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NEW DELHI : Four more states have recently been found to be water-stressed to add to the seven already on a Central list amid a growing crisis over groundwater extraction, primarily for irrigation.

Widespread use of groundwater for agricultural production in a setting of economic growth has resulted in India becoming the largest groundwater extractor in the world.

Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are set to be brought on board the Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal) that aims to restore depleting groundwater levels across India, two government officers aware of the matter said.

All of these states have more than 3% of their ‘assessment areas’ falling in the over-exploited category.

The scheme aims to demonstrate community-led sustainable groundwater management and ensure long-term sustainability of ground water resources.

“The Atal Jal project is still in the piloting stage. If it turns out well, we are looking into extending the scheme to Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh," one of the officials said.

It is being implemented as a Central sector scheme by the Jal Shakti ministry since April 2020 in 8,220 water stressed village Panchayats in 80 districts of Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

The scheme also aims to bring about behavioural change at the community level through awareness programmes and capacity building for groundwater management.

It is planned to be implemented in the seven states over a five-year period (2020-25) with an outlay of 6,000 crore, of which 3,000 crore will come from the World Bank.

“Adding four more states under Atal Jal has been proposed, and we haven’t received an approval yet. Once the approval is given, we will be piloting this project to the new states by next year with an additional fund of 5,000 crore," the second official said.

Groundwater plays an important role in increasing food and agricultural production, providing safe drinking water and facilitating industrial development in India. It contributes fresh water to meet the requirements of nearly 65% of irrigated area, which caters to nearly 85% of rural drinking water and 50% of urban drinking water needs.

Experts say poor land use policies in India has resulted in loss of smaller wetlands and degradation of most wetlands that ultimately pushed groundwater levels very low. Most of the wetlands are treated as wasteland by local administrations and encroached for other land-use purposes that need to be immediately stopped.

The latest Dynamic Ground Water Resources Assessment by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) shows that the groundwater extracted in 1,186 blocks, mandals and taluks is more than what is replenished annually through rainfall and other sources.

Queries sent to the Jal Shakti ministry remained unanswered till press time.

Nearly 61% of the observation wells in the country show a long-term declining trend in ground water levels, the CGWB said in the report.

“To restore the ground water table in India, village ponds and lakes or other wetlands in and around villages, towns and cities need to be restored with its hydrological connectivity such as inlet and outlets that would automatically recharge the groundwater for the use of drinking or irrigation. If required, desiltation may be carried out in selected wetlands to increase their water holding capacities," said K. Sivakumar, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University.

“Central government should effectively prepare a policy to provide financial incentives like a subsidy on water bill to states/UTs to improve their ground-water levels by effectively implementing the sustainable water-harvesting and water-use policies without any manipulation," the expert said.

As per the UN World Development report, about 70% of groundwater withdrawals are currently being used worldwide in the agricultural production of food, fibres, livestock and industrial crops, and an estimated 38% of the lands are irrigated by this resource. To meet global water and agricultural demands by 2050, including an estimated 50% increase in food, the development of groundwater could act as a catalyst for improving agricultural productivity and economic growth by increasing the extent of irrigated areas.

Groundwater depletion due to intensive withdrawals for agriculture is becoming an issue of increasing concern in certain areas, where it threatens to undermine food security, basic water supply, climate resilience, and the environmental integrity of groundwater-dependent wetlands and watercourses.

The increasing variability in rainfall due to climate change could lead to frequent and prolonged periods of droughts and floods. “The effects of climate change on groundwater may result in a long-term decline in groundwater storage, saline intrusion in coastal aquifers due to sea level rise and overall resource reduction," Sivakumar said. “Therefore, sustainable ground water management is crucial to ensure sufficient ground water for the future generations to mitigate such adverse impacts. Decline in the storage and availability of ground water is likely to adversely affect all sectors of the economy."

In the third meeting, the National Level Steering Committee (NLSC) of Atal Jal scheme reviewed the overall progress of the scheme and directed the States to expedite convergence for the implementation of the interventions proposed under Water Security Plans (WSP).

WSP is a plan, which specifies investments and actions to meet water demands of a community in a specific GP, tailored to meet the challenges in the GP, and includes any water-related investments or actions to ensure optimum utilisation of surface and groundwater available in the GP. (End)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Puja Das
Puja Das is a New Delhi based policy reporter covering food, farm, fertiliser, water, and climate policies for Mint. Puja reports on farmers' distress and how the agriculture sector is impacting India's rural economy and policy initiatives to help meet the pledges made at COP27. Puja holds a post-graduation degree in Broadcast Journalism from the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore.
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Updated: 26 Mar 2023, 11:35 PM IST
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