Erwin Fonseca, a 47-year-old farmer lives in Goa’s Assagao, a village near the coast in the northern district of the state. He owns approximately 1,600-square metres of land in the Munangwada ward of the village, on which he grows seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as decorative and ornamental plants. An open well, approximately 10 metres deep, supplies his farm with water.

In February 2019, this well, along with the wells of at least 10 other farmers in the neighbourhood, went dry. “It was the first time we had experienced this,” Fonseca told Mongabay-India. A month ago, someone had sunk two borewells, over 100 metres away from Fonseca’s farm. The farmers were convinced that those borewells were causing disruption in water supply to their farms.

A borewell is a borehole with a narrow shaft drilled into the ground. It is a tube, with a width ranging from 100 millimetres to a foot, made of polyvinyl chloride plastic or stainless steel. The lower end is fitted with a strainer and an attached pump lifts the water. Borewells extract much more water and at a faster pace than open wells. They can also be difficult to locate. Officials from the Water Resources Department, that Mongabay-India spoke to, admit that it is easy to hide these unauthorised borewells from plain sight.

A borewell in Goa. The state has approximately 6,000 registered wells. Of these, 80% are open wells and the remaining are borewells. Erratic water supply and high demand has contributed to illegal borewells and groundwater extraction. Credit: Supriya Vohra/Mongabay

Explaining the layers of rock and soil type in the state, Sandip Nadkarni, former chief engineer of Goa’s Water Resources Department, says, “There is lateritic soil for about one metre, after which there is the lateritic rock six to ten metres deep. This is an unconfined aquifer, which means it is without pressure.” He adds that after the lateritic rock, comes the clay which extends for 30 metres-80 metres and is a non-aquifer. “After the clay, is the precambrian metamorphic rock layer, which could have fissures, or be cracked. This is where water accumulates.”

Nadkarni explains that an open well will hit the unconfined aquifer, no more than 10 metres deep and get water from there. “But a borewell usually digs deep, straight into the metamorphic layer, and pulls water from there. It can be a shallow borewell as well.”

In order to curb the illegal extraction and regulate the extraction of water, Goa’s Water Resources Department, under the helm of Nadkarni, set up the Goa Groundwater Regulation Act, 2002. The Act required all wells to be registered, and newly dug wells to have requisite permissions from the department and other civic authorities. Commercial wells were required to pay a fee.

The borewells dug at the start of 2019 in Assagao, near Fonseca’s farm, however, did not have the permission, found Fonseca and other farmers, through a Right to Information application.

In May 2019, they filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court, claiming that two borewells had been illegally drilled, usurping all the groundwater, and creating an artificial drought in their ward. On September 11, the same year, the judge ordered the two illegal borewells to be sealed.

According to Goa’s State Water Policy 2021, the Central Ground Water Board has, as of March 2017, estimated Goa’s annual extractable groundwater resources as 160.33 Million Cubic Metres and the extraction of groundwater for all uses as 53.71 Million Cubic Metres. The overall stage of groundwater development (a ratio of annual groundwater draft and net annual groundwater availability in percentage) for the entire state is 34%, and all talukas of the state come under the “safe” category in terms of groundwater levels. However, the policy also states that there is a lack of recent and reliable estimates of water requirement for specific sectors. The paucity of data on water, both on the resource and utilisation side, makes it difficult to fully understand how much water is actually being used and where.

Several researchers, residents and activists told Mongabay-India that there is rampant extraction of groundwater across the state. While both the Water Resources Department and Public Works Department officials say that groundwater is mostly used to fulfil the shortfalls of piped water supply to households, they also admit that activities like tourism and construction have an impact on the state’s water table, especially in the northern coastal, tourism-driven belt.

The data is from an unstarred Lok Sabha question and measured the state-wise decadal water level fluctuation with mean. In the case of states where the number does not add up to 100, the remaining value refers to wells whose levels have remained unchanged. Credit: Lok Sabha Questions Created with Datawrapper

Sifting the data

Mongabay-India, through Right To Information applications in June 2022, accessed government data on registered wells and water tankers in Goa from 2006 till present. This is the most primary form of data accessible, according to which, there are approximately 6,000 wells in the state. Of these, 80% are open wells, and the remaining are borewells.

Most registered wells fall under the “domestic” and “agriculture” category. While borewells serve a commercial purpose, the number of registrations of wells has been dwindling after 2017.

Data from response to query filed in June 2022 under Right to Information Act. Created with Datawrapper

There are just over 600 registered water tankers in Goa, according to this data, and the number of registrations peaked in May 2020, a time when the first pandemic-associated lockdown was at its peak. A water tanker’s primary purpose, according to Water Resources Department and Public Works Department officials, is to fulfil the shortage of water supply on an emergency basis. Whenever there is a power outage at the treatment plant, the Public Works Department sends water tankers in the affected areas to tide over the loss. However, tankers are also used to supply water for commercial and industrial use.

The existing data on tankers collects the name, address of the applicant, the vehicle number, the licence number, date of registration, where the water is being drawn from, the purpose and the capacity of the tanker. It does not, however, contain details about where the water from these tankers is going and what are the groundwater levels of the regions these tankers are withdrawing from.

Data from response to query filed in June 2022 under Right to Information Act. Created with Datawrapper

Similarly, the data on wells records the name of the applicant, the type of well, its location, purpose and the quantity of water being drawn. It does not record the impact of the wells on the groundwater resource.

In August 2022, in response to a Lok Sabha question, the central government’s Jal Shakti ministry released a state-wise breakdown of declining water levels of wells in India. In Goa, 68 registered open wells were analysed. In these, 85% were found to show a decline in water levels between 2011 and 2020. Across states in India, Goa has the highest proportion of wells with a decline in water level.

Meanwhile, a conference paper released in December 2020 by two professors and a student of the department of geography at Government College Khandola, Marcela, Goa, shows, through satellite data, that there has been a rise in the built-up area in Goa’s northern coastal belt – an increase of almost 20% between 1991 and 2019.

A rise in built-up area, as indicated by the conference paper, should indicate a rise in the use of water. Instead, the Water Resources Department’s RTI data reveals that the number of registrations of borewells and open wells dwindled after 2017.

A major challenge in understanding the usage of water in Goa is the way data is being recorded. Currently, if one has a well or a tanker, one has to register it.

Data from response to query filed in 2022 under Right to Information Act. Created with Datawrapper

Tourism industry

Tourism is one of the crucial contributors to Goa’s economy. A large part of Goa’s northern coastal belt is being developed by the growing hospitality industry. Restaurants, bars, holiday villas, hotels and guest houses crowd the spaces. Research indicates that the northern coastal belt’s built-up area increased by almost 20% between 1991 and 2019. Goa experiences a shortage of water particularly in the non-monsoon months from November to May. While restaurants, on an average, need 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water daily, guest houses could require anything between 7,000 to 20,000 litres a day, depending on their capacity and requirement. “November to May is a testing time for us,” says Brenda Lobo, who runs a guesthouse in Vagator. “Piped water is only for domestic purposes. For our commercial ventures, we are dependent on water tankers.”

Dean D’Cruz, who has been practising environmentally responsible architecture for over three decades, says that the hotel industry consumes a lot of water, and there has been no real or conscious effort made to do water recharge. A 2017 paper by Tandem Research and The Asia Foundation on Goa’s water situation states that 37% of the hotels use groundwater, while 25% buy water from tankers, that also get most of their water from wells, thereby increasing the strain on groundwater. Researchers add that since Goa is a tourism state, there is a tendency for tourists to use more water than they would in their own homes.

Tourism, one of the key contributors to Goa’s economy, is increasingly affecting the state’s water level. Credit: Unsplash.

Booming real estate

Goa is witnessing a boom in the real estate industry, particularly the residential sector. A recent survey done by Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India shows that given the rising demand for housing in Goa, 68% of builders prefer taking on residential projects.

Fernando Velho, architect, researcher and visiting professor of urban design at Goa College of Architecture, says people have an idea that Goa is somehow different from the rest of India. “Everybody wants a second home here.”

Fonseca says that Assagao never had problems with water, but in the last 10 years, he has witnessed land being sold to real estate developers, who are filling up the quiet village with apartment complexes and luxury homes. “Every second person I meet asks me if there is land to buy in Assagao,” he adds.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has also been a rise in the number of holiday homes, or second homes in Goa, particularly in Assagao. The entire village today is dotted with large-gated blocks of concrete and Hyacinth-style homes, built by luxury developers.

All of these properties are gated complexes housing five to seven villas, each plot about 1,500 square metres on average, with three to four bedrooms and a swimming pool.

“A second home consumes resources without people living in them,” says Velho “If you have a [swimming] pool running, you are going to have to maintain that pool when you are not here. So, the load on water is very high in these second homes.”

While the real estate industry in Goa is booming, unreliable water supply is increasing demands for water tankers and unregulated ground water extraction. Credit: Supriya Vohra/Mongabay

Waylon D’souza, a transdisciplinary artist and designer, attempts to bring about sustainable design elements into these luxury villas. He often runs into roadblocks with end users (new settlers and tourists) and urban civil works. He recounted an incident where a family arrived at their newly-rented villa from a city and saw a frog in their pool. “They basically told the management that the bacteria of the frog would spread in the pool and affect their children’s health, so they must decant the entire pool and put in fresh water.”

D’souza says that the urban clientele does not know much about suburban regenerative estates and ecologies, as many of them are box dwellers. “They will always aspire to get what they see in architectural digest magazines – a deck by the pool with foxtail palm trees, sterile lawns and overly concreted outdoor areas. Very few will value a natural pool, which has a way of purifying water and air without chemicals, and supporting local biodiversity, such as dragonflies, which also reduces mosquito population.”

While the websites of these homes indicate a piped water supply, several residents of these luxury homes told Mongabay-India that they get their water from the tankers. “Our monthly water bills run up to Rs 7,000, how do you explain that with a piped water system?” said one resident, on condition of anonymity. A regular domestic water bill in Goa from piped water averages at Rs 500 monthly.

How do so many homes get permission to build in a village? Mongabay-India went through a few permission files, and discovered that the Town and Country Planning, the health department, the structural engineer, the architects and the Panchayat were required to provide permissions, and none of the drawings indicated where the water is going to be drawn from.

“The problem with authorities is that they want the taxes that all these hotels and second homes bring,” says Velho. “The only revenue available to many villages is house tax. So, they are not going to oppose these projects.”

Mongabay-India has sent queries regarding Goa’s groundwater supply to the state’s Water Resources Department but did not receive any comments at the time of publishing this article.

What lies ahead?

Goa is not a water-stressed state, but people experience a shortage of water regularly. Nadkarni, D’cruz and D’souza call for better design and process. While Nadkarni feels Goa needs to build a better storage capacity for rainwater, D’cruz says techniques for recharging groundwater are extremely important.

“Rainfall lasts for four months,” says D’cruz. “A tank is feasible in areas that have continuous rainfall. Then you can keep topping up the tank. To make a tank that lasts you through nine months to a year is enormous. So, it’s essential that we do groundwater recharge, which is a natural underground tank in a way and also filters through the natural soil.”

One of the ways is to create swales, which is already being done in some spaces. Swales are shallow ditches with gently sloping sides made in a criss-cross way that prevent run-off of rainwater. They allow the soil to absorb the water fully. D’souza says that there needs to be aquifer and hydrological cycle mapping for educating all segments. “Everyone who is part of this industry needs to understand how water moves, and only after being educated can one appreciate it and make better decisions for their investments, lifestyle or their child’s future.”

Velho and Fonseca add that the laws need to be stricter. While Fonseca believes in better monitoring, and stricter laws at the panchayat level, Velho says stricter state level policy, and creation of construction authorities that lays down standards for the construction industry to follow is perhaps a more hopeful way of bringing in a circular economy.

“In Goa, the rate of urbanisation is faster than what the government can keep up with. They are more interested in boosting the industry as opposed to regulating it,” says Velho, adding that litigation has to step in. “New permissions have to be only granted to projects where the government can provide the basic facilities like sewerage, piped water, electricity, garbage disposal and these things have to be in the public domain,” he says, lamenting that it is a failure of the political system.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.