Groundwater depletion in India could reduce winter cropped acreage significantly in years ahead. Switch to irrigation canals will not fully compensate for the expected loss of groundwater in Indian agriculture, new study concludes.
- India is the world’s second-largest producer of wheat and rice and is home to more than 600 million farmers.
- The country has achieved impressive food-production gains since the 1960s, due in part to an increased reliance on irrigation wells, which allowed Indian farmers to expand production into the mostly dry winter and summer seasons.
- But those gains have come at a cost: The country that produces 10% of the world’s crops is now the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, and aquifers are rapidly becoming depleted across much of India. Indian government officials have suggested that switching from groundwater-depleting wells to irrigation canals, which divert surface water from lakes and rivers, is one way to overcome projected shortfalls.
- if Indian farmers lose all access to groundwater in overexploited regions, and if that irrigation water is not replaced with water from other sources, then winter cropped acreage could be reduced by up to 20% nationwide. However, that scenario seems highly unlikely and was included in the study only as an upper-bound estimate.
It seems more likely that any future groundwater shortfalls would be at least partially offset by increases in canal irrigation. But even if all Indian regions currently using depleted groundwater switch to canal irrigation, winter cropped acreage could still decline by 7% nationwide and by 24% in the most severely affected locations, according to the researchers.