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As India floods, experts look beneath the surface

August 12, 2023
topic:Natural disaster
tags:#India, #groundwater, #sea level rise, #floods
by:Sanjana Choudhary
Scientists have studied the root cause of India's worsening floods. What they found came as a surprise for many.

Wells have played a pivotal role in India's history. Ancient civilizations and structures, originating as far as 8,000 years ago, depended on these meticulously dug-up holes to tap into underground aquifers and access the precious resource of water.

The belief in the inexhaustible nature of groundwater persists till this day, particularly in under-developed and rural areas of India, where wells remain open for public use.

India's predominantly agrarian economy relies heavily on groundwater for irrigation purposes, necessitating widespread extraction across the nation. As the largest groundwater user globally, at an estimated 251 km³ per year, India allocates a significant portion, approximately 89 per cent, of this groundwater abstraction for agricultural irrigation purposes.

Since June of this year, relentless floods have ravaged 20 districts, affecting over 100,000 lives in the Indian State of Assam alone. India's capital region was also buffeted by catastrophic floods recently, which forced more than 25,000 people to flee from their homes in the low-lying banks of Yamuna. 

As floodwaters continue to rise, there is growing speculation about the root cause of these recurring calamities. Could the ancient water wells, scattered across the countryside like forgotten relics, hold the key to understanding the extent of the devastation?

A groundbreaking study published in June this year has shed light on a hidden connection that eluded climate activists and researchers until now: Unchecked extraction of groundwater in urban centres of Asia may be contributing to the ongoing floods affecting the continent.

By 2100, parts of Asia’s largest cities could be underwater as a result of coastal flooding, the scientists predicted. 

A disturbing revelation came to light in last year’s UN report on Groundwater Depletion, which highlighted that seven out of the ten countries with the highest groundwater extraction rates are located in Asia. These countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, collectively account for nearly 60 percent of global groundwater extraction. India, being one of the top extractors, plays a significant role in this scenario.

The June 2023 study also found that humans extracted roughly 2,150 gigatons of groundwater between 1993 and 2010 alone. As inferred from the report, this unrestricted abstraction of Earth's lifeblood poses a far greater threat to human and ecosystems than researchers had previously imagined. 

One of the most alarming findings of the report is the correlation between groundwater depletion and rising sea levels. As groundwater reserves decline, the land tends to sink, a phenomenon known as land subsidence. This subsidence increases the vulnerability of coastal regions, as the encroachment of the sea becomes more pronounced. The sinking land, coupled with rising sea levels, leads to the drowning of connected riverine bodies and exacerbates the risks faced by coastal communities. 

The study, which sent shockwaves through the climate science community, has brought to light the undeniable impact of human activity on rising sea levels and its catastrophic consequences like floods, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, which happens to extract maximum groundwater. 

Groundwater and floods

Mahak Agrawal, a climate scientist working at an NGO called The Climate Clock, helped dissect the connection between groundwater depletion and flooding.

Speaking to FairPlanet, Agrawal said that "While groundwater extraction had led to the sinking of certain Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok and Jakarta, the situation is vastly different in India. Contrary to the common misconception, rural areas, though predominantly dependent on groundwater extraction for agriculture, are not directly the culprits behind the floods that plague their regions."

According to Agrawal's analysis, the true source of the flood menace in India is the combination of frequent intense rainfall and erratic weather patterns. While groundwater extraction in rural areas contributes to aquifer depletion and contamination, Agrawal said, it is important to note that it does not directly cause the floods that inundate vast regions of the country. 

However, the situation takes a different turn in urban India, where the burgeoning population has intensified the pressure on groundwater extraction for domestic needs. 

Simultaneously, urbanisation has led to a reduction in permeable surfaces and green cover, effectively hindering rainwater from recharging the aquifers. This deluge of surface run-off, laden with toxins and solid waste, wreaks havoc in urban centres, causing localised flooding that adds to the misery.

While irrigated agriculture's dependence on groundwater is evident throughout South Asia and China, the industrial and municipal sectors are also major consumers of groundwater in urban centres. 

Agrawal argued that holistic nature-based planning is the solution to this multifaceted crisis.

"There is an increased need for rethinking cropping patterns in rural areas based on water availability and increasing water use efficiency," she said. "In urban centres, the focus should be on augmenting green cover and creating a blue-green infrastructure network that would facilitate rainwater harvesting and ecological restoration."

An example example comes from Bangkok, where the concept of "sponge cities" is gaining momentum. Through the integration of blue-green infrastructure within urban design, the city aims to address two major challenges simultaneously: the risk of land subsidence caused by excessive groundwater extraction and the threat of encroaching sea-level rise.

A Race Against Time

As the connection between groundwater depletion and flooding becomes increasingly evident, the urgency of the situation calls for immediate action to address the twin threats. Experts are now calling on the government to embrace a multi-pronged approach that addresses the intricacies of both rural and urban water management.

Highlighting one of the critical areas of focus, the issue of heavily subsidised electricity for groundwater extraction in rural areas emerges as a significant concern. This long-standing practice has become deeply ingrained in the agricultural sector, but the experts involved in the study emphasise the need for a gradual transition towards more sustainable irrigation methods.

Encouraging farmers to adopt water-efficient technologies and promoting crop patterns that align with water availability, they argue, would not only conserve groundwater but also improve the resilience of rural communities to climate change.

Rainwater harvesting structures, once widely used across the country, have experienced a resurgence in popularity.

In urban centres, the government has taken proactive steps to confront the daunting challenge of reversing the trend of excessive groundwater extraction and surface water run-off. There is a growing momentum in reimagining city planning with a strong emphasis on nature-based solutions. 

Cities across India have started implementing innovative projects that contribute to sustainable water management. Initiatives such as rooftop gardens, green corridors and permeable pavements have been introduced to enable rainwater to percolate into the ground, replenishing aquifers and mitigating the risk of localised flooding. Additionally, a noteworthy project has been initiated to incorporate rainwater harvesting into the Metro rail network, beginning with DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation). This effort aims to combat waterlogging during floods by capturing and utilising rainwater within the Metro infrastructure.

Meanwhile, as the specter of sinking cities and encroaching sea levels continue to haunt coastal Asia Pacific cities, collaborative efforts between India and other nations facing similar challenges in the region have opened up avenues for knowledge-sharing and joint initiatives.

But not everyone was on board with the proposed changes. The proposed changes faced opposition from powerful lobbies representing large corporations, big businesses and influential groups and organisations that may have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. These entities resisted the necessary reforms related to water management and conservation, citing potential impacts on livelihoods and economic growth.

As an example of opposition to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) codes, it has been reported that seven conglomerates did not adhere to the recommendations outlined in a USD 530 billion fund's documents. These recommendations covered various areas such as children's rights, water management, climate change, and human rights. 

The intensifying struggle between short-term interests and the long-term survival of the nation is resulting in a complex and often contentious battleground for policy reform.

Image by Vincenzo Cassano

Article written by:
Sanjana Choudhary
Embed from Getty Images
India allocates a significant portion, approximately 89 per cent, of this groundwater abstraction for agricultural irrigation purposes.
Embed from Getty Images
Could the ancient water wells, scattered across the countryside like forgotten relics, hold the key to understanding the extent of the devastation?
Embed from Getty Images
Since June of this year, relentless floods have ravaged 20 districts, affecting over 100,000 lives in the Indian State of Assam alone