Large parts of Maharashtra are witnessing an alarming dip in groundwater levels, according to the latest survey by the state’s Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA).
Of the 353 talukas, 279 have experienced depletion, with parts of north Maharashtra and Marathwada worst hit. Of the 76 talukas in Marathwada’s eight districts, 72 are facing serious depletion in groundwater levels, with more than 5,000 villages in this region recording a dip of more than one metre when compared to the five-year average.
In 2,642 villages across the state, groundwater levels are more than 3 metres lower than the five-year average, raising critical questions on overexploitation of the resource, on possible damage to aquifers and on long term availability of water on these regions.
Over half of these, 1,467 villages, are in Marathwada — the largest concentration of them in Beed, Osmanabad and Aurangabad districts. Another 1,333 villages in the region have recorded groundwater depletion by between 2 and 3 metres from the five-year average.
“The survey results are a serious cause for concern,” said a senior official at the Aurangabad Divisional Commissionerate. “The findings are also in tandem with ground realities. In places such as Beed, locating sources of water for tankers has become a challenge, and tankers will be the only method of water supply to hundreds of villages until the monsoon arrives.”
In October 2018, a post-monsoon survey by the agency showed that nearly 71 per cent of the state was experiencing a dip in groundwater levels by more than one meter when compared to the five-year average.
The major long-term concern for administrators will be that the latest GSDA survey shows the number of villages facing such depletion is growing fast.
The October survey showed 4,385 villages in Marathwada witnessing a water table dip by over a metre, while the April survey sets that number at 5,145. In all, observation wells in 13,984 villages across 252 talukas showed serious groundwater depletion in October. The summer survey sets that number at 14,208 villages.
The state received a deficient monsoon in 2018, with over a third of the state recording a 30 per cent deficit from average precipitation. Amid cyclical agricultural drought and deficient monsoons, overexploitation of groundwater has been ignored despite these surveys offering notes of caution, say experts and environmentalists.
“The rules under the Groundwater Act are yet to be formulated and therefore there is no implementation,” says Pradeep Purandare, water policy expert and former associate professor at Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad.
Once implemented, these rules would mandate registration of existing wells and permissions before fresh well-digging, itself requiring a huge awareness campaign among the lakhs of farmers who own wells and borewells. Purandare adds that state policies on water are themselves contradictory. “For example, the emphasis on farm ponds has led to overexploitation of groundwater, the policy promoting farm ponds is poorly thought out.”
Almost a decade ago, a World Bank report, calling for pragmatic measures to address the problem, had said that Maharashtra is one among seven states that account for more than 80 per cent of critical and overexploited groundwater blocks in India. The World Bank is a partner in the Union government’s proposed Atal Bhujal Yojana for more sustainable groundwater management.
The 2010 report said 15 per cent of India’s food production is currently dependent on unsustainable groundwater use, the situation naturally most precarious in rain-fed or drought-prone areas where subsistence farming is prevalent.
Overall, up to a quarter of India’s harvest is estimated to be at risk due to groundwater depletion.
Incidentally, India is the world’s largest user of groundwater — estimated in 2010 to be 230 cubic kilometres annually, or a quarter of the global total groundwater use.