March 22 was World Water Day and was the hottest day of 2010 in Delhi, where the experiences of global water shortages are glaringly obvious. Delhi is a prime example of the perfect storm of rapid urbanization, rising population, increasing consumption of energy and water, and warming weather. Together, these forces are decreasing groundwater levels more rapidly than any scientists expected, making India fertile ground for new technology in water efficiency.
In 2009, NASA scientists released a study showing groundwater levels across northern India to be receding at more than one foot per decade, with human activities as the main cause. Estimates by the International Institution for Irrigation Management have even more dire estimates and suggest the groundwater table is dropping by 3 to 10 ft per year throughout the country. In urban planning, this is having real effects: throughout rapidly developing areas like Gurgaon, home to call centers and high rise apartment complexes, the groundwater pumps in new developments are being dug up to 20 feet deeper than two or three years ago, with the expectation that groundwater will continue to recede.
While local urban water pressures are extreme, the NASA scientists believe that the major cause for the overall groundwater recession is agricultural, with farms drawing more water from the ground as rainfall patterns change. Overall, India’s water use profile is dominated by agriculture: 92% of India’s water use is designated for agriculture alone; 49% of that is from groundwater sources (FAO). So when NASA’s Matt Rodell writes, “If measures are not soon taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output, severe shortages of potable water, conflict and suffering”, we must call attention to the huge opportunities in making the agricultural sector more water efficient.
With every inch the water table drops, we will see a worsening problem, as water scarcity perpetuates itself through a vicious cycle. As groundwater levels continue to decrease, more energy is required to pump water, making agricultural water pumping one of the main sources of energy demand in most areas. Energy production has an impressive water footprint of its own, and magnifies the scarcity in turn.
As demand for agricultural produce increases along with improved livelihoods nationwide, water consumption will continue to increase. Without widespread implementation of new technologies, it is clear that massive shortages will be a part of India’s future.
The urgency and the need are immediately apparent in India, and the solutions are gaining momentum. Earlier this week, on World Water Day, The Rainwater Club in Bangalore trained hundreds of youth to build rainwater harvesting systems, as the government has recently mandated the implementation of these units on all new construction, both residential and commercial. In other cities, groundwater recharge and water efficiency workshops trained youth on the technology and implementation of innovative solutions to address these crises.
And what of India’s biggest water user? India’s water future depends on the integration of advanced water technology in agriculture, emerging all over the world. From onsite analysis of groundwater levels and recycling schemes that offer resource recovery from runoff, to smart drip irrigation systems that allow for specially allocated water provision to thirsty crops, there are many opportunities available for more efficient water usage. Water is becoming less of a reliable and free-flowing resource; the farmers who decide to be water-efficient will soon have the competitive advantage and the ability to survive coming climate changes.
As rapid development and increases in irrigation demand continue across the country, India needs new technologies for efficient water management and treatment. By investing in technology development and distribution both within India and internationally, we may be able to avoid the negative impacts of drastic water shortages and promote economic development that improves livelihoods and water tables. India cannot afford to wait any longer for the adoption of innovative water technologies.