What these grim figures tell us is that man-made factors that affect the environment have already laid down a devastating death toll. India’s farmer suicide crisis is an unparalleled disaster, as millions of farmers stake everything they own on a successful crop. When their crops fail, their dreams fail with them. And the worst is yet to come.
India’s groundwater reserves are depleting rapidly. For when the rains fail, as they so often do, farmers turn to the ground and its borewells for their water supply. Since the 1960s and the Green Revolution, farmers have gotten most of their water for irrigation from borewells. Across India, borewells are the lifeline of millions of farmers. But all borewells rely on a groundwater table – one that we are depleting faster than it can replenish.
In Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, groundwater is consumed faster than it is replenished. In many parts of the country, groundwater levels have gotten so low that farmers build wells more than ten metres deep – a situation that necessitates additional and costly equipment. Rainwater contributes most of the replenishment of the water table, but in most of the country, it is not harvested. In many places, it is not even allowed to seep back into the ground.
According to experts, India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world. And by 2030, it’s estimated that 60 percent of the country’s aquifers will go dry. It’s a problem with a direct human consequence; mass starvation driven by a large-scale failure of irrigation. And the death toll has already started counting up.
In Andhra Pradesh, where some farmers have dug up to 39 borewells to find water in only two, water-related suicides have been on the rise. Those who dig the wells are only adding to the problem that makes them go dry. The fact is that many of these wells are illegal. As per the 2003 Water, Land and Trees Act (WALTA), all farmers must register their borewells with the government. But the reality of digging into the earth is as simple as hiring an excavator.
The problem is a dismal lack of rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge. As far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation, Indians have understood the importance of recharging the water supply. Isn’t it time that our elected government realize the same?
The policy of wasting water
India’s water utilisation is largely wasteful. The country draws out more than twice the groundwater than the United States does (a country with twice the arable land of India, producing far more in agricultural output as well).
One of the most evident signs of wastefulness comes from our cities. Metropolises like Bengaluru and Delhi once had pristine lakes. Now, they are toxic, foam-filled cesspools. In the absence of lakes, only groundwater remains for drinkable water. Both Bengaluru and Kolkata waste nearly half their water supply through leakages and inefficiencies.
When it comes to making a national-level estimation of water wastage, a huge policy problem emerges – an absence of data. India does not track how much water it consumes every year. Without data collection, the water crisis has grown invisibly into one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers this century.
India’s groundwater policy remains guided by state-level implementations of a central government groundwater regulation bill – that dates to 1970, and was revised in 1992 and 2005. A Ground Water Authority exists under the Environment (Protection) Act, operating under the Central Groundwater Board. As environment scholars Veena Srinivasan and Sharachchandra Lele argue, the combined laws and regulations all rely on a concept of ‘sustainable’ groundwater extraction.
The problem is again, one of measurement. Surface level water and groundwater are frequently measured together, and there is a need for an accurate measure that doesn’t double its results. Ultimately, the problem is one of perception – where groundwater is seen as an independent entity not linked to larger water bodies. Srinivasan and Sharachchandra conclude that the governments need to start treating water (groundwater, soil water and surface water) as an integrated flow and that human consumption of water needs to be tempered by its replacements.
The Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017 acknowledges that water is a shared resource, and it places responsibilities on the groundwater user to replenish it. The Bill, still in draft form, suggests an integrated approach – and remains open to feedback from experts.
What is needed is a clear approach to water management – driven first by a mode of collecting data that doesn’t leave us dry of information. India has the largest number of people lacking access to safe water in the world, according to Water Aid. Unless we know exactly how much water there exists, and in what form, we cannot ration, recycle and refresh our aquifers in time for the scarcities of the future.
In the past, humans dug deep into the earth hunting for oil, then called liquid gold. Now, we dig deep looking for water, liquid life. The next hunt below the earth will be for data. The future of water management rests with all of us resident on the subcontinent – and on our implementation of rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging practices that ensure that we are not wasting the liquid life that the planet deals us in limited supply.
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