From 300 Miles Up, Satellites See Water Crisis in India's Future

By Eliza Strickland | August 17, 2009 5:59 pm

rice paddies IndiaThe groundwater of northern India is being drained away by irrigation faster than it can be replenished by the annual monsoon rains, and new satellite data shows that the process is accelerating. In an area that’s home to about 10 percent of the world’s people, that could be a recipe for disaster, policy experts say. A growing population with an increasing standard of living will only boost the demand for groundwater, a trend that could eventually lead to a reduction in agricultural yields, shortages of potable water and an increase in societal unrest [Science News].

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) is comprised of a pair of satellites that measure subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity, caused by the movement of water either in the oceans or under the ground. Most famously, GRACE has recorded the shrinking of ice sheets; it has also detected shifting ocean currents, the desiccation of droughts, and the draining of large lakes [ScienceNOW Daily News]. Now two new studies of GRACE’s data have revealed the loss of groundwater from northern India; once water is pumped up from the aquifers for use in irrigation, it either flows away from the region or evaporates.

The two studies, published in Geophysical Research Letters [subscription required] and Nature, focus on different regions of northern India, but came to the same general conclusions. The first study looked at a 1,200-mile-long swath of land bordering the Himalayas and including the New Delhi area. The researchers found that groundwater was being pumped out 70% faster in this decade than the Central Ground Water Board of India estimated it was in the mid-1990s. The apparent surge in withdrawal would have been large enough to turn a once-stable water table into a falling one that demands ever-deeper wells and bigger pumps and may draw in salty or polluted water [ScienceNOW Daily News]. Over the course of this decade, researchers estimate that the water table fell about four inches each year.

Meanwhile, the Nature study examined a smaller, more arid region in India’s northwest, and found that the water table has dropped 13 inches each year between 2002 and 2008. Rainfall in the region was normal over those years, so the changes must be due to groundwater depletion, researchers say. The net loss of water in the northwest aquifers is three times the amount of water contained in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.

We may see many similar studies in the years to come, if populations continue to boom and water becomes a scarcer resource. Governments in many parts of the world often aren’t forthcoming about groundwater or other resources within their borders, so using remote sensing data is the only way to track usage trends for those resources, says Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist … and coauthor of the Nature report. “Big movements of water can’t hide from GRACE,” he notes [Science News].

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Image: flickr / evanosherow

  • Pratap Das

    Dear Sir,

    For last few days I have been viewing , the future water crisis problem. I am really annoyed about the matter. But what is the way out of this. If, for the coming years 2010/2012 all ground water is pumped out how will people live? As a conscious citizen what can I do ? Our government is also developing housing projects/unscientific constructions/devastation of greenary is also another prime reason.

    I am really scared of thinking these all. How to save people. Please tell me, what can we do / how can we alert people/government about this matter and save lives.


  • ricardo

    As you say- your government is developing housing projects- i am not sure this is bad- most Indians do not have houses to live. YOu should learn to share equally with them. I am sure you would never give your land or house to them. You can only alert people when they are educated so concentrate on educating them. Thirldly- your people are dying now due to lack of housing (i see reports of death due to cold-heat-malnutritions, starvation, disease – bad sanitation etc) Hence proper town planning etc is necessary.

  • robot makes music

    Re: Pratap, talk to the Israeli’s about their advanced hydroponics technology. They’ve managed to grow more crops per acre than any other civilization in one of the most arid places around.

  • David Cary

    Folks, you’re dealing with the symptoms. Although they need to be dealt with, the battle will be lost unless you deal with the problem: too many people. Until we can begin to shrink our population worldwide to about half of what it is now, we will only be delaying the inevitible demise of the human species, along with that of many others too.

    Every crisis we’re facing now is caused by too many people and most would be completely solved by halving the population worldwide. I know of only three ways to make that happen: wars, disease and education. Which one would you pick?

    Education is a long-term solution, but it is a solution. Wars and disease merely buy more time, the same as breakthroughs in science that increase the food supply or eridicate certain diseases. Unfortunately humans are great short-term thinkers and our survival is a long-term problem. I don’t think we have a chance.

  • charles

    Patrap Das; The new housing MUST be energy neutral,info all over the net.

    The suggestion “talk to the Isrealis” Is one way to save water.
    It would also be helpful for those regions that still use ground to look into not plowing techniques coupled with monitored use of drip agriculture.
    Your leaders know this. The thought that they are building energy wasteful housing is a major concern, I hope it is not true. If it is, start writing.

  • Chuck Burton

    This article doesn’t mention what will be the real problem for the future: where are all the people of India (and many other nations) going to get their water when the population doubles, as is likely within 30 to 50 years at present rates of increase? Not to mention food. Food and water wars are almost certain in many regions of the world.

  • Prasad

    Pratap, You said unscientific construction. That is probably caused by corruption. First you have to eliminate corruption from government. Take these threats seriously. First verify them by following up with future scientific revelations and see if similar red flags pop up. Next pay attention to scientific ways to fight the problem. Robot makes music pointed you in the right direction. Conserve water by utilizing cutting edge technology. Do some research yourself. Arm yourself with enough scientific data that others can indepandantly verify. Then get community support. Write a column in the local newspaper. Get people’s attention to the matter. Contact Central Ground Water Board of India and see if they take you seriously and are willing to do something about it.

  • Chuck Burton

    I’m sorry to say, Prasad, that you CAN’T eliminate corruption from government. All governments are bureaucracies, and bureaucracies are corrupt by nature. It does’nt matter if they are democracies or dictatorships or monarchies or whatever – they are all corrupt to varying degrees. The best one can do is call attention to the corruption when one sees it, and that’s difficult to do, even in a democracy. But even corrupt governments will pay attention if they see enough criticism, though they may spend most of their efforts trying to alleviate the criticism, rather than the problem.

  • Kevin

    The article does not mention the shrinking Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus and Ganges rivers. If global warming reduces the flow of these and other rivers, it will greatly add to the problem …


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