A recent report from the United Nations University — Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) has cautioned that India is rapidly approaching its groundwater depletion tipping point.
The “Interconnected Disaster Risks Report 2023” released by UNU-EHS underscores that the world is nearing six critical environmental tipping points. These include the acceleration of extinctions, diminishing groundwater, the melting of mountain glaciers, the proliferation of space debris, intolerable heat, and an uncertain and uninsurable future.
The report states that 27 of the world’s 31 major aquifers are depleting faster than they can be replenished.
Aquifers are underground reservoirs containing groundwater, and therefore an invaluable freshwater resource. The water within aquifers has collected over millennia, and the restoration would demand a similar span, making it essentially non-renewable.
Aquifers supply over 2 billion people with drinking water, with agriculture claiming around 70 percent of their bounties. The vulnerable water levels today are therefore going to become a significant threat to lives and livelihoods in the next few years.
As the water table within a specific aquifer falls below well-depth, it poses challenges in accessing groundwater. This is referred to as the ‘tipping point’.
While Saudi Arabia has already surpassed the environmental tipping point of groundwater risk, countries like India are nearing this threshold.
India consumes the most groundwater globally, surpassing the combined usage of both the United States and China. The northwestern part of India, specifically states like Haryana and Punjab, are the sites of 50% of the country’s rice production, and 85% of its wheat.
As per the report’s findings, however, an alarming 78% of wells in Punjab are overexploited, and the entire northwestern region is anticipated to face a severe scarcity of groundwater by 2025.
Jack O’Connor, the primary author and senior authority at UNU-EHS, said, “As we approach these tipping points, we will already begin to experience the impacts. Once crossed, it will be difficult to go back. Our report can help us see risks ahead of us, the causes behind them and the urgent changes required to avoid them.”
Understanding Aquifer Depletion: Causes
Environmental tipping points are crucial thresholds within Earth’s systems. When these thresholds are crossed, it results in sudden and often irreversible alterations, with far-reaching and sometimes catastrophic impacts on ecosystems, climate, and the broader environment.
Aquifers are, at the moment, at risk due to several factors, the most significant being global demand pressures.
Groundwater access has been the driving force behind the global expansion of irrigated agricultural land. In just the 20th century, we witnessed a remarkable surge, with irrigated land expanding from 63 million hectares in 1900 to 306 million hectares by 2005.
The intensification of agriculture is thus a prominent propellor of groundwater depletion risk. Groundwater irrigation plays a pivotal role in the cultivation of around 40% of the world’s crops, including a significant share of essential staples such as rice and wheat.
The adoption of cost-effective new technologies and policies has also sped up the extraction of groundwater, resulting in distressing levels of aquifer depletion, so much so that we can no longer regard groundwater as a boundless freshwater source.
The Aftermath of Aquifer Depletion
The UNU-EHS website associates aquifer depletion with adverse consequences such as food insecurity, uninsurable future, droughts, floods, and even the disastrous cyclone Amphan.
The report states that groundwater depletion rates worldwide have increased notably since the mid-20th century, reaching a point where groundwater is a substantial factor in rising sea levels.
“The excessive pumping of groundwater has also caused the Earth’s axis to tilt 4.36 cm per year,” it said.
Once the tipping point threshold is crossed, farmers will no longer have this resource for irrigating their crops. This not only jeopardizes their livelihoods but also heightens the risk of food insecurity and the potential breakdown of entire food production systems.
Other harmful consequences include the displacement of entire populations, loss of livelihood, as well as ecosystem damage and biodiversity loss.
Tackling Aquifer Depletion
To tackle interconnected risks effectively, solutions must also be interconnected and capable of addressing the multifaceted and intricate nature of the problem.
The UNU-EHS website proposes a four-fold strategy for tackling these grave environmental challenges.
Solutions can be broadly categorized into two main approaches:
Avoid Solutions: These target the root causes and drivers of risk to prevent the crossing of critical tipping points. The goal is to avoid these risks entirely.
Adapt Solutions: These aim to prepare for or better manage the negative impacts of risk tipping points if they cannot be entirely prevented. This involves adapting to the changes that may occur and finding ways to live with them.
Within each of these categories, there are two types of actions:
Delay Actions: These actions work within the existing system and seek to slow down the progression towards risk tipping points or the worst possible outcomes.
Transform Actions: These actions require a fundamental reimagining of the entire system to address the risks at their core.
Actions that we can collectively take include taking moral responsibility to ensure sustainability for future generations, viewing humanity as a part of nature, managing waste, and redefining our ideas of ‘advancement’ to include environmental well-being.
While each solution category offers promise, the most effective approach is to combine solutions from different categories to overcome obstacles and achieve the best results. Furthermore, steering away from a future of interconnected risks involves a comprehensive transformation of our systems towards sustainability.
“We need drastic changes in our global agricultural system to be mindful of the limits of groundwater systems and our ability to access this water.” states the report, “We need regulations and technologies to ensure the sustainable use of groundwater and preserve this resource for when we need it most.”
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