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Can you pinpoint the biggest challenge facing India today? Corruption, Overpopulation or Illiteracy may be your top answers. Think again.  The greatest threat may well be lack of access to clean water.

Ground water refers to all water below the surface of the ground. Ground water is a major source of fresh water critical for sustaining life. However, it is nature’s buried treasure, since much of it is stored underground. Underground water is the only source of water in many dry areas. Water is brought to the surface using pumps and used in various sectors. Groundwater is used to irrigate India’s farmland. Beneath the “growing economy, and development facade” of our towns and cities, is the gripping water crisis.The Central Ground Water Board has reported that in the 10 years to 2011, there has been a more than 4m decline in aquifers that supply six major cities, including New Delhi, and Mumbai.

Fluid Situation: Image source: www.hindustantimes.com

Fluid Situation: Image source: http://www.hindustantimes.com

A number of factors affect the depleting groundwater levels in India. Groundwater is used for irrigating our agricultural lands, used by industries, and for human consumption. Apart from gross misuse especially by the first two sectors, the government by virtue of its poor distribution system, adds to the woes. In cities like Delhi and Pune , nearly 40% of the water supply is lost due to leakages.

Quality of groundwater is also major concern where ground water resources are used for human consumption.  Urban development, sewage contamination, run-off from  landfills, and widespread application of fertilizers and pesticides are the major contributors polluting our ground water.

Effects of Arsenic and Flouride. Image source: www.thehindubusinessline.com

Effects of Arsenic and Flouride. Image source: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com

Fluoride is another natural contaminant that threatens millions in India. Aquifers in the drier regions of  India are  rich in fluoride deposits. Fluoride is an essential nutrient for bone and dental health, but when consumed in high concentrations,  can lead to crippling damage to the neck and back, and to a range of dental problems. The WHO estimates 30 million in northwestern India are drinking water with high fluoride levels. The reason for this is that water has been pumped from deeper aquifers that contain high concentrations of arsenic. Recent reports suggest that groundwater in parts of Delhi is highly polluted.

Some studies from the Central Pollution Control Board paint a dire picture. After half a century of spraying in the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, for example, the Central Pollution Control Board found DDT in groundwater at levels as high as 4,500 micrograms per liter which is several thousand times higher than what is considered a safe dose.

Groundwater depletion has forced cities to seek out alternate supplies of water, either because the groundwater has become unusable as is the case with Jaipur  or groundwater will cease to exist by 2015 in the case of  Hyderabad.

Perhaps the largest misconception being exploded by the spreading water crisis is the assumption that the ground we stand on and what lies beneath it is solid, unchanging, and inert. Just as the advent of climate change has awakened us to the fact that the air over our heads is an arena of enormous forces in the midst of titanic shifts, the water crisis has revealed that slow-moving though it may be, groundwater is part of a system of powerful hydrological interactions between earth, surface water, sky, and sea that we ignore at our peril. http://www.worldwatch.org

Access to Tap Water in rural homes. Image source: www.savethewater.org

Access to Tap Water in rural homes. Image source: http://www.savethewater.org

Access to clean groundwater is linked to our health, and food security.   India’s water crisis is predominately a man-made problem. We not only need to acknowledge the severity of the ground water crisis, but also look at a more holistic approach towards resolving it. There have been some solutions initiated by institutes and ngos. Conserving water, reducing our water footprint, using rain-water to recharge our aquifers are some of the solutions prescribed by scientists and experts. Adequate rainfall can recharge our groundwater.  On an individual level, we need to be more responsible in water usage, and urge policy makers for an effective, sustainable solution.

Further references:

State-wise ground water pollution scenario in India

Ground Water Quality Problems due to Industries

India Groundwater Governance

Manual on Artificial Recharge of Groundwater – Central Ground Water Board