Bad news for India, probably for China, perhaps for the US as well

Peak water might be a more serious problem — and perhaps happening sooner — than peak oil.  NASA satellites provide more evidence of the danger.   But as the comment at the end notes, profitable but unsustainable agriculture is the underlying cause of the problem — and ending it will be the eventual result (but hardly a solution).

As SOP on the FM site, here is a general explanation plus an abstract of the article.

  1. NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India’s Vanishing Water“, NASA, 12 August 2009
  2. Satellite data show Indian water stocks shrinking“, Quirin Schiermeier, Nature, 20 August 2009
  3. Conclusions — about shockwaves
  4. For More Information


(1)  NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India’s Vanishing Water“, NASA, 12 August 2009 — Excerpt:

Beneath northern India’s irrigated fields of wheat, rice, and barley — beneath its densely populated cities of Jaiphur and New Delhi, the groundwater has been disappearing. Halfway around the world, hydrologists, including Matt Rodell of NASA, have been hunting for it.

Where is northern India’s underground water supply going? According to Rodell and colleagues, it is being pumped and consumed by human activities — principally to irrigate cropland — faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes. They based their conclusions — published in the August 20 issue of Nature — on observations from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

“If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water,” said Rodell, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

… Changes in underground water masses affect gravity enough to provide a signal, such that changes in gravity can be translated into a measurement of an equivalent change in water.

“Water below the surface can hide from the naked eye, but not from GRACE,” said Rodell. The twin satellites of GRACE can sense tiny changes in Earth’s gravity field and associated mass distribution, including water masses stored above or below Earth’s surface. As the satellites orbit 300 miles above Earth’s surface, their positions change — relative to each other — in response to variations in the pull of gravity. The satellites fly roughly 137 miles apart, and microwave ranging systems measure every microscopic change in the distance between the two.

With previous research in the United States having proven the accuracy of GRACE in detecting groundwater, Rodell and colleagues Isabella Velicogna, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California-Irvine, and James Famiglietti, of UC-Irvine, were looking for a region where they could apply the new technique. “Using GRACE satellite observations, we can observe and monitor water changes in critical areas of the world, from one month to the next, without leaving our desks,” said Velicogna. “These satellites provide a window to underground water storage changes.”

The northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana have all of the ingredients for groundwater depletion: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms, which account for about 95% of groundwater use in the region.

Data provided by India’s Ministry of Water Resources suggested groundwater use was exceeding natural replenishment, but the regional rate of depletion was unknown. Rodell and colleagues had their case study. The team analyzed six years of monthly GRACE gravity data for northern India to produce a time series of water storage changes beneath the region’s land surface. They found that groundwater levels have been declining by an average of one meter every 3 years (one foot per year). More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States.

“We don’t know the absolute volume of water in the Northern Indian aquifers, but GRACE provides strong evidence that current rates of water extraction are not sustainable,” said Rodell. “The region has become dependent on irrigation to maximize agricultural productivity, so we could be looking at more than a water crisis.”

… “At its core, this dilemma is an age-old cycle of human need and activity — particularly the need for irrigation to produce food,” said Bridget Scanlon, a hydrologist at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin. “That cycle is now overwhelming fresh water reserves all over the world. Even one region’s water problem has implications beyond its borders.”

“For the first time, we can observe water use on land with no additional ground-based data collection,” Famiglietti said. “This is critical because in many developing countries, where hydrological data are both sparse and hard to access, space-based methods provide perhaps the only opportunity to assess changes in fresh water availability across large regions.”
the period.

(2)   “Satellite data show Indian water stocks shrinking“, Quirin Schiermeier, Nature, 20 August 2009 — “Groundwater depletion raises spectre of shortages.”

Unsustainable water use in India is threatening agricultural production and raising the spectre of a major water crisis. Matthew Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and colleagues used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites — operated by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) — to determine how groundwater levels are changing in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana, which includes the national capital of New Delhi.

Comment by Arvind Kumar:

I think that the main reason for the fast depletion water stock in north India, particularly in Haryana and Punjab is the success of Green Revolution. Green Revolution introduced the Paddy (Rice) crop in this region. Rice crop requires a lot of water and thus, ideally not suited for Haryana and Punjab – definitely not at the level that was demanded by the green revolution. The success of green revolution in India was due to use of ground water.

If we want to reduce the depletion of water stock in north India, the most important step would be to change the agricultural habits of the farmers in Haryana and Punjab, and introduce alternative crops which do not rely so heavily on water as rice does.

This is the story of water shortages in many countries, from northern India to southern California.  Water intensive crops grown in dry areas, exhausting the underground water reserves.  The after-effects will be painful.

(3)  Conclusions — about shockwaves

The precautionary principle is usually applied in an irrational manner to individual threats, such as climate change.  There are  many high impact – low probability threats, which I call “shockwaves”.  Also, the US and world have many vital if more mundane needs that deserve funding.   Since resources are finite, we must access their relative importance — which few of these special interest groups around each shockwave bother to do.  I discuss this in greater length at this post; here is my suggestion:

Commission a group to collect as many shockwave scenarios as possible, with a brief analysis of each. Fortunately there are thousands of interest groups willing to pitch in and help! Then apply a common analytical framework to rate them on both dimensions: probability and impact. The results would prove quite interesting, and allow more rational public policy discussion about which to act upon.

(4)  For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are Science & Nature – my articles.

FM posts about shockwaves and other geo-science related issues

  1. We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?, 30 December 2008
  2. About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano, 11 January 2008
  3. My nomination for a top priority shockwave, 19 January 2009
  4. A serious threat to us – a top priority shockwave – a hidden danger …, 20 January 2009
  5. What about all the hype, the extreme warnings, about swine flu?, 3 September 2009

12 thoughts on “Bad news for India, probably for China, perhaps for the US as well

  1. At heart, this seems to be an energy problem, not a water problem. 3/4 of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, after all. With enough cheap energy we can desalinate all the water we need. 3rd and 4th generation nuke plants and satellite solar seem like steps in the right direction.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I doubt you can find any numbers, any studies, to justify this comment. Nuke power would have to become far more inexpensive than anything currently planned in order to power desalination plants to provide water for agriculture. That’s sci fi, at this time. Satellite solar is even more distant.

  2. Something similar is happening to the Ogalala aquifer in the US, caused, as I recall, by surface mining or exploration for coal in the Dakotas. Of course, water is a major issue in the ME already, possibly the real motive underlying Israel’s expansion. Reportedly, three or four years ago, Jenna Bush was in Latin America (Paraguay, I believe) negotiating the purchase for the family of a million acre land-tract overlaying the major aquifer for that region.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, it’s a global problem.

  3. I linked to this piece on my blog as well. The simple fact of the matter is that Haryana and Punjab do not practice anything near sustainable agriculture. A switch from rice to grain could cut this problem in half; switching from surface irrigation to drip irrigation would reduce water use even more.

    The problem with this solution is that it can be quite expensive in the short term. For most small farmers installing a drip system of irrigation costs more than will be made back in lower overhead expenses.

    I wonder how long this will hold true. In ten years time I would not be surprised if every Punjabi could install a drip irrigation system and have money to spare. Thus the real question we should be asking is not, “Will we hit peak water?”, but, “Can we develop water-use and irrigation technologies and techniques faster than we deplete the water?”

  4. Wasteful irrigation methods also contribute to soil salinity by raising the water table, disolving salts usually locked up and pushing them toward the surface. This can render large swathes of agricultural (and urban) land useless.

  5. While researching this post, I found that Atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in US waters and is a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it affects human and animal hormones. It supports your argument that industrial agriculture is only a part of the problem. The report U.S. Drinking Water and Watersheds Widely Contaminated by Hormone Disrupting Pesticide, Atrazine – Analysis of Water Data Reveals Broad Contamination Ignored by EPA Monitoring was released by The Natural Resources Defense Council, in August 2009.

  6. This is a timely warning indeed. India should evolve a national policy for saving water flowing from rivers into the seas.Rainwater harvesting on a country wide level should be the immediate target. Waste water recycling and reuse should be given paramount importance on a national scale, urgently.

  7. Other items to consider:

    Weather Worsens Mexico City’s Water Shortage

    One of the principal reservoirs that feeds Mexico City, the Cutzamala dam system, is nearly half-empty and continuing to drop. Water shutoffs have become routine in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

    A respite came this week with a few days of heavy rain. But with the country facing what could be one of its driest years in nearly seven decades, the government is running ads with a dire prediction: “February 2010: The City May Run Out of Water.”

    “If we can’t get control of water demand here, the difference between what’s offered and what’s needed is going to leave parts of this city without any water,” says Ramón Aguirre, head of Mexico City’s water system.

    Mexico’s capital, with its 19 million residents, is confronting a crisis that also is a threat elsewhere. Los Angeles, Beijing and Singapore are just a few of the world’s urban centers struggling to accommodate growing populations with dwindling supplies of drinkable water.

    Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes

    A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.

    The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones.

    Ethiopia. Sudan. Somalia. Maybe even Niger and Chad. These countries have become almost synonymous with drought and famine. But Kenya? This nation is one of the most developed in Africa, home to a typically robust economy, countless United Nations offices and thousands of aid workers.

    Fabius Maximus replies: What is the point? Droughts are natural climate cycles, even in Kenya.

  8. Perhaps it’s better / easier to change farming habits. Gee, wasn’t that what they did last time? I think it was called, um, ‘Green Resolution’ or something…

  9. The drought in Iraq and Afghanistan , I have been unreliably informed , is due to the UK and US invasion . However , for the rest of the world , where the dickens has the rain gone to ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have seen no evidence of a world-wide drought.

  10. ” Nuke power would have to become far more inexpensive than anything currently planned in order to power desalination plants to provide water for agriculture. That’s sci fi, at this time.”

    Conventional irrigation is very wasteful of water. Aeroponics is a proven technology (developed in Fabius’ own US of A) that needs tiny amounts of water and energy.

    For that matter, I could put up a dozen links to high-efficiency farming methods. If India were to adopt efficient agriculture, it could feed its masses and more. If India continues its present course … it will get to where it’s currently headed.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed. We can greatly reduce ag’s water consumption by more efficient use of water plus switching to less water-intensive crops. Water is under-priced, and the supply of underpriced goods is almost always less than demand.

  11. So, to be clear, you would like me to sketch out a plan to irrigate India (with references) in 250 words or less? Your regard for my intellect is flattering.

    On nuclear power: “The New Nukes“, Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2009 — Excerpt:

    Still, nuclear plants will remain very expensive. Recent estimates put Generation III plant costs at $4,000 to $6,700 per kilowatt of capacity, or $4.4 billion to $11 billion, for plants ranging from 1,100 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts in size. In comparison, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated the price of a coal plant at about $2,300 a kilowatt of capacity and a gas-fired plant at about $850 a kilowatt of capacity.

    Pacific Gas and Electric does not share your pessimism about solar satellites: “Power company plans first orbital solar power satellite“, posted at BoingBoint, 9 April 2009.

    My point is that with cheap energy, many things become possible. All options will look inexpensive compared to famine.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is gibberish.
    (1) Re your first sentence: my reply to your comment #1 said no such thing.
    (2) I’ve added an excerpt to the WSJ article you cite, showing that my reply was accurate.
    (3) I said that “Satellite solar is even more distant {than nukes}”; the PG&E news is about a study of something to be tested in the indefinite future, with development to follow after that.

    Your comments are inaccurate in that they point to technology that will not substantially affect the supply of water to agriculture during our lives — and probably not in our children’s lives. Saying that technology will save us sometime in the distant future as useful as describing the wonders of Heaven.

  12. “Your comments are inaccurate in that they point to technology that will not substantially affect the supply of water to agriculture during our lives — and probably not in our children’s lives. Saying that technology will save us sometime in the distant future as useful as describing the wonders of Heaven.”

    If you say that your country will not have this technology in your life, Fabius, you’re already wrong, because many of the technologies that you spurn as “uneconomic” were made by Americans. However, the more eager, more ambitious nations of the earth enthusiastically adopt the fruits of your labors and profit from them because your masses lack the will to do so. The tragedy of the white race is that they produce outstanding geniuses such as Newton, but the white masses are not as clever as more evolved races, such as Northeast Asians.
    * “Japan Plans $21 Billion Solar Space Post to Power 294,000 Homes“, Inhabit, 1 September 2009
    * “Japan Wants to Power 300,000 Homes With Wireless Energy From Space“, Popular Science, 2 September 2009

    Can you read the Asian languages? All of us can read your English…
    Fabius Maximus replies: Please at least pretend that you are paying attention to the topic being discussed — which is providing providing water for agricuture. The cost must be at least an order of magnitude cheaper than for urban use, which is why these articles your keep referencing are irrelevant. It will probably come eventually, but is far off. Stay on topic.

    Also, I suggest not getting excited by articles like this. Popular Science and others have been running things like this for 60 years. Flying cars, living in space, etc. Corporations would take government money to build a sun if they could catch DARPA or its equivalents in a weak moment, and Pop Sci would write gushing articles telling how your children will live under 2 suns.

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