A 2020 block-wise groundwater resources assessment by the Central Ground Water Board found that most of the districts in Punjab had over-exploited the groundwater levels. In some districts, the groundwater level was marked as critical.

Groundwater extraction in Punjab has already reached 150 metres-200 metres in most places in central Punjab. If the present depletion continues, Punjab’s groundwater is expected to drop below 300 metres by 2039, as per Central Ground Water Board.

Experts warn a major threat to India’s food security if Punjab’s groundwater goes dry. Phasing out paddy and remodelling British-era canal systems to improve canal-based irrigation techniques are being recommended as possible solutions.

Last month, a monitoring committee of the National Green Tribunal reviewed the district environment plan of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district (formerly Nawanshahr district). The committee laid stress on the depleting groundwater levels and announced that usable groundwater is available till the threshold limit of 300 metres (1,000 feet), beneath the ground.

Balbir Singh Seechewal, a noted environmentalist and member of the National Green Tribunal panel that met last month, told Mongabay-India that their prediction about “groundwater depletion in 17 years” was not based on hearsay.

It came from Central Ground Water Board’s 2019 report which studied Punjab’s groundwater situation till 2017. The report states that if the present rate of extraction continues, within the next 22 years, the state’s usable groundwater will vanish.

“Five years have already passed and there has been no drop in Punjab’s groundwater depletion rate,” Seechewal told Mongabay-India. “We are left with 17 years. The situation is very delicate. The successive governments have not given the serious and immediate attention this issue deserves. The time has come to stop this. Otherwise, no one can stop Punjab from getting perished.”

As per the report, the average yearly rate of fall of groundwater levels works out to be approximately 0.49 metres/year.

If the present rate of groundwater extraction for farming continues in Punjab, the state’s usable groundwater will vanish in 22 years according to the Central Ground Water Board. Photo credit: Deepay/ Wikimedia Commons

Punjab’s central and southern districts, such as Barnala, Bathinda, Fatehgarh Sahib, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Moga, SAS Nagar, Pathankot, Patiala and Sangrur, are among the most affected.

Kahan Singh Pannu, a retired bureaucrat and the current convenor of Punjab Vatavaran Chetna Lehr, a group working to mainstream environmental issues in the state, explained that there is a limit at which water can be extracted beneath the ground. It is scientifically established that good quality water is available in the first aquifer reaching down to 100 metres (328 feet).

If the water level drops below 300 metres (roughly 1,000 feet), the quality of water becomes highly contaminated and not fit for irrigation or drinking. Pannu said, “Now, compare this situation with Punjab. As per the Central Ground Water Board, Punjab’s groundwater in the first 100 metres will get exhausted by 2029 and it will drop below 300 metres by 2039.”

Pannu, who previously worked with Punjab Irrigation Department for years, shared with Mongabay-India, “There are already villages in central Punjab, where groundwater has already depleted below 100 metres and reached to 150 metres-200 metres (500-600 feet).”

“ Out of 138 Blocks in the state, 109 Blocks (79% ) are ‘over-exploited’, which clearly means that they are fast reaching to the threshold limit of 300 metres,” Pannu said. “Even if one may find some quality water above 300 metres in some pockets subject to laboratory testing, it will not be financially viable for farmers to extract that deep, as it would need bigger tube wells and much deeper pipes that will not cost less than Rs 40 lakh- Rs 50 lakh.”

Pannu urges that the present depletion of groundwater be declared a national emergency since Punjab is a food bowl of India. “Punjab feeds the country with both wheat and rice,” he added. “If Punjab fields go barren, it will create a major food security challenge in the whole country. If country wants that Punjab continues to feed the nation, then time has come for solutions to reverse the looming environmental crisis before it is too late.”

Phasing out paddy

Punjab has mainly two crop systems – wheat and paddy. As per Central Ground Water Board’s Groundwater Yearbook most of the groundwater in Punjab is used for irrigation. “More than wheat crop, it is paddy which is responsible for over-exploitation of water resources in Punjab,” said noted agriculture expert Sardara Singh Johal.

Johal, who has been advocating for phasing out paddy, for over 30 years now, said paddy, which was never Punjab’s native crop, was imposed on it through an assured market procurement system as part of the green revolution strategy of the 1960s. He opines that Punjab could have helped the country achieve its food security, but it ended up damaging itself. He recommends that at least 50% of the area under paddy, be phased out.

“Punjab’s area under paddy, that includes all varieties, is close to 25 lakh-27 lakh hectares,” said Johal. “Punjab’s water resources can only tolerate paddy’s area to the tune of 10 lakh-12 lakh hectares. There is an urgent need to phase out the remaining hectares of paddy acreage.”

When asked how it can be achieved, Johal said, “The government needs to consider this problem as an emergency and must ensure the procurement of alternate crops, for paddy to be phased out.”

Apart from crop diversification, environmentalists also want to expand the British era-made canal-based irrigation system to reduce dependence on groundwater. “Currently not more than 20% of the agriculture area is irrigated by the canal system in Punjab,” said Kahan Singh Pannu of Punjab Vatavaran Chetna Lehr. “If the current canal system is remodelled and the distribution system till the fields is revived, it can take care of Punjab’s 38%-40% irrigation needs.”

Water gushes through a pipe in a paddy field in Punjab. The crop was widely cultivated in Punjab as part of the green revolution strategy in the 1960s to ensure India’s food security. Photo credit: Baljot.22/ Wikimedia Commons

What farmers expect

Punjab’s newly-elected Aam Aadmi Party government is taking steps toward crop diversification. It recently announced the scheme to incentivise Direct Sowing of Rice technology to save groundwater. Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann also announced an assured procurement of moong dal. This led to increase in area under moong from 20,000 hectares last year to 40,000 hectares.

However, moong dal cultivation is only an initiative to supplement farmers’ income with another crop between the wheat and paddy cycles.

Experts and farmers say that the state government needs to promote crops like maize that can replace paddy. The area under maize in Punjab is not more than 40,000 hectares in this sowing season.

“Farmers are ready to sow any crop other than paddy, if the government makes sure that it has right procurement price, and the entire produce of the farm is bought by government agencies,” a farm leader Jagjeet Singh Dallewal told Mongabay-India. “Unless this happens, it is difficult to phase out paddy since it is a matter of our livelihood too.”

According to him, farming has already become non-lucrative due to various policies. “Any change in crop pattern will only be successful if there is an assured return,” he concluded.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.