Groundwater Depletion in
With the Green Revolution in India in the 1970s, easy access to credit to build groundwater wells/pumps, subsidized electricity, and demand for crops, groundwater became an important and lucrative resource in India.
Credit: Matt Zimmerman
The Ganges River basin and Gangetic aquifer groundwater make up 40% of India's GDP (2). Hundreds of millions of citizens rely on Ganges groundwater for their livelihoods and for spiritual connection. However, in recent decades, the groundwater in the Ganges River has been declining primarily due to its exploitation for irrigation. This poses a threat to the agricultural systems in many Indian states, the biodiversity within the river, river transport, and irrigation requirements. Therefore, sustainable groundwater use is an important topic in order to restore, protect, and revive Ma Ganga (3).
Groundwater Depletion and Ma Ganga: Issues and Challenges
The availability of groundwater from Gangetic aquifers has been decreasing, which is in turn affecting the flow of the Ganga. The Ganges River is one of the most exploited rivers in the world and is a crucial resource for 40% of India's population (4). The exploitation of the water from groundwater extraction, overwhelmingly for irrigation, is a practice that has led to this groundwater depletion. Groundwater extraction from aquifers in the Ganges basin, both renewable and non-renewable, has contributed to the river water decreasing from a rate of -.5 cm/yr in 1999 to -38.1 cm/yr in 2013 (5). This pumping of groundwater rates in some areas of the basin has already exceeded the recharge rate. When non-renewable groundwater is pumped, it plays the largest role in groundwater depletion since there is no way to recharge this water source. The Ganges River is one of the most irrigated rivers in India and thus is being exploited at a concerning rate. As food and water demand rises, the importance of sustainable practices is evident in order to sufficiently provide for those reliant on the river.
Climate change is posing a threat to sustainable groundwater management. Two significant challenges that are simultaneously affecting groundwater management and replenishment are severe droughts and a decline in precipitation during the monsoon season, which replenishes the water supply (2). This makes renewable groundwater less available and leads to farmers extracting more non-renewable groundwater, which creates a feedback loop of relying on non-renewable groundwater and further diminishing the resource. As climate change intensifies, more of the river will begin to dry up and less rain will replenish what is the renewable source, which will lead to a negative feedback loop that makes sustainable groundwater systems even more difficult. Other challenges include the wide variety in terrain throughout the sites alongside the Ganges River, which makes a unified policy of groundwater extraction difficult and often inefficient.
Renewable groundwater in the Ganges River refers to water that is pumped and used but is replenished by the monsoon rains.
Use of non-renewable groundwater in India has tripled between 1960-2000, particularly in the Ganges River basin (2).
Non-renewable groundwater is not replenished by percipitation. When it is used, it cannot be made up by the rain the same way that renewable water can.
Renewable vs Non-Renewable Groundwater
Ganges River in Varanasi, India. | Credit: Matt Zimmerman
Groundwater Depletion and Ma Ganga: Programs and Policies in Place
Atal Bhujal Yojana (2020-2025)
Prime Minister Modi approved Atal Bujal Yojana’s launch in 2019, which serves as a large-scale groundwater management program. Its focus is on community participation and scientific communication in order to preserve the groundwater resources of greatly exploited areas in India. These areas encompass many along the Ganga River, and include the states of Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, and reach about 78 districts and over 8,000 village-based political institutions (6). Currently, a standardized system and process for monitoring groundwater and developing Water Security Plans (WSP) are being developed. There is also work to build foundations to promote community participation as well as a focus on educating the villages on the importance and future of groundwater sustainability. It also encourages a decentralized approach to groundwater management, where power is allotted significantly to states and districts. This program includes an incentive-based approach, in which states receive financial incentives in meeting pre-defined goals in groundwater management, including a certain amount of water use and the corresponding improvement of groundwater use (7).
Har Khet Ko Pani - “Water to Every Farm”
A program called Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) was developed with the aim of expanding irrigation accessibility with the slogan “har khet ko pani” and improving the efficiency of water use - “more crop per drop”. The national program aims to enhance the recharge of aquifers and analyze sustainable water solutions, such as purifying wastewater and seeking greater private investment in irrigation systems . It is supported by the Ministries of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Development. This program aims to give states the ability to develop their own irrigation plans based on district and state plans. This program includes the promotion of micro-irrigation, a method of irrigation that requires less water flow and can increase yields while decreasing the usage of water. Other conserving solutions include drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, which encourage farmers to limit water usage while still providing adequate water to their crops. This program oversees many states alongside the Ganges, which include Uttarakhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Haryana (8).
WWF-India’s Rivers for Life
From 2007-2012, WWF-India implemented the Rivers for Life Programme and worked with over 2,000 farmers in 40 villages in Uttar Pradesh in the Ganga Basin. The farmers learned of proper soil-health testing and drought-tolerant planting, which would allow for more efficient use of irrigation systems to limit the over-extraction of groundwater (11). WWF-India is currently working to expand its groundwater management education to large-scale areas along the Ganges River Basin (12).
The National Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme (NAQUIM)
The National Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme (NAQUIM) was implemented as part of the Ground Water Management and Regulation Scheme to accurately map and depict aquifers to plan for groundwater management and enhancement. These characterizations and plans are shared with state governments by the State Ground Water Coordination Communities and include involvement from state and district leaders for specific plans based on terrain and geography. Public interaction programs (PIPs) are also being developed to promote the participation of farmers and local stakeholders within the communities with exploited groundwater. These states include Haryana, Assam, Bihar, and Uttarakhand (9).
Agricultural and Electricity Shifts
A potential solution to groundwater exploitation includes the promotion of low-water intensive nutritious grains, such as nutri-cereals, in school systems for farmers to focus on these crops. This solution holds great potential, especially in the context of India’s problem of access to proper nutrition and the recent focus of nutri-cereals in the National Food Security Act (2013). In addition, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research developed a program to improve the production of rice and wheat in eastern India while using water resources sustainability. Also, electricity reforms, like terminating electricity subsidies, have the potential to significantly lower groundwater use in nearly a dozen overexploited groundwater states in India, such as West Bengal. However, there is not information to make a final say on the effects of electricity tariffs but officials emphasize it as a potential solution for policymakers to consider (13).
India-EU Water Partnership
In 2017, the Working Group of the India-EU Water Partnership (IEWP) developed the IEWP Action Plan. There are nine priorities set forward by this action plan, which includes Ganga Rejuvenation. As part of this plan, an interactive dashboard with essential and relevant information on the river's water quality is in the works. The organization is also working alongside the World Bank’s Water Resources Group 2030 and the Netherlands to develop strategies pertaining to basin and groundwater management. The organization also plans to provide training on E-flows, river basin management, groundwater management, irrigation efficiency, water reuse, etc (10).
Underground Transfer of Floods for Irrigation (UFTI)
The Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP) tested the Underground Transfer of Floods for Irrigation (UTFI) in the Indo-Gangetic Plain in India. This initiative works to use excess water from flooding to recharge aquifers, which store water for irrigation. The test in a specific Ganges plain in India was successful for a period of 3 years. The UTFI system has the potential to strongly benefit farmers by being a potential solution to cheaper alternatives for irrigation than groundwater extraction. In terms of future outlook, stakeholders are looking to expand this practice on a greater scale in the Ganges River basin and are focused on educating those around the areas on the benefits of this technology as a potential solution to excess groundwater extraction (14). UTFI outlook was formally recognized in the Rampur district, focusing on sites with the greatest groundwater exploitation (15).
What Can Communities and Individuals Do?
There are many successful state or village-based programs that have shown great improvement in groundwater accessibility when a decentralized, community-based approach is taken with a focus on education as well. These include Participatory Irrigation Management Systems (farmers involved in irrigation), Water User's Associations (formal organizations with farmers elected as representatives), and Participatory Groundwater Management Programs (collaboration with NGOs to promote a shared resource approach). For more community resources, visit our page here.
Participatory Irrigation Programs - Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Haryana
Water User's Associations - Assam, Bihar, Utter Pradesh and many more gaining representation throughout the stretch of the Ganges (16)
Rainwater Harvesting - rainwater collection on roofs or other surfaces by individuals, can be used either to use as water supply that would otherwise runoff or for groundwater recharge.
Harvest your own rainwater!
Greywater Reuse - reusing shower water, kitchen water, laundry water, etc.
Build your own greywater system by building furrows!
Afforestation - planting trees along the river allows more water to sink into the soil as groundwater recharge
1. Mukherji, Aditi. "Sustainable groundwater management in India needs a water‐energy‐food nexus approach." Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 44.1 (2022): 394-410.
2. Dangar, Swarup, and Vimal Mishra. "Natural and anthropogenic drivers of the lost groundwater from the Ganga River basin." Environmental Research Letters 16.11 (2021): 114009.
3. Verma, Rashmi. “By 2050, 115 Million May Face Food Insecurity Due to Reduced Water Level in Ganga.” Down To Earth, 28 Aug. 2018, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/water/by-2050-115-million-may-face-food-insecurity-due-to-reduced-water-level-in-ganga-61459.
4. Sedagat, Lillygol. “‘Sea to Source: Ganges’ Dispatch: The River Just Needs to Flow - on Pollution, Population, and the Fate of the Ganga.” National Geographic Society Newsroom, 15 June 2019, https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2019/06/15/the-river-just-needs-to-flow-on-pollution-population-and-the-fate-of-the-ganga/.
5. Mukherjee, Abhijit, Soumendra Nath Bhanja, and Yoshihide Wada. "Groundwater depletion causing reduction of baseflow triggering Ganges river summer drying." Scientific Reports 8.1 (2018): 1-9.
6. Viji. “Atal Bhujal Yojana - Vikaspedia.” Atal Bhujal Yojana, https://vikaspedia.in/energy/policy-support/environment-1/water/atal-bhujal-yojana.
7. About Atal Jal, Ministry of Jal Shakti Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, https://ataljal.mowr.gov.in/About/About.
8. Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, https://pmksy.gov.in/default.aspx.
9. Priya, Annu. “Water Resources River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Management of Ground Water.” Indian Govt Scheme - Sarkari Yojna - सरकारी योजना, Blogger, 7 Feb. 2019, https://www.indiangovtscheme.com/2019/02/water-resources-river-development-and.html.
10. “India-EU Water Partnership.” IEWP - India-EU Water Partnership , https://www.iewp.eu/priority-areas.
11. Kaushal, Nitin, et al. "Towards a healthy ganga—improving river flows through understanding trade offs." Frontiers in Environmental Science 7 (2019): 83.
12. “About Rivers for Life, Life for Rivers Programme.” WWF, https://www.wwfindia.org/about_wwf/reducing_footprint/rivers_for_life_life_for_rivers/about_the_programme/.
13. Mukherji, Aditi. "Sustainable groundwater management in India needs a water‐energy‐food nexus approach." Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 44.1 (2022): 394-410.
14. Sandaruwan. “Utilizing Floodwaters for Recharging Depleted Aquifers and Sustaining Irrigation: Lessons from Multi-Scale Assessments in the Ganges River Basin, India. - Gripp.” Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), 12 Jan. 2021, https://gripp.iwmi.org/2021/01/12/gripp-case-profile-series-issue-4/.
15. Ahmed, Farah. “Community Interaction on Underground Taming of Floods for Irrigation (UTFI).” Water, Land and Ecosystems, https://wle.cgiar.org/news/community-interaction-underground-taming-floods-irrigation-utfi.
16. Gandhi, Vasant P., et al. "Institutional structure, participation, and devolution in water institutions of Eastern India." Water 12.2 (2020): 476.
This webpage written by Tehreem Qureshi