A recent NASA report has revealed that uncontrolled extraction of groundwater for irrigation of wheat and rice is causing a steep fall in available potable water in India’s north. This startling conclusion has arrived after a study of data which form a collection of NASA Earth-observing satellites.

The study which was published in journal Nature was done by scientists who were led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre were trying to map the changing freshwater locations around the world. The study revealed that the wetlands are getting wetter and arid regions even drier. This has been caused by some factors which include human water management, changing climate patterns, and natural cycles.

The Earth may be covered 70 percent with water, but freshwater resources are limited and not replenished quickly. Water supplies are stable at some locations, but in some areas, they fluctuate by considerable degrees. The planet is experiencing a significant hydrologic change.

The Northern Indian landmass which includes the highly fertile Punjab and Haryana is the breadbasket of India. It is the area which has come under sharp focus in the study. Rampant extraction of groundwater for wheat and paddy cultivation has led to an alarming depletion of freshwater. The situation remains unchanged even after normal rainfall throughout the period studies. It seemed that the groundwater is being extracted at a faster rate than its replenishment by rain and other means. Areas in Eastern India are also one of the hotspots along with West Asia, California, and Australia.

The data is obtained from two GRACE satellites. The satellites are a part of a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The satellites use the change in gravity fields caused by movements of mass on the planet below caused by variations in terrestrial water storage.

Co-author Hiroko Beaudoing of Goddard and the University of Maryland in College Park explained that pumping groundwater for agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to depleting underground water resources. The groundwater levels also are affected by drought or insufficient rainfall.

The most glaring example was California which saw substantial depletion of groundwater due to a decrease in the replenishment of groundwater by snow or rain in a period from 2007 to 2015.

During this period, SW California lost nearly four gigatons of fresh water per year.

Another region which saw a steep fall in fresh water is Saudi Arabia where agricultural pressures have made the region lose 6.1 gigatons per year of stored groundwater from 2002 to 2016. Northwestern China’s Xin Jiang province also saw a steep fall in its groundwater resources.

The rampant extraction of groundwater to make food for the expanding population of the world using a resource which was taken for granted is coming to haunt humanity and today we realize, the population is too high, groundwater levels are too low and at tipping level.

Another critical goal of the GRACE program was to understand shifts in terrestrial water storage and the wet and dry periods which are caused by periodic events like El Nino and La Nina. Freshwater is available in lakes, rivers, soil, snow, groundwater, and ice. Another source of clean water, the ice sheets at the poles are also melting, and this loss causes a rise in sea levels. Jay Famiglietti, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the author of the study, feels that it was a cause of alarm. The global water redistribution caused by human activities is something which needs to be addressed immediately.

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