When I was a little girl, I loved story time. There was no better way to spend an evening than to listen intently to my mom tell us magical tales of fairies and witches, dragons and princes. But those that stayed with me over the years are perhaps among the most loved across the world – Aesop’s fables. One in particular keeps coming back to me over and over again. The story of the goose that laid golden eggs.
A farmer and his wife owned a very special goose. It was special because it would lay a golden egg everyday. This made the couple very rich.
One day, the farmer’s wife said to him, “Just think, if we could have all the golden eggs that are inside the goose, we could be richer much faster.”
“You’re right,” said her husband, “We wouldn’t have to wait for the goose to lay her egg every day.”
So, the couple killed the goose and cut her open, only to find that she did not have any golden eggs inside of her at all. What was worse was that they now had no more golden eggs…
There’s another story in the making.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture accounts for over 70% of the freshwater usage across the world. In some countries, this figure even goes beyond 90%. The implication is that unwittingly, farmers and their decisions have profound influence on the fresh water availability of the world. Their actions will govern the fate of many a region. Now when we say farmers here, it is really a broad term that includes not only the archetypal farmer who grows cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and the like but also those involved in the animal husbandry industry as well as corporate giants such as Cargill, a privately held company that employs 142,000 people in 66 countries. They describe themselves as ‘an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services’ and have an extremely wide range of offerings such as grains, oilseeds, sugar, chocolate, sweeteners, starches, meats, eggs and poultry, salt, cotton, dressings, sauces and oils and also petroleum and fuels. So if you’re wondering where the problem lies, it is simply that, looking at it purely from an anthropocentric angle, i.e human perspective, freshwater, in its usable form presents many spatio-temporal issues. In other words, it is not always available where people want it and when they want it and in the quantities they want it. In order to overcome this problem, many resort to tapping a source of water that has been considered more reliable and of a better quality than surface water such as that found in rivers and lakes – groundwater.
We’ve mastered the art of abstracting groundwater from deeper and deeper sources but our understanding and appreciation of how groundwater comes to be, is just as rudimentary as aesop’s farmer’s understanding of golden eggs. Before I talk about the larger problem, and the latest research, here’s an interesting primer on groundwater first.
UNEP’s global environmental alert service has issued a report in Jan 2012 about the impending crisis because of increasing global reliance on groundwater. It notes that ‘Intensive use of groundwater is a relatively recent phenomenon beginning in industrialized countries in the 1950s and reaching much of the developing world between 1970 and 1990’. The key to this phenomenon was the development of cheaper drilling and pumping technology. As a result, many aquifers across the world are now under threat because the rates of abstraction have gone way beyond the time taken to replenish the aquifers. (Perhaps I should rephrase that as the people of those regions are under threat.) Again, not all aquifers are replenished. So some regions are currently using what is known as fossil water.
So which are the specific regions where groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rates?
Scientists have made estimates based on available data. This has been further confirmed by NASA satellite images.
The most serious instances of overdraft occur in regions where there is intense agriculture – India, China, USA. In short, ICU (Medical terminology seems apt here ;-))
The report states that several studies have confirmed that the Indus River plains aquifer, beneath the India-Pakistan border demonstrates the world’s worst groundwater depletion. The Indian Ministry of Water Resources has classified a large proportion of northwestern India as ‘overexploited’ and the water tables in the region show significant decline. Some urban areas have reported a decline as much as 10 metres in a single year. (As far as India is concerned, several media reports too cover this issue of groundwater decline across the country. For examples see here and here.) A similar story unfolds in the North China Plain aquifer system and a developed economy like the US is no exception to the laws of nature. Large-scale irrigation in the west-central United States has proven quite disastrous for the region. Several counties in Texas are reported to have experienced declines of over 45 metres in the aquifer. A 2010 study estimated that ‘depletion of groundwater in the Texas Central High Plains area of the aquifer was ten times the rate of recharge.’ Similar over-exploitation can be seen right across the world.
What happens when we over-extract groundwater?
The UNEP report explains it well:
‘Even when abstraction does not exceed recharge, it can alter complex aquifer system dynamics, decreasing spring and stream flow and degrading water quality (12). In addition to undermining the sustainability of continued human uses, depletion of many aquifer systems in arid and semi-arid areas has been linked to diminished capacity for support of ecosystem functions and to environmental damage (12,13).’
‘Salinization often occurs in coastal aquifers where overexploitation of groundwater can stimulate recharge from more saline waters within the groundwater system and seriously degrade water quality (34,12). Several areas in North Africa have experienced this type of seawater intrusion, including Tunisia, Libya and the Nile Delta (34). Excessive withdrawal of water from some aquifers has led to significant land subsidence. This is of particular concern in urban areas where the damage can be substantial. A study in Mexico’s Toluca Valley estimated areas of subsidence up to two metres between 1952 and 2009 (35). On the Southern Yangtze Delta in China, subsidence from over abstraction of as much as three metres has caused cracking of buildings and failure of buried pipelines (36). Declining water tables can reduce stream flow, affect water quality in wetlands and lakes, dry up wetlands, diminish the capacity of rivers to dilute inflowing pollutants and change areas of groundwater discharge to areas of groundwater recharge (6,37). These changes can directly eliminate or degrade habitat and result in loss of biodiversity, and can indirectly cause repercussions throughout aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (37).’ Shortage of water also leads to potentially unsavoury practices such as land grabs in Africa where states such as China, India, South Korea and the Oil-rich gulf states are buying up water-rich land to secure their food supply.The current state of understanding and management in the UNEP report is well worth a read.
Is there hope yet?
Yes. In several pockets. For instance, there is research being done on water, culture and identity in Balochistan. Ancient community owned irrigation structures such as Karezs that have been ignored, if not discredited in the quest for ‘modernity’. Several sponsors in conjunction with the state, have been encouraging tube wells at the expense of the local society and the environment. However research reveals that protecting them could bring back not only lost livelihoods but also dignity to the rural poor. Another significant benefit would be that the entire community would be invested in protecting groundwater together and it wouldn’t be an ‘each for himself, God for all’ approach that private tubewells tend to propagate. Read more here.
Another example – In India, six thousand farmers in Andhra Pradesh have become ‘barefoot water scientists’. They have been trained by NGOs on groundwater management. As a result, they are empowered to manage their resources and cooperate with other farmers of the region. Watch this video.
There are several more examples, but they are currently only sporadic. The need of the hour is systemic change. So irrespective of whether you and I are farmers or not, each of us is the protagonist of this story. Each of us needs to find a way to stay informed and more importantly get involved somehow. Some ways that come to mind immediately are researching, advocating, legislation, finding new technology, creating communities that understand the implications and demonstrate care, running private enterprises or social enterprises that can find innovative solutions to the problems listed above. After all, there is not a single person who can claim to not benefit from groundwater either directly or indirectly. If you think this is not your problem, take a look at this video.
SO HOW DO YOU WANT THIS STORY TO END?