A crisis brewing underground


India is facing an unseen underground water crisis due to pollution, exploitation, mismanagement and political expediency. Instead of looking for quick-fix solutions, Nitya Jacob urges water bureaucrats to improve water supply systems that use surface water, minimise water losses due to leakage and improve water quality.

THERE is a crisis brewing underground. It has to do with a colourless, odourless liquid called water. And India has been hit with a double whammy of shortages and pollution. Both are serious enough to start affecting livelihoods. India is headed for a groundwater emergency because of changing lifestyles and exploding populations. Compounding this is increasing competition for water from cities and industry; both are growing rapidly and need large volumes of fresh usable water to handle their pollution. The net result is India is a water stressed nation as the per capita availability of water is about 1500 cubic metres (m3) a year which will drop to 1140 m3 by 2050, or in less than a generation.

Exploitation and mismanagement

We are at this sorry juncture despite having an abundance of water, both on the surface and below it, because of mismanagement and political expediency. The water bureaucracy is concerned with exploitation of the resource – how can they source it, supply it, make money (honestly and dishonestly) from it. Politicians have encouraged farmers to use borewells to suck groundwater dry and not pay for irrigation water. Needless to say this has helped large farmers much more than the poor. Groundwater levels have steadily fallen across India with the steepest decline in the most heavily farmed areas or where urban and industrial activities have expanded.

Take for example Bangalore. The city used wells for all its water till the 1980s. Since the technology boom and population explosion, accompanied by the construction boom, groundwater levels have fallen to absurd levels, sometimes as deep at 1500 feet below the surface. The city water supply agency spends massive amounts to bring water from the Cauvery River, 100 km away and 1,000 metres lower than the city. Another example is Gurgaon. In the millennium city, builders constructed apartment complexes, malls and commercial buildings without a thought for water. Groundwater was one of the big drivers of Gurgaon boom in the last decade, but that water is all but gone now. By 2015, Gurgaon will run out of groundwater.

Groundwater now provides 50 percent of India’s water whereas its share should ideally be no more than a quarter. In a good monsoon year, natural recharge rates are around five to six percent from rainfall and a similar amount from seasonal or perennial streams and rivers. Unfortunately the inability of our water bureaucracy to supply enough water to farmers, cities and industries has forced people to turn to groundwater. Aiding this is the easy availability of drills, motors and other equipment needed for a tubewell. The cost of drilling a well varies from Rs. 75,000 to Rs. 200,000 depending on the geology and depth, up from about ` 30,000 in the 1980s; in real terms the costs have fallen. This has led to a tubewell rash with about 30 million units across the country.

Dipping groundwater levels

The real crisis therefore lies below the ground. Like most things below the ground, it cannot be seen. Groundwater is very hard to measure and even hydro-geologists trained in assessing its quantity and quality can at best produce moderately accurate guesses based on the amount a tubewell can pump in a given time and the resultant fall in the water table. It is akin to diagnosing a disease based on temperature alone. We know groundwater levels are falling across the country but do not know for sure how much we have. We also do not know where the water actually comes from since most groundwater, stored in structures called aquifers, usually infiltrates the ground from a distant location. We also do not understand how groundwater moves as that is crucial for understanding how pollution can be transported by these underground streams from one location to another.

To monitor groundwater, there is a government agency called the Central Groundwater Board. Each state has its counterpart departments. These monitor groundwater levels through about 11,000 observation wells, but this data is too sparse to be of much use given the density of tubewells, wells and handpumps. For instance, the agencies may have just one observation well in a block, or taluka or mandal that may have a population of several lakhs with thousands of tubewells. At the observation point groundwater may be plentiful leading to the conclusion the block has adequate resources but the actual situation may be the opposite; the occurrence and quality of groundwater varies from one location to the next. This has erroneously led to blocks being declared as having plenty, adequate or scarce groundwater. The situation may change as the Planning Commission has approved a Rs. 3,000 crore project for the 12th Five Year Plan to map all of India’s aquifers.

In the meantime, the situation is compounded by rising pollution of groundwater by seepage of pollutants from the surface. This is frequently deliberate as industries inject their toxic effluents, by-products of industrial processes into the ground through unused tubewells. This poisons the groundwater and there are no studies to understand the long term effects of this hydrocidal action. For example, observers have found industries in the Meerut area, Panipat and Sonepat injecting toxins into the ground to escape prosecution by the pollution control authorities.

Source of water pollution

Another major source of pollution, much harder to control, is from the run-off of pesticides and fertilisers from agriculture. Indian farmers use massive amounts of a wide range of pesticides on their crops and this is largely unregulated. When they water their crops, these highly toxic chemicals flow into streams, rivers, lakes and openings in the ground, eventually contaminating groundwater. Fertilisers also enter using the same route. This is one of the main reasons for the high toxicity of water in certain areas of Punjab such as Bhatinda where the groundwater is too contaminated to drink. The situation is worsened by over-exploitation that concentrates these toxins in the little water left.

A third source is human excreta. About 70 percent of Indians defecate in the open in rural India. Roughly the same percentage of sewage from cities enters water courses untreated. A small but highly concentrated percentage of both leaches into the groundwater. Over the decades, this has led to widespread contamination of aquifers especially in heavily populated or farmed areas. Groundwater monitoring agencies now say the presence of nitrates exceeds prescribed limits in most of the country; nitrates are an indicator of pollution from human excreta.

Human excreta is a potent source of disease as well. In India, water borne diseases such as diarrhoea, gastro enteritis, cholera, typhoid and jaundice are the single large chunk of the total disease burden in terms of numbers of people affected each year. A study by the World Bank estimates the annual economic cost of open defecation at ` 2,500 per capita. This seems small to us but given the fact that the poor bear the brunt, it is a large percentage of their annual income. Bacteria and other pathogens enter groundwater from excreta and cause these diseases. The problem is compounded because people do not always purify water before drinking nor do they understand water that is clean and does not smell may not necessarily be drinkable.

Search for solution

The solution lies in how we manage water. Water bureaucracies are staffed by engineers. India’s engineering colleges do not teach an understanding of the resource. Engineers learn about canals, pipes, plants and pumps, but not how to manage water as a scarce resource. They can measure the length and diameter of a pipe but are not trained to assess the power of a pump needed to draw water from an aquifer and distribute it to 1,000 people. They play safe or driven by corruption, overdesign a system; the result is a water supply system that overexploits and wastes the resource. Engineers need training in water system design, how to make a water source sustainable and integrated water resources management.

Water bureaucrats who manage projects are equally inept either by design or default. They sanction project unsuited to local geographical conditions. For example, people are allowed to drill tubewells in rocky areas where chances of striking water are very poor. Instead they should improve water supply systems that use surface water, minimise water losses due to leakage, improve billing for water and water quality.

Politicians have to rethink their myopic approach of providing tubewells as a quick-fix to supplying water. The absurdity of the situation was highlighted in the movie Peepli Live, where a dirt-poor farmer is handed a handpump but has neither the interest not the money to install it. Long-term planning by competent people and informed decisions by politicians can help change this trend. Again, they need to be educated in the basics of water management before any intelligent decisions can be expected of them or the bureaucrats.

People need to change attitudes towards water. Indians worshipped water but now treat it with contempt. Industries pumping toxins into groundwater should be penalised heavily. Cities discharging untreated sewage into rivers should be held collectively responsible for the resulting illnesses. Both need to take responsibility not to pollute as there is only so much the government can do to police the country. For their part, enforcement agencies have to work more honestly to arrest this problem and its perpetrators. Instead of sinking tubewells as an immediate, temporary remedy people must demand better services from the government. These few measures can help ameliorate India’s groundwater emergency.


Nitya Jacob

The writer is a research and policy advocacy professional and author with in-depth knowledge of the water sector. He was also the head, policy advocacy and research wing at WaterAid India, a leading NGO.