The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, found that overuse of groundwater could cause winter crops in parts of the country to fall by two-thirds by 2025.
An international team of researchers analyzed satellite imagery and census data to measure the impact on winter crops, which account for 44% of the country’s annual harvest area for food grains, according to the study. Winter farming relies heavily on groundwater irrigation – in contrast to other seasons which can take advantage of the heavy monsoon rains.
Indian food production has skyrocketed since the 1960s, as farmers began to use tube wells, which draw water from the ground. This allows them to continue farming even during the dry season when there is not enough rain or surface water – but over-extraction has led to “extremely low groundwater availability” in the northwest and south of the country, according to the study.
“Many studies have shown that India has major groundwater depletion, but it is not clear at this point what impact this depletion will have on agricultural production,” said lead author Meha Jain, assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s School for the Environment and Environment. Continuity.
Researchers found that if farmers in overexploited areas lose all access to groundwater, and if that irrigation water is not replaced by water from other sources, winter yields could decline by 20% nationally and 68% in affected areas. worst. .
This is a worst-case scenario, and the damage could be reduced if authorities take action and adopt alternative irrigation options, the study said. The government has widely encouraged the adoption of canal irrigation, which diverts surface water from lakes and rivers, and can help offset some of the disadvantages.
But it’s far from a perfect solution – even if all of the areas currently using depleted groundwater were diverted to canal irrigation, winter harvests could still decline by 7% nationwide and 24% in the worst-affected locations, according to the study.
And canal irrigation comes at its own expense – this means farmers are more vulnerable to changes in weather, because lakes and rivers depend on rainfall. Groundwater is also a more equitable way to distribute water throughout the village, as wells are decentralized and not large scale drain projects.
“Our results highlight the importance of groundwater for Indian agriculture and rural livelihoods, and we can demonstrate that simply providing canal irrigation as a substitute irrigation source is unlikely to be sufficient to maintain current production levels in the face of groundwater depletion,” Jain said in a news release. .
Instead, the government needs to adopt a variety of strategies – for example, shifting from winter rice to less water-requiring cereals, use of sprinklers and drip irrigation to conserve water, and policies to increase the efficiency of irrigation canals, according to the study.
Farmers were hit hard
India’s water crisis has been growing over the years, gaining international attention 2019 when Chennai,
the sixth largest city in the country, faces severe water shortages.
The city’s four main reservoirs are nearly dry due to insufficient rainfall and low groundwater levels. Water has to be trucked to Chennai from other states and territories, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to queue for hours in the summer to receive water rations.
This is a national problem: 100 million people, including those in the major cities of Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, face the threat of completely running out of groundwater, according to a 2018 report by Niti Aayog, an Indian government think tank
The agricultural sector has been one of the hardest hit. The areas with the most water depletion are along India’s food bowl – states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which support the country’s entire food security, said Bharat Sharma, emeritus scientist at the International Water Management Institute, who was not involved in the research. .
“Groundwater levels are depleting very quickly in northern India … That’s why farmers are starting to use groundwater, because surface water is not available and explosive use of groundwater is starting,” he said. “The cropping system we use requires more water than is available.”
The devastating effects of climate change also add to the difficulties facing farmers. The rainy season, which they rely on to water their crops, is more erratic and drought is more frequent.
“Indian farmers are in a very challenging situation right now,” Jain, from the University of Michigan, told CNN. “Apart from depletion of groundwater, there will also be negative impacts from climate change in the coming decades.”
The crisis that has lasted many years has been linked to a high rate of farmer suicide, with many farmers giving up because of growing debt, bankruptcy and crop losses. Each year, more than 10,000 farmers and agricultural workers die from suicide, according to data from National Crime Records Bureau
. In 2019, the number was 10,281 – an average of 28 suicides a day.
The government has taken action in recent years to try to address these various points of crisis. In 2020, the federal Central Groundwater Agency was released a “Master Plan”
to conserve and replenish artificially depleted groundwater, using strategies such as canals, injection wells, and groundwater reservoirs.
One sustainable solution could change the types of crops grown in different regions – for example, reducing up to 20% of the land used for growing rice and wheat in Central Punjab, Sharma said. It is a thirsty plant – replacing part of it with a plant that is less dependent on water can turn the soil “water neutral,” meaning “the rate of water depletion will equal the rate of replenishment.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made agriculture the main focus of his 2019 re-election campaign, pledging to double farmers’ income by 2022. After he won, Modi founded the Jal Shakti Ministry, a government branch that focuses on water resources, conservation and sanitation.
But the efforts of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party to reform the agricultural sector have backfired. A series of new agricultural laws passed last September have been pushing biggest national protest
looks for years, which still lasts until several months later.
Although the government says the law is needed to modernize the industry and give farmers more autonomy, farmers fear the law will actually allow big companies to lower prices, further destroying their livelihoods.