Punjab is a bleak example of India’s groundwater crisis. Here is how

In the wake of the UN report showing alarming levels of depletion, DTE analysed the groundwater crisis in the state  

By Zumbish
Published: Monday 27 March 2023
Rice cultivation is a key cause behind the groundwater crisis in the state. Representative photo: iStock.

A review report published in the wake of the recently-concluded 2023 UN-Water Conference listed India among the countries where significant groundwater depletion has been reported worldwide.

“The amount of groundwater withdrawn in certain regions frequently exceeds natural recharge rates. Significant groundwater depletion has been reported in China, India and Pakistan, the USA and Australia,” stated the UN report titled Global Bottled Water Industry: A Review of Impacts and Trends.

The UN water conference — concluded on March 24 — aimed to raise awareness on the global water crisis and decide on concerted action to achieve internationally agreed water-related goals. 

Also read: UN 2023 Water Conference: Day 2 ends with dialogue on ‘water for sustainable development’

The report also gave several instances of how the bottled water industry — a high consumer of water with its main source globally being groundwater — has been leaving groundwater sources across the world dry. In the wake of these alarming figures, Down To Earth analysed the groundwater depletion issue in India — a grave example of which is Punjab.


A graph showing groundwater depletion in large aquifers and river basins of the world between 2003 and 2016. Sources: Döll et al. 2014, Famiglietti 2014, Huang et al. 2015, Richey et al. 2015, Voss et al. 2013.

The Punjab government’s recent attempt to concretise canals in the state disturbed vigilant citizens from across the state. They fear the move may prove dangerous because “if this happens the water will not seep into the land.” This may leave the land dry as it will not get water from any other sources.

During monsoons, efforts are made here at a large scale to block water from seeping into the land and secure it on the field to make it available for paddy, which needs a lot of water. If the canals are concretised, this situation will worsen. In the case of Punjab, one cannot talk about rivers without keeping its major canals in consideration as well.

In Punjab, the key issue regarding water resources is that half the water from the state’s canals gushes into Rajasthan and there is no accountability for that amount of water, Devinder Singh Sekhon, Jathedar (leader) with Misal Sutlej, a group working on water crisis in Punjab, told DTE, days before the global water conference.

Also read: UN 2023 Water Conference: African Heads of State lead from front; announce ‘presidential compacts’ on water, sanitation

“Undoubtedly, the latter is in need of water but should so much amount of water from Punjab go to it? So, we will work towards the cause of blocking the water uninterruptedly flowing from Punjab into Rajasthan, both voluntarily and with the support of our government,” Sekhon said.

The Centre had chalked out a plan to interlink Ghaghra, Sharda and Yamuna rivers in 1999 but never implemented it. Sekhon said his group is simultaneously requesting the government to implement the project and maybe provide Rajasthan water from it when the project is ready.

In June 2022, a National Green Tribunal (NGT) monitoring committee stressed the depleting groundwater in Punjab. It cited a report which noted the state is left with groundwater to last for just 17 years.

People DTE spoke to then dubbed paddy cultivation as one of the major reasons behind rapid groundwater depletion. However, no substantial emphasis was laid from any quarter on the chronic monsoon deficit in the state then.

“Rice cultivation is a key cause behind the groundwater crisis in the state. For example, in southwestern Punjab, the soil found is coarse with less water holding capacity. It is not meant for rice cultivation yet paddy is cultivated there in abundance and water is overused for the same,” said a researcher at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute who hails from Punjab, on condition of anonymity.

Punjab government had promoted direct seeding of rice, promising support of Rs 1500 per acre to any farmer who opts for it. But there were no takers for it due to its many loopholes, including that there is hardly any water saved in this farming technique, SS Kukal, a member of the Punjab Water Regulation and Development Authority, had told DTE.

Direct seeding of rice is the process of growing rice crops from seeds sown in the field rather than transplanting seedlings from the nursery.

Also read: Run-up to UN Water Conference: A third of people surveyed by global study suffer from freshwater shortage

Drawing attention to the suffering of farmers in the state due to continuous fall in groundwater table due to a shift to submersible farms from centrifugal farms, Kukal had said there is no denying that the situation is bleak.

Groundwater quantity, as well as quality, are alarmingly deteriorating, leading to indebtedness for farmers and cases of farmer suicides, he said.

Net groundwater availability in Punjab was 23.39 billion cubic metres in 2013. The highest dependency on groundwater can be seen in four north Indian states — Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi — where the annual groundwater consumption is more than the annual groundwater recharge, according to the data that assesses the situation between 2004 and 2013.

This data also parallels the estimates and figures in the UN report. The latter establishes that the amount of groundwater withdrawn in certain regions frequently exceeds natural recharge rates. The countries mentioned in the report exemplify this; extraction, in the case of India’s aquifers and river basins, is seen to be most alarming.  

Responding to DTE’s query on India’s groundwater depletion scenario, the UN report’s author Zeineb Bouhlel said, “In general, at global level, the data on groundwater is very scarce. The data on it we have found so far, yes most of it is related to India. But we are not yet sure if the groundwater depletion situation is worst in India, but that could be possible.”

Vladimir Smakhtin, another author of the report, told DTE:

I think we have to distinguish between groundwater depletion in different parts of the world and groundwater depletion in the same due to the bottled water industry. So, groundwater depletion is very significant in India. However, we are not concluding the depletion is largely because of the industry — but only to a small extent in comparison to the depletion taking place, for instance, due to some agricultural practices.

The Conference brought together world leaders, civil society, business leaders, young people, scientists, academics, the UN system and others from across sectors like agriculture, energy, environment and water around a common goal: To tackle the water crisis urgently and set the world back on track to achieving sustainable development goal 6 – ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’. 

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.