by and large favour the growth of staple water-intensive cereal crops. The result: an impending water crisis.


More than one-fifth of rice, sugarcane, and cotton produced in the world are from India, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And, states facing water scarcity are often among the top states producing them.

According to a 2023 report by the Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs, of the farmers using irrigation in the country, 70-80 per cent are groundwater dependent, and “more intensive irrigation frequently (but not always) means more income.” An October 2023 United Nations report also noted, “In Punjab, known by some as India’s breadbasket, groundwater is being depleted faster than it is being replenished.”


The Central Ground Water Board for its National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India 2023 report assessed 153 blocks in Punjab. Of these, around 87 per cent had overexploited, critical, or semi-critical water tables. Only 13 per cent had them at safe levels. More than 87 per cent of the assessed blocks in Rajasthan and 75.5 per cent in Haryana had water tables beyond safe levels.

“Overexploited” refers to groundwater extraction exceeding the annual replenishable groundwater recharge. “Critical” refers to the stage of groundwater extraction between 90-100 per cent. “Semi-critical” denotes water extraction between 70-90 per cent.

India has nearly 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only four per cent of the water resources, according to the World Bank, making it among the most water-stressed areas in the world.

India’s groundwater situation threatens to further exacerbate because of climate change. According to September 2023 projections in the journal Science Advances, by 2050, India’s groundwater overuse, which has so far mostly affected Punjab and Haryana, could cause problems in the country’s southwest, where aquifers don’t hold comparable water reserves.


Groundwater irrigation covers more than half of the total irrigated area in India — and its rapid depletion is a major concern in the country. But this isn’t just an India-specific problem. Irrigated agriculture remains the largest user of water globally, a trend encouraged by the fact that farmers in most countries do not pay for the full cost of the water they use.

“Agriculture irrigation accounts for 70 per cent of water use worldwide and over 40 per cent in many OECD countries. Intensive groundwater pumping for irrigation depletes aquifers and can lead to negative environmental externalities, causing significant economic impact on the sector and beyond,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted.

To combat the groundwater crisis and other adverse climate change effects, the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture has rolled out various plans. Erstwhile agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, on August 8, 2023, said in Lok Sabha that the Per Drop More Crop scheme under the NMSA promoted water use efficiency at the farm level through micro-irrigation technologies such as drip and sprinkler irrigation systems.

One of the major objectives of the Per Drop More Crop scheme is to promote micro-irrigation technologies in water-scarce, water-stressed and critical groundwater blocks and districts, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The 2023 WELL Labs report noted: “A sustainable transition to a less water-intensive crop will require the setting up of strong market linkages for alternatives... Otherwise, the groundwater status in most parts of the district will continue to remain critical and overexploited.” Crops like jowar, millet or bajra, ragi and other millets, pulses and lentils, vanilla, black pepper etc. use relatively very little water and can be promoted in areas struggling with depleting water tables.

Published By: Ashutosh Acharya

Published On: Feb 23, 2024

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