Essay : Groundwater Conservation and Management for The Use of Agricultural Purpose in India

Owing to the relative ease and flexibility with which it can be tapped, groundwater is becoming a progressively more popular resource.  By developing groundwater resource, promise of poverty alleviation in many areas sees a hope; yet, its sustainable use and management in regions where it is under threat poses a major challenge.

Groundwater forms a vital natural resource for sustenance of India’s agricultural economy and also meeting the goals of country’s social, economic and environmental needs.  This unique resource is widely available and is a security against droughts. Its linkage with surface water resources and the hydrological cycle, yet directs towards the urgent need of harnessing the surface water and soil. The conditions requisite for its availability constitute the geo-hydrology, aquifers characteristics ranging from deep to alluvium, sediment crystalline rocks to basalt formations and agro climate ranging from humid to sub-humid and semi-arid to arid.

The features which make it more attractive as compared to other resources are its low cost of development, minimum evaporation losses, relative turbidity, uniform quality and temperature, reliable supply and pollution-safe.  It serves as a major source of drinking water to rural population and almost 80% of domestic water usage in rural India is supplied from groundwater and major part of it is supplied to farms, villages and small towns.

Being the largest liquid freshwater resource of the planet Earth, it supports irrigated agriculture to sustain life and secure food for the globe. The groundwater resource of India at present is in a declining state with a burden of almost one fifth of the global population and the largest groundwater user. The ‘groundwater drought’ that India faces at present is a consequence of the rapid and unmanaged groundwater withdrawal.  With less than 3% of terrestrial land mass supporting about 19% of the global populace, India covers more than 30% of the global irrigated land and consumes the largest volume of global groundwater.

The burgeoning population of India demands rapid urbanization and change in anthropogenic water use, further affecting cropping pattern and lifestyle that lead to unsuitable absorption of available groundwater.  This has led to withdrawal of more than 80% of the available groundwater in most parts of the country. Global groundwater depletion (GWD) linked with food production and trade amounts to 33.9% and India has been placed in the top of the list of groundwater depletion.

Causes of Groundwater Depletion

The diversity in hydro-geologic set-up and climatic conditions of the country has led to heterogeneous recharge of the natural available groundwater. Inefficient water use practices, low prices of power for electricity-driven well pumps and supplied water and wasteful irrigation systems with poor maintenance have led to its depletion.

On one hand, the northern India presents highly groundwater-enriched, porous aquifers of the India-Ganges-Brahmaputra (IGB) river basins and, on the other hand, peninsular India constitutes low-yielding, crystalline aquifers.  The climate of the country varies from extremely arid to some of the wettest places on Earth.

Unregulated extraction of water for enhanced irrigation of water intensive cultivation that comprises boro rice including Basmati has led to one of the most rapid and drastic groundwater depletions in human history.

Steps Taken by Government

  •  ​A paradigm shift has been seen through the recent central and state government management strategies on groundwater withdrawal and stress such as Pradhan Mantri Krishi SinchayeeYojana. ​
  • Policies that restrict subsidized electricity distribution for agriculture purpose like Gram Jyoti Yojana are also seen as promising for the future.
  • ​Construction of large-scale, regional enhanced recharge systems in water-stressed crystalline aquifers allocated to Tapti river mega recharge project is one of the major steps undertaken by the government.
  • Interlinking of river catchments, for example, Narmada-Sabarmati interlinking project see a credible step towards replenishment of aquifers through increasing of groundwater storage in near future.

Strategies for Regions With Over-Exploitation of Groundwater

Much of northern, southern, central and western India have one thing in common- they lie in arid and semi-arid climatic zones featuring low to medium rain and low natural recharge rates. The aquifers range from hard rock in southern, western and central part to deep alluvial in northern part. So, for water lifting devices, electric tube wells form the main source of energy here.

Farmers should be discouraged to dig new wells and tube wells and any further investment in creating new groundwater asset is not required in these parts. Rather, efficient usage of existing groundwater structures by investing in water efficiency measures will reap benefits for farmers.

While separation of agricultural feeders from rural domestic feeders and investments in high voltage distribution systems for rationing of high quality power to agriculture is already underway in states like Punjab and Karnataka, what needs to be done is the combining of reduced pumping activity with more efficient water use in order to enhance crop per drop of groundwater.

Innovations in groundwater sector are a prerequisite to revitalization of surface water irrigation sector. Public canal systems need to respond to farmers’ expectations of timely and reliable water supply. Innovations such as on-farm water storage will help increase reliability and flexibility of canal water supplies. This is called diggies in Rajasthan.

Schemes such as diesel subsidy scheme, pump subsidy scheme and solar power schemes already launched in state of Bihar need to be applied to other states that aim to reduce cost of groundwater irrigation.  A major share of India’s groundwater resources is owned by small and marginal farmers and adopting such pro-poor strategies can pave the way for second green revolution in the country.

Ways to Conserve Groundwater

Protecting and conserving water is everyone’s duty and so before relying upon the government to come and fix it, everyone at individual level must be aware of following some basic ways to conserve this resource.

Fixing leaks wherever seen, such as in pipes, toilets and faucets is much larger problem than imagined and water can be conserved by changing high discharge outlets with low discharge ones.

Using water wisely and only when required can reduce water usage. Small alterations in our habits like replacing our flush toilet with a low-flow unit, running laundry and dish washing machines at full load and taking shorter showers can bring good results.

Right from using toothpaste and shampoo to toilet cleaners and detergents, everything drains down our bathrooms and kitchens to end up in water bodies or seep into the ground to mix with the groundwater which is similar to effluents discharged from industries. Treatment of wastewater before release is the prime need. By switching to natural substances for domestic needs like lemon juice, baking soda and vinegar will lend a helping hand towards discharging of less chemical waste.

Wet waste should be separated from dry ones and biodegradable waste can be turned into manure and used to grow plants.

Farmers should be educated to use natural manures and stay away from excessive usage of pesticides that end up mixing and polluting the groundwater.

Septic tanks should be set up far away from source of fresh water and villagers including farmers should be made aware of maintaining septic tanks such that they never make contact with groundwater. An excellent way to conserve groundwater is to preserve rainwater as it reduces our reliance on groundwater.