India heading towards groundwater tipping point - GulfToday

India heading towards groundwater tipping point

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Illustrative image.

Over 75% of wells in Punjab are considered overexploited, and the north-western region is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability by 2025.

A new report by the United Nations warns that some areas in India have already passed the groundwater depletion tipping point and its entire northwestern region is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability by 2025. Global key numbers are staggering: 21 of 37 world’s largest aquifers being depleted faster than they can be replenished; 70% global groundwater withdrawals used for agricultural production and two billion people relying on groundwater as a primary source of freshwater. Agricultural intensification combined with new technologies and policies that make groundwater cheaper to use has accelerated extraction rates, leading to alarming levels of aquifer depletion. We can no longer consider groundwater as a boundless source of easily accessible freshwater, the report adds.

The report highlights that India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, exceeding the use of the United States and China combined. The north-western region of India serves as the breadbasket for the nation’s growing 1.4 billion people, with the states of Punjab and Haryana producing 50% of the country’s rice supply and 85% of its wheat stocks. However, 78% of wells in Punjab are considered overexploited, and the north-western region as a whole is predicted to experience critically low groundwater availability by 2025.

The Executive Summary of the report states that here are different kinds of tipping points. Climate change has so-called “climate tipping points’, specific thresholds after which unstoppable changes occur, influencing the global climate. When the increasing temperatures push vast systems around the world, like the Amazon rainforest or the Greenland Ice Sheet, past certain thresholds, they will enter a path towards collapse. But tipping points are not always physical, and climate change is just one of the many drivers of risk. Many new risks emerge when and where our physical and natural worlds interconnect with human society. Some tipping points trigger abrupt changes in our life-sustaining systems that can shake the foundations of our societies.

The Summary points out that this is why the 2023 edition of the Interconnected Disaster Risks report proposes a new category of tipping points: risk tipping points that the world is approaching six environmental tipping points: accelerating extinctions, groundwater depletion, mountain glacier melting, space debris, unbearable heat and an uninsurable future.

On its website, the UN report explains, “the 2023 Interconnected Disaster Risks report analyses six interconnected risk tipping points, representing immediate and increasing risks across the world. A risk tipping point is reached when the systems that we rely on for our lives and societies cannot buffer risks and stop functioning like we expect it we are moving close to the brink of multiple risk tipping points. Human actions are behind this rapid and fundamental change to the planet, driving us towards potential catastrophe. Luckily, we are able to see the danger ahead of us. Changing our behaviours and priorities can shape a path towards a bright, sustainable and equitable future.”

One example of such a risk tipping point is the depletion of groundwater needed for agriculture (groundwater depletion), according to the UN report. Groundwater is an essential freshwater resource stored in underground reservoirs called ‘aquifers’. These aquifers supply drinking water to over two billion people, and around 70% of withdrawals are used for agriculture. However, more than half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished. As groundwater accumulates over thousands of years, it is essentially a non-renewable resource. The tipping point in this case is reached when the water table falls below a level that existing wells can access. Once crossed, farmers will no longer have access to groundwater to irrigate their crops. This not only puts farmers at risk of losing their livelihoods but can also lead to food insecurity and put entire food production systems at risk of failure.

This is not a theoretical threat, the report warns. A strong relationship between groundwater and global food production also means that local problems can quickly have far-reaching consequences. For example, the High Plains aquifer in the United States supplies one-third of all groundwater for irrigation used in the country and supports over $35 billion worth of crops such as wheat and soy. However, as unsustainable groundwater extraction continues, around 40% of the aquifer’s area will not support irrigation by the year 2100. Since the United States exports almost half of its groundwater-dependent crops to other countries, places like Mexico, China and Japan will also suffer the impacts.

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