India may spend as much as 50 billion rupees ($1 billion) in the next five years to map underground water as indiscriminate sinking of wells by farmers depletes resources in the world’s second-most populous nation.
The government’s goal is to avert a water crisis in the South Asian country, where agriculture accounts for 20 percent of the $1.7 trillion economy, Mihir Shah, a member of the Planning Commission that sets five-year targets for economic growth, said in an interview in New Delhi.
“Now people have begun to feel the pinch,” said Shah. “Competitive drilling for water has led to the destruction of our groundwater tables. This has happened because we don’t know what lies below the ground.”
Mapping of aquifers, or large underground reservoirs, is expected to help India manage cropping patterns and ensure drinking water for its growing population. More than 85 percent India’s villages and half of its cities rely on wells for water. Farming accounts for about 90 percent of total water withdrawals in India, with the irrigated acreage almost tripling since 1950.
Agricultural output is key to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s target of raising economic expansion to more than 10 percent in the next decade to cut poverty. Annual growth may slow to 6.9 percent in the 12 months to March, the least since 2009, the government said on Feb. 7.
The Planning Commission’s working group on water has sought 100 billion rupees to help audit all of India’s groundwater resources in phases through various federal funding programs. The first phase of mapping will begin this year and will be completed in India’s 12th five-year spending plan through March 2017, Shah said.
India lost 109 cubic kilometers of groundwater, supplies equal to more than twice the capacity of Lake Mead, the biggest U.S. reservoir, because of indiscriminate use between 2002-2008, according to a study by the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Agency.
About a fifth of water used globally comes from under the ground, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute. Withdrawals are predicted to increase 50 percent by 2025 in developing countries, and 18 percent in developed countries, according to the policy group based in the Swedish capital.
India’s government established a Central Ground Water Authority in 1986 to regulate pumping from aquifers. Groundwater hasn’t been developed evenly across India, and exploitation has led to a drop in water levels and seawater intrusion in some areas, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. Of the 5,723 sites assessed, 839 are “over-exploited,” 226 are “critical” and 550 are “semi-critical,” it said.
Some aquifers in central India that took 10,000 years to accumulate water have dried up in the past 30 years, according to Shah. “We don’t want to reach that situation everywhere,” he said.