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India's Groundwater Levels to Decline to 'Low' by 2025: UN

Approximately 70% of groundwater extractions are dedicated to agricultural purposes, frequently when surface water sources are inadequate.

Shivangi Rai
Around 70 per cent of groundwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, often when above-ground water sources are insufficient. (Image Courtesy- Freepik)
Around 70 per cent of groundwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, often when above-ground water sources are insufficient. (Image Courtesy- Freepik)

A recent report by the United Nations, titled "Interconnected Disaster Risks Report 2023" and published by the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), has raised concerns about environmental tipping points and their potential consequences.

The report highlights that certain areas in the Indo-Gangetic basin in India have already surpassed a critical threshold in groundwater depletion, and the entire northwestern region of the country is anticipated to face severely limited groundwater availability by 2025.

Environmental tipping points represent crucial thresholds in the Earth's systems. Once these thresholds are crossed, they can trigger abrupt and often irreversible changes, leading to significant and sometimes catastrophic shifts in ecosystems, climate patterns, and the overall environment. The report identifies six environmental tipping points the world is approaching:

  1. Accelerating Extinctions

  2. Groundwater Depletion

  3. Mountain Glacier Melting

  4. Space Debris

  5. Unbearable Heat

  6. An Uninsurable Future

A significant concern raised in the report is the alarming rate at which groundwater is being depleted.

About 70% of groundwater withdrawals are allocated to agriculture, especially when surface water sources are insufficient. Aquifers, underground water reservoirs, play a vital role in mitigating agricultural losses caused by drought, a challenge expected to worsen due to climate change.

However, the report warns that many major aquifers worldwide are depleting faster than they can naturally recharge. When the water table drops below a level accessible by existing wells, it threatens farmers' access to water, jeopardizing entire food production systems.

Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, have already exceeded the groundwater risk tipping point, while others, including India, are not far from it.

India is a major concern in the report as it is the largest global user of groundwater, surpassing the United States and China combined. The northwestern region of India, which includes the states of Punjab and Haryana, serves as a critical agricultural hub, producing 50% of the nation's rice supply and 85% of its wheat stocks.

However, 78% of wells in Punjab are classified as overexploited, and the entire northwestern region is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability by 2025.

Jack O'Connor, the lead author and senior expert at UNU-EHS emphasizes the urgency of the situation, stating that as these tipping points approach, we will already start to experience their impacts. Once these points are crossed, it becomes increasingly challenging to reverse the changes. The report serves as a vital resource to help us understand the risks we face, the causes behind them, and the urgent changes needed to avert potentially catastrophic environmental consequences.

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