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Why new policies are needed to tackle India’s orphaned wells with no water

It's time to realise that good times of groundwater development are behind us, and with it the dependability on food security and drinking water supply.

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Hyderabad: India is currently the largest manufacturer of water well drilling machines and also has the highest number of drilled wells.

The flip side to continued drilling of wells, however, is the increasing number of failures and orphaned wells that have become a nuisance. These wells have become death traps as children and adolescents often slip and fall into them.

The growing stockpiles of abandoned wells over time are poised to become point sources for pollutants, and turn hazardous. The future generations will inherit a huge underground debris of abandoned holes left with pipes, pumps, motors and cables.

Cleaning these wells will be a mammoth task too. The process involves removal of all components such as stuck/abandoned pumps, cables and pipes, and thereafter plugging the hole with natural gravel pack and grout, before topping it with a sanitary seal. It is not just the size of wells but also the composition of these materials that complicates the process of clean-up and increases restoration costs.

It is no surprise then that people have not even thought of this problem as they continue to create more and more of such debris. But it is time to design policy guidelines to start clearing and restoring derelict wells.

Also read: Why borewell deaths are so frequent and rescue measures fall short most of the time

Gaps in existing policies

To help visualise the future crisis, current deficiencies in policies and programmes need close scrutiny. While groundwater irrigation continues to play a significant role in food security, it conveniently smokescreens the poor performance of other major irrigation projects.

The downside of extreme dependence on groundwater is becoming visible. Each day a new well is commissioned, several others are abandoned due to large-scale de-watering. It is bound to affect several million wells sequentially.

No other country has allowed such reckless construction of wells, exposing owners to huge risks linked to indebtedness and farmer suicides, and leaving several million orphaned wells to the posterity.

Politicians in the garb of small entrepreneurs have monopolised the commercial aspect of groundwater extraction through manufacture of rigs, pumps, pipes as well as offering services for their construction and maintenance.

The groundwater sector has shown phenomenal growth over the last three decades and is expected to continue growing mainly due to increasing water scarcity in urban and rural areas. Surge pricing mechanism has long been practised by this sector, capitalising on any scarcity by raising prices.

Despite the importance of groundwater resources in food sufficiency, rural water supply, and commerce, these have not been given any attention by successive governments. Because of continued neglect there is no authorised agency that guides and monitors groundwater development linked to machine production and services of wells.

This sector is largely autonomous, unregulated, and not subjected to enforcement of technical guidelines or other stringent quality certification.

Economic valuation of this sector remains unassessed, and there is no clarity on its functioning, the interests of investors, key drivers in its growth, annual turnover, distribution of sales over time/region, total number of functional wells and the associated economic benefits.

The long-term survival of this business is possible only if it can overcome the ethical challenges of operations and proactive actions are taken to improve efficiency of water use as well as preventing reckless damages inflicted to the groundwater environment.

Also read: This Kanpur village drinks neon green water & lives near a toxic waste dump as big as CP

Impact of climate change

Climate change impact on the already stressed groundwater system remains a looming threat. Going by the experience in Australia, it can be assumed that groundwater system elasticity will be under severe strain during dry events.

In the future, replenishment of groundwater system is likely to be less than the historical base line at times of severe drought. Even as cumulative rainfall is likely to increase, its concentration over a few days will see most of the water flowing as floods.

Projections say the worst is yet to come, and yet groundwater pumping continues to defy all limits of sustainable water balance. The negative ecological effects of this include drying up of streams, reduced flow in rivers, sea water ingress and increased salinity in the waters.

The wells are also getting exposed to surface pollution and contamination of water is getting more and more amplified with formation of new toxic constituents making several aquifers unsafe for drinking and agriculture.

Investment in drilled wells have to be treated as risky since the law of diminishing returns has come into play. More and more wells are contributing to less and less irrigation. The economic, social and environmental factors are now working at cross purpose.

The damaging impact of depletion is expanding spatially as well as vertically into deeper aquifers.

It’s time to realise that the good times of groundwater development are behind us, and with it the dependability of food security and drinking water supply. It is time for course correction through some hard and audacious choices.

Also read: Chennai’s water crisis is only getting worse, and there’s no relief in sight

Prevention of aquifer devastation

The current trends of building wells cannot continue in terms of groundwater consumption by agriculture. It is time to enact solutions to arrest the pace of well construction and start working towards improving the state of aquifers.

We have to begin with reversing the damages, even as bulk of the burden of restoration will have to be borne by the poor and the marginalised.

Since water needs of agriculture, commerce, entertainment, sports, cottage industry and the domestic sector are largely groundwater based, it is time to adopt methods such as recycling, treatment and mixing to increase efficiency of water usage. Change in lifestyle, consumerism and architecture also need to be integrated into the process.

India’s love affair with construction of wells needs to be effectively halted through policy interventions. Manufacture and sale of machines and construction of wells need to be strictly regulated.

Well construction and design should be made via cleaner and environmentally-sustainable technologies to protect aquifer and prevent contamination.

The submersible pumps technology needs to be upgraded by integrating advanced technologies. It should be made mandatory for manufacturers to install sensors, data loggers and communication tools while designing pumps.

This will help measure discharge, groundwater levels, basic quality of wells and communicate data real time to local servers equipped with real-time decision-making capabilities to identify over-pumping.

Groundwater hot-spots linked to over-pumping and contamination shall be required to take up restoration actions, including well closure, conversion to recharge wells, and changes in water use. Overall groundwater abstraction in each hydrologic unit should be limited to 50 per cent of available resource, with adequate allocation for environmental and future needs.

The optimistic school of thought holds the view that future generations will discover far more powerful technologies and resources to use and manage groundwater better than today. Even then it is morally incumbent on all of us to manage the current available water optimally so that we leave behind healthy aquifers.

The author is a consultant with UN-FAO, the World Bank, IFC. 

Also read: Punjab govt wakes up after death of 2-year-old, closes over 2,000 open borewells


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