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Review: UN World Water Development Report 2022 highlights the over-exploitation of groundwater

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In March 2022, the UN released the 2022 edition of the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR), which focuses on groundwater, aiming to make “the invisible visible.” According to the report, 99% of the Earth’s running freshwater is groundwater. Among other things, the report highlights the overexploitation of this precious resource and why proper management is the need of the hour.

Recently, the National Human Rights Commission of India took suo moto cognizance of a media report on the hazardous contamination of groundwater near four landfill sites in Delhi. The media report stated that the Delhi Pollution Control Committee had collected samples from several sites near each landfill site in 2021, which were found to be highly contaminated, and far beyond the desirable limit. It also noted that the primary source of contamination in the groundwater was un-segregated waste being dumped at the landfill sites where the waste is leaching into the soil. Acknowledging the threat this poses to health and the environment, the Commission issued notices to the Secretary, Union Jal Shakti Ministry, Chief Secretary, Delhi Government and Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), seeking a detailed report on the matter from them within six weeks, including the steps being taken to deal with the issue. It is in this context, that a recent UN report on groundwater assumes significance. 

UN World Water Development Report 2020 focuses on groundwater

In March 2022, the UN released the 2022 edition of the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR). This year’s report focuses on groundwater, aiming to make “the invisible visible.” According to the report, 99% of the Earth’s running freshwater is groundwater. However, since it is invisible, groundwater tends to be poorly understood and mismanaged. Freshwater constitutes only 1% of the total water available globally.

About 50% of the volume of water withdrawn for domestic use by the global population is met through groundwater. Further, 25% of all water withdrawn for irrigation covering 38% of the world’s irrigated land is also met through groundwater. Though it has the potential to provide social, economic, and environmental benefits to societies, pollution and overuse of groundwater pose a significant threat to valuable resource. Once polluted, aquifer zones or groundwater, remains polluted and reversing this is practically impossible. The challenges and opportunities in developing, managing, and governing groundwater across the world have also been outlined in the UN report. The report has also put forth recommendations aimed to utilize groundwater’s potential for sustainable development and climate action. 

Groundwater withdrawal globally has gone up 6 times since the 1950s

The share of groundwater in total freshwater withdrawal has gone up from 12% in 1950 to 25% in 2017 while the total global groundwater withdrawal has increased from 158 km³/year in 1950 to 959 km³ in 2017. Asia accounts for two-thirds of the total quantity withdrawn with prominent shares in South Asia and East Asia. North America withdrew the second-largest share of 16% of the global groundwater withdrawal. Although Africa accounts for about 17% of the global population, its groundwater withdrawal is only around 5% of the global total while Australia & Oceania, where population size is low, also has a very low share. 

9 countries alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of the estimated withdrawal in 2017

Nine countries alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of the estimated withdrawal in 2017 as per the report. These nine countries are India, the USA, China, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and France. While groundwater withdrawal rates have stabilized in the USA, most of the European countries, and China, the same has increased in India. In fact, 8 of the ten countries accounting for 75% of the total global groundwater withdrawal are in Asia (India, China, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey), and two in North America (USA and Mexico).

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Source: UNWWDR, 2022

Groundwater is primarily used for agriculture

Globally, about 69% of the total volume of groundwater withdrawn is used in the agriculture sector, 22% for domestic purposes, and 9% for industrial purposes. Across continents, the groundwater used in Asia, the most populous continent is over 100 km3 more than the total groundwater withdrawn in the remaining five continents. Except in Europe, the primary use of groundwater is for agriculture purposes in the rest of the continents. In Europe, groundwater is mainly used for domestic purposes. 

India is the largest groundwater user globally with 26% of global groundwater extraction

The report also notes that India is the largest groundwater user globally with an estimated withdrawal of 251 km³ per year through an estimated 20 million wells and tube wells. This accounts for almost 26% of the groundwater extracted globally. About 89% of this groundwater is used in India for irrigation. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan use more than 90% of the groundwater for irrigation. While groundwater irrigation contributed to the improved agricultural production post-green revolution, the same has been the cause of India’s water crisis. The free electricity/low tariff for pumping groundwater to support agriculture and the plantation of water-intensive crops even in semi-arid regions has contributed to the depletion of groundwater levels in the country, especially in northwestern and peninsular southern India. In India, 60% of the electricity used in the water sector is for groundwater abstraction. 

Highlighting the case of Chennai from 2017 to 2019, the report stressed on how groundwater helped the city at the time of severe water supply crises. The main reservoirs in the city had almost dried up due to persistent drought. The total demand was 830 Ml/day while only 520 Ml/day could be supplied by the local groundwater. Poor recharge of groundwater and overexploitation of aquifers over the years had resulted in saltwater intrusion making the fresh aquifers saline. The city had to deploy thousands of tankers with multiple trips daily for meeting the demand by taking groundwater from neighbouring rural areas. This can also be considered an example of poor governance of available groundwater resources adding to water crises. 

The report emphasized on the need for groundwater governance aimed at enabling groundwater management, planning and policy implementation. One of the challenges to this is the unavailability of data, information and knowledge on groundwater and aquifers. Regular monitoring of groundwater levels and quality should be the first step towards groundwater management. 

Countries must adopt groundwater policies

Groundwater is an often-neglected topic. The report also called for the adoption of a groundwater policy that primarily focuses on the utilization of groundwater after abstraction. The policy should involve actors ranging from local groundwater users and technicians to scientists, policymakers and investors and provide for integrated decision making. India’s National Water Policy of 2012 which states that groundwater “needs to be managed as a community resource held, by the state, under public trust doctrine to achieve food security, livelihood, and equitable and sustainable development for all” has been cited in the report as a policy intervention in this matter. However, it also notes that the extraction of groundwater continues without strict regulation. 

MJS Abhiyan in Rajasthan has been cited in the report as a successful policy intervention to improve the water table

Additionally, the report also highlighted the groundwater recharge in Rajasthan where the state government launched Mukhyamantri Jal Swawalamban Abhiyan (MJSA) to help rural communities become self-reliant in meeting water needs in 2016. Irrigation tanks, dams, trenches, etc. for water harvesting by capturing runoff were constructed, micro-irrigation was promoted, and more trees were planted in barren wastelands to improve the watershed. Interim results after two monsoons showed that there was an increase in groundwater levels by an average of 1.4 m in 16 out of 21 non-desert districts in the state. Participatory planning through the creation of ownership and behavioural change around groundwater overuse by involving villagers, and empowering people to monitor rainwater, operating automatic weather stations, etc. have been cited as an example of the participatory groundwater planning process for management, in the report. 

Groundwater in 19% of the assessment units was categorized as ‘overexploited’ or ‘critical’

According to the latest assessment of ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources’ of 2020 conducted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and State Governments,  out of the total 6,965 assessment units in the country, 1114 units (16%) have been categorized as ‘Overexploited’. These are spread across 205 districts in 15 States/UTs with 39% being reported from Tamil Nadu alone. In these areas, the ‘Annual Ground Water Extraction’ is more than the ‘Annual Extractable Ground Water Resource’. Likewise, 270 units have been categorized as ‘Critical’ spreading over 155 districts in 18 States/UTs, where the ‘Annual Ground Water Extraction’ is between 90% and 100% of the ‘Annual Extractable Ground Water Resource’. 63 of them are in Tamil Nadu. 

An expert committee has also emphasized on the need for groundwater management

Some of the steps taken by the Indian Government to tackle the issue of water depletion and promotion of rainwater harvesting include the implementation of Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA) since 2019, circulation of a Model Bill to all the States/UTs to enact groundwater legislation for the regulation of its development, preparation of Master Plan for Artificial Recharge to Groundwater- 2020 by CGWB, etc. 

In 2016, an expert committee headed by Dr. Mihir Shah submitted a report in which it recommended the restructuring of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) to form a new autonomous National Water Commission (NWC). The Ministry recently stated to have constituted various Committees, including that of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a high-level group comprising Chairman, Central Water Commission (CWC) and Chairman, Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), based on the report. 

Featured Image: UN World Water Development Report 2022

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