Govt tightens groundwater monitoring, worried about depleting food output

The government plans to increase the number of monitoring stations and monitored wells to at least 90,000, which also includes increasing the number of digital water-level recorders to 40,000. (Photo: Mint)
The government plans to increase the number of monitoring stations and monitored wells to at least 90,000, which also includes increasing the number of digital water-level recorders to 40,000. (Photo: Mint)

Summary

  • The central government plans to improve how it collects data to minimize discrepancies and ensure better policies are designed for its use in various application.

New Delhi: Facing the critical challenge of falling groundwater levels that threaten agricultural productivity, the Centre is looking to revamp its approach to groundwater management. As part of this, the government aims to expand the network of monitoring wells to 90,000, including 40,000 digital water level recorders (DWLRs) across the country, according to a senior government official. 

This move is designed to enhance data quality and the frequency of groundwater analysis, shifting to a more efficient six-hour data capture cycle.

At present, the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has 26,000 monitoring stations and 67,000 monitored wells across the country. It also has about 6,000-8,000 piezometers (a device to measure underground water pressure), but none of them have digital water level recorders.

“We are planning a few things…We are heavily investing in technology, and digitisation of the groundwater monitoring mechanism is on our radar," the senior government official told Mint.

India is one of the world’s biggest crop producers and more than half of its 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The groundwater that makes up 40% of the country's water supply and is crucial for agriculture has been steadily depleting for years.

Researchers estimate that groundwater level in the country will likely decline at 3.26 times the current depletion rates on an average between 2041 and 2080, from 1.62-4.45 times now, depending on climate and other factors.

A 2021 study found that the overuse of groundwater could cause winter harvests in some regions of the country to fall up to two-thirds by 2025. It could also result in a reduction in food crops by up to 20% nationwide and up to 68% in regions projected to have low future groundwater availability in 2025.

As it stands, the Central Ground Water Board and state governments agencies collaborate to periodically assess the country's groundwater resources. 

A 2022 assessment showed the annual extractable ground water resource at 398 billion cubic meter (BCM). Further, the annual ground water extraction for all use cases was at 239.16 BCM, out of which, 87% was utilized for agricultural activities. 

The availability of groundwater resource and its extraction depends on several factors such as the intensity and period of rainfall, geological strata of the region, the number of existing recharge structures, extraction by consumers for various purposes like industrial application, drinking/domestic use, and irrigation practices that include cropping pattern and crop intensity, among other aspects.

According to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2022, India was among the top 10 countries with the highest share in global groundwater withdrawal in 2017. 

“At the initial stage, we are targeting 40,000 DWLRs across the country. DWLRs have better flexibility in terms of capturing data; we can set the frequency to six hours. Some of the DWLRs also have water quality testing facilities," the official said. This will help agencies monitor groundwater at six-hour intervals, with the entire information being made available on servers through a satellite or mobile reporting system.

Details on the financial outlay for the programme were not provided.

However, the Atal Bhujal Yojana with an outlay 6,000 crore, has been in implementation since 2019 and focusses on demand side management of groundwater. The scheme, deployed across water-stressed areas of states like Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, advocates and incentivizes water-saving interventions such as the use of micro irrigation (drip/sprinkler system), shifting away from high water-intensive crops, use of pipe in irrigation to reduce losses, and mulching, among others.

Queries sent to the spokesperson and the secretary of the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, remained unanswered at press time.

In light of such exploitation, experts suggest that adequate regulations and sensitization programmes will make groundwater visible to its users, while focussed behavioural shift will help reduce the overexploitation and balance aquifer protection. But to do ensure that, the government needs to implement better policies.

"If that well indicates a shallow water level, we consider that the entire area is shallow. Perhaps 5 km away from that place, there might be a different situation," the government official explained. "Increasing monitoring will improve the quality of data analysis and digitisation will help with immediate access to information at a higher frequency, 24/7, which can further improve the quality of analysis," he added.

 

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