Friday, August 21, 2009

India's Groundwater Depletion: A major concern

[Credit: NASA News]
The study of underground aquifers has often revealed some amazing information. In March, 2005, a report in the Geophysical Research Letters had revealed that the Egyptian Sahara covered the world’s largest freshwater aquifers, an almost million years old rain-fed reserve. In 2006, GRACE scientists noted a widespread loss of water in parts of Africa.

However the recent GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) mission report released in the Nature journal on August 12th by the UC Irvine and NASA hydrologists, are of immediate concern. The findings conclude that groundwater beneath Northern India (Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana, including Delhi) has been receding by as much as 1 foot (33 cms) every year over the past decade. Using terrestrial water-storage-change observations from the two satellites and simulated soil-water variations from a data-integrating hydrological modelling system, the findings conclude that groundwater is being consumed faster than is being naturally replenished, causing water tables to decline unremittingly in this region.

According to Science Daily,

The map shows changes in India during 2002-08, with losses in red and gains in blue, based on Grace satellite observations. The estimated rate of depletion of groundwater in north-western India is 4 cm of water / year, equivalent to a water table decline of 33 cms / year. Increases in groundwater in southern India are due to recent above-average rainfall, whereas rain in northwestern India was close to normal during the study period.

[Credit:Velicogna/UC Irvine]

The GRACE satellites are a pair of roving satellites that sense changes in the Earth’s gravity field and associated mass distribution, including water masses stored above or below the Earth’s surface. As the satellites orbit 483 kms above Earth’s surface, their positions change relative to each other in response to variations in gravitational pull. Minute changes in data are extrapolated to show the water distribution patterns.

As evidences all over the world indicate increasing groundwater depletion and changes in water supplies, the NASA sponsored GRACE is mapping groundwater supplies in regions like the central valley of California, central U.S., parts of India and the Nubian valley in Africa. With its water tracking mission, GRACE now plans to send new map data every 30 days that will give a time-variable view of the gravity profile.

Credit: Adapted from V. M. Tiwari, et al., National Geophysical Research Institute
[Sourced from ScienceNow ]

The hydrological findings of GRACE pertaining to north-western India comes in the wake of another study by V. M. Tiwari, J. Wahr and S. Swenson, that attempts to show fast depleting groundwater supplies in these parts of India.

Northern India and the surrounding areas — a 2,000-kilometer-long swath that rims the Himalayas from Pakistan to Bangladesh — are home to more than 600 million people. The region is also one of the most heavily irrigated areas in the world, says Virendra M. Tiwari, a geophysicist with the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, India, and coauthor of a new report to appear in an upcoming Geophysical Research Letters.

Government policies put in place in the 1960s to boost agricultural productivity nearly tripled the amount of irrigated acreage in India between 1970 and 1999. In the mid-1990s, India’s Central Ground Water Board estimated that farmers pulled more than 172 cubic kilometers of water each year from aquifers in the study region of northeastern India, southern Nepal and western Bangladesh, says Tiwari. That’s more than three times the volume of India’s largest surface reservoir. New data gleaned from gravity-measuring satellites suggest that the annual rate of extraction in that region has jumped more than 60 percent since then, Tiwari and his colleagues report.

[Source : Science news]

Though regional rate of depletion has hitherto not been mapped in detail by the Indian Ministry of Water Resources, an apt observation by Himanshu Thakkar in India Water Portal needs to be analysed in the context of the actualities of the data as presented in Science Now. As observed by Mr. Thakkar, the estimates are indeed ’exaggerated statements’ and require qualification. The hydrological picture presented in these maps are also anomalous and need to be analysed by experts in the Indian context.

Nevertheless it remains that north-western India is heavily irrigated and the vagaries of monsoon are acutely felt in this historically arid region, the reason WHY this region is being drained faster than is naturally replenished, a trend that is of grave concern.

Hydrologist Matt Rodell of this GRACE mission said,

"We don’t know the absolute volume of water in the northern Indian aquifers, but GRACE provides strong evidence that current rates of water extraction are not sustainable”.

In a paper published in Current Science on June 25th, Rana Chatterjee and Raja Ram Purohit, hydrologists at Central Ground Water Board, India, have already reported groundwater overexploitation in not just north-western and western India, but also peninsular India.

According to Dr. Raj Gupta, scientist with International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT),

"Farmers have to irrigate and that’s why they are pumping more water, mining more water”.

Mounting pressure on food supplies, unpredictable monsoons and an increased frequency and intensity in drought, calls for an urgent shift in water usage regulations, irrigation reforms and government policies.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why India should not leave itself open to Geo-political blackmail

The West needs to decide whether India is a poor country whose plentiful eating is contributing to the global food crisis or a country whose fast-paced development is a threat to global warming. Statistics are thrown about at random, telling us Indians about our carbon footprint and what we ought to do, whilst it remains that the U.S. has the largest per capita carbon footprint, with a Hummer and gas-guzzling lifestyle topping the list of world polluters.

I just happened to read Bret Stephens’ article in the Wall Street Journal of August 4th, Global Warming and the Poor :Why India and China don’t care much about climate change.

He says,

"Roughly 75% of Indians—some 800 million people—live on $2 a day or less, adjusted for purchasing power parity.”

Now I wonder, where from he got his figure, whether he is not indulging in the same figure-hustling that Mr Kofi Annan’s report on climate-change induced disasters has been accused of, by disaster trends expert Roger Pielke Jr.

In India, where lifestyles are not technology driven but sustainable and simplistic, the purchasing power of a dolar is much more than elsewhere. This doesn’t mean the average Indian is poor as because he does not posses a washing machine or a car of his own. Rather, is indicative of a traditional sustainable culture, which advocates the use of muscle-power and bicycles. In other words, what the eco-elitists are resorting to today, in order to reduce individual carbon footprint the conscpicuous way, the Indians have been doing for long.

Mr Stephens further says,

"But what about all the pollution in India and particularly China?

It is beyond comprehension why India keeps getting clubbed with China,vis-à-vis pollution. Neither is India an “oppressive Third-World” country nor as eco-ignorant as is made out to be. India’s sustainable lifestyle are a part of its Vedic inheritance rooted in community participation. It maybe true that coal has been touted as one of the largest factors for emitting polution, but India is not alone in using coal-powered plants and technlogies. The entire Western world, including the U.S. is guilty, so it is unfair to corner India on this issue. At the same time, it is a fact that India is seriously turning to alternative and renewable sources of energy.

In Mr. Stephens' own words,

"China’s pollution problems are not a function of laissez-faire policies and rampant consumerism, but of the regime’s excessive lingering control of the economy”.

The problems assailing India are not all that weird, but perhaps beyond the comprehension of the Western media and policy-makers. For India is an absolute vote-bank politics driven nation, where no local governance would be foolish enough to indulge in banning a grossly carbon-intensive activity, if it meant jeopardizing the interests of their die-hard fans. Which is anyway, not much different from the American Oil-Coal lobbying, that has more of a global ramification than our Indian regional policy reforms or lack thereof.

However, the scene is fast changing at the macro level, going by the stance taken by Jairam Ramesh and Sathya Saran, refusing to kow-tow to the American demand of capping carbon emissions, whilst the West refuses to bear their ‘historic responisbility’.

Going by the sense of outrage in the Western media and political circles at India’s arrogance at rebuttal, it seems that U.S. is in for some nail-biting times in the face of its proposed Energy and Climate Change Bill.

India is a country, where large parts of the rural country enjoy carbon negative lifestyles. The practice of using the earthen kullar and leaf plates maybe perceived as indicators of poverty but actually speak of an ancient culture’s ‘cradle-to-cradle’ sustainable far-sighted way of life. This is a country where large sections of the popultaion have historically been vegetarians with minimum food miles.

In such a scenario, where India does not carry the burden of a high ecological rucksack, it is quite right that we do not succumb to external pressures that bind us. India has a 7600 km long coastline, a rich watershed of rivers and an abundance of sunlight for energy sources. So India shall be better off shifting to these renewable energy forms and using the natural resources judicioulsy, rather than commit to measures that would restrain the pace of development and perhaps leave her open to geo-political blackmail at a later stage.