NY Times reports:
If groundwater can be thought of as a nation's savings account for dry, desperate drought years, then India, which has more than its share of them, is rapidly exhausting its reserve. That situation is true in a growing number of states.
Indian surveyors have divided the country into 5,723 geographic blocks. More than 1,000 are considered either overexploited, meaning more water is drawn on average than is replenished by rain, or critical, meaning they are dangerously close to it.
Twenty years ago, according to the Central Groundwater Board, only 250 blocks fell into those categories.
"We have come to the worst already," was the verdict of A. Sekhar, who until recently was an adviser on water to the Planning Commission of India. At this rate, he projected, the number of areas at risk is most likely to double in the next dozen years.
Across India, where most people still live off the land, the chief source of irrigation is groundwater, at least for those who can afford to pump it.
Here in Jaipur District, a normally parched area west of New Delhi known for its regal palaces, farmers depend on groundwater almost exclusively. Across Rajasthan State, where Jaipur is located, up to 80 percent of the groundwater blocks are in danger of running out.
But even fertile, rain-drenched pockets of the country are not immune.
Consider, for instance, that in Punjab, India's northern breadbasket state, 79 percent of groundwater blocks are classified as overexploited or critical; in neighboring Haryana, 59 percent; and in southern tropical Tamil Nadu, 46 percent.
The crisis has been exacerbated by good intentions gone awry and poor planning by state governments, which are responsible for regulating water.
Indian law has virtually no restrictions on who can pump groundwater, how much and for what purpose. Anyone, it seems, can - and does - extract water as long as it is under his or her patch of land. That could apply to homeowner, farmer or industry.
Electric pumps have accelerated the problem, enabling farmers and others to squeeze out far more groundwater than they had been able to draw by hand for hundreds of years.
The spread of free or vastly discounted electricity has not helped, either. A favorite boon of politicians courting the rural vote, the low rates have encouraged farmers, especially those with large landholdings, to pump out groundwater with abandon.
"We forgot that water is a costly item," lamented K. P. Singh, regional director of the Central Groundwater Board, in his office in the city of Jaipur. "Our feeling about proper, judicious use of water vanished."