Study: India’s groundwater depletion could triple in coming decades

Sept. 8, 2023
Under a business-as-usual scenario, intensifying groundwater withdrawal for irrigation paired with climate change could triple the rate of regions’ groundwater loss by 2080.

A new University of Michigan-led study finds that farmers in India have adapted to warming temperatures by intensifying the withdrawal of groundwater used for irrigation, according to a press release from the University of Michigan.

If the trend continues, the rate of groundwater loss could triple by 2080, further threatening India's food and water security.

Reduced water availability in India due to groundwater depletion and climate change could threaten the livelihoods of more than one-third of the country's 1.4 billion residents and has global implications. India recently overtook China to become the world's most populous nation and is the second-largest global producer of common cereal grains including rice and wheat.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, analyzed historical data on groundwater levels, climate and crop water stress to look for recent changes in withdrawal rates due to warming. The researchers also used temperature and precipitation projections from 10 climate models to estimate future rates of groundwater loss across India.

"We find that farmers are already increasing irrigation use in response to warming temperatures, an adaptation strategy that has not been accounted for in previous projections of groundwater depletion in India," said study senior author Meha Jain, assistant professor at U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability. "This is of concern, given that India is the world's largest consumer of groundwater and is a critical resource for the regional and global food supply."

The lead author is Nishan Bhattarai of the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Oklahoma, formerly a postdoctoral researcher in Jain's U-M lab.

Previous studies have focused on the individual effects of climate change and groundwater depletion on crop production in India. Those studies did not account for farmer decision-making, including how farmers may adapt to changing climate through changes in irrigation decisions.

The new study takes into account the fact that warmer temperatures may increase water demand from stressed crops, which in turn may lead to increased irrigation by farmers.

"Using our model estimates, we project that under a business-as-usual scenario, warming temperatures may triple groundwater depletion rates in the future and expand groundwater depletion hotspots to include south and central India," Bhattarai said.

"Without policies and interventions to conserve groundwater, we find that warming temperatures will likely amplify India's already existing groundwater depletion problem, further challenging India's food and water security in the face of climate change."

Previous studies found that climate change could decrease the yield of staple Indian crops by up to 20% by mid-century. At the same time, the country's groundwater is being depleted at an alarming rate, primarily because of water withdrawal for irrigation.

For the newly published study, the researchers developed a dataset that contains groundwater depths from thousands of wells across India, high-resolution satellite observations that measured crop water stress, and temperature and precipitation records.

Most climate models call for increased temperature, increased monsoon (June through September) precipitation and decreased winter precipitation in India over the coming decades. The research team found that warming temperatures coupled with declining winter precipitation more than offset added groundwater recharge from increased monsoon precipitation, resulting in accelerated groundwater declines.

Across various climate-change scenarios, their estimates of groundwater-level declines between 2041 and 2080 were more than three times current depletion rates, on average.

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