Indian women carrying drinking water from a municipal water tanker in Shankargarh, Uttar Pradesh, on June 6, 2019.
CNN  — 

Hundreds of millions of people in India face a serious threat to their livelihoods and food security due to overexploitation of vital water supplies, according to the authors of a new study.

India is one of the world’s biggest crop producers and more than half of its 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. But the groundwater that makes up 40% of the country’s water supply has been steadily depleting for years.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, found that overuse of groundwater could cause winter harvests in some regions of the country to fall up to two thirds by 2025.

A team of international researchers analyzed satellite imagery and census data to gauge the impact on winter harvests, which account for 44% of the country’s annual cropped acreage for food grains, according to the study. Winter agriculture relies heavily on groundwater irrigation – as opposed to other seasons that can take advantage of heavy monsoon rains.

Indian food production has skyrocketed since the 1960s, as farmers began widely using tube wells, which draw water from deep underground. This has allowed them to continue farming even during dry seasons when there isn’t rain or sufficient surface water – but over-extraction has left “critically low groundwater availability” in the country’s northwest and south, according to the research.

“Many studies have shown that India has large groundwater depletion, but to date it has been unclear what the impacts of this depletion could have on agricultural production,” said lead author Meha Jain, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

The researchers found that if farmers in over-exploited regions lose all access to groundwater, and if that irrigation water isn’t replaced by water from other sources, winter harvests could decrease by 20% nationwide and by 68% in the most severely affected areas.

This is a worst-case scenario, and the damage could be mitigated if authorities take action and adopt alternative irrigation options, the study said. The government has already been widely pushing the adoption of canal irrigation, which diverts surface water from lakes and rivers, and could help offset some of the losses.

Water commuters fill containers at a groundwater source in Latur, Maharashtra, India, in 2016.

But it’s far from a perfect solution – even if all regions currently using depleted groundwater switched to canal irrigation, winter harvests could still decline by 7% nationwide and by 24% in the worst hit locations, according to the study.

And canal irrigation comes at its own cost – it would mean farmers are more vulnerable to weather changes, since lakes and rivers depend on rainfall. Groundwater is also a more equitable way to distribute water across villages, since wells are decentralized as opposed to large-scale canal projects.

“Our results highlight the critical importance of groundwater for Indian agriculture and rural livelihoods, and we were able to show that simply providing canal irrigation as a substitute irrigation source will likely not be enough to maintain current production levels in the face of groundwater depletion,” said Jain in a news release.

Instead, the government needs to adopt a wide range of strategies – for instance, switching from winter rice to less water-intensive cereals, the use of sprinklers and drip irrigation to conserve water, and policies to increase the efficiency of irrigation canals, according to the study.

Farmers hard hit

India’s water crisis has been building for years, gaining international attention in 2019 when Chennai, the country’s sixth largest city, faced an acute water shortage.

The city’s four main reservoirs ran nearly dry due to insufficient rainfall and low groundwater levels. Water had to be trucked into Chennai from other states and regions, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to stand in line for hours in the summer heat to receive rationed water.

It’s a national problem: 100 million people, including those in the large cities of Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, face the threat of groundwater running out entirely, according to a 2018 report by Niti Aayog, an Indian government think tank.

A man fills up a container with drinking water during a citywide water shortage in Chennai, India, on June 17, 2019.

The agricultural sector has been one of the hardest hit. The regions with the most severe water depletion fall along India’s food bowl – states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which support the whole country’s food security, said Bharat Sharma, scientist emeritus at the International Water Management Institution, who was not involved in the study.

“The water table is depleting very fast in north India … That is why the farmers started making use of groundwater, because surface water was not available and the explosive use of groundwater began,” he said. “The cropping system we are using requires more water than is available.”

The devastating effects of climate change have also added to the difficulties facing farmers. Monsoon rains, which they depend on to water their crops, have been more erratic and droughts more common.

“Indian farmers are in a very challenging situation right now,” Jain, from the University of Michigan, told CNN. “On top of groundwater depletion, there’s also going to be negative impacts of climate change in the coming decades.”

This years-long crisis has been linked to persistently high rates of farmer suicide, with many farmers driven to desperation by growing debts, bankruptcies and crop loss. Every year, more than 10,000 farmers and agricultural workers die by suicide, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2019, that number was 10,281 – averaging 28 suicides a day.

The government has taken action in recent years to try to address these various crisis points. In 2020, the federal Central Ground Water Board agency released a “Master Plan” to conserve and artificially recharge depleted groundwater, using strategies like canals, injection wells, and groundwater reservoirs.

One sustainable solution could be changing the types of crops grown in different regions – for instance, reducing up to 20% of the land used to grow rice and wheat in Central Punjab, said Sharma. These are thirsty crops – replacing a portion with less water-reliant crops could turn the land “water neutral,” meaning “the rate of depletion of water will be equal to the rate by the recharge.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made agriculture a key focus of his 2019 re-election campaign, pledging to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. After he won, Modi created the Jal Shakti Ministry, a government branch focused on water resources, conservation and sanitation.

But efforts by Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party to reform the agricultural sector have backfired. A series of new agricultural laws passed last September have prompted the biggest nationwide protests seen in years, that are still ongoing now months later.

Though the government says the laws are necessary to modernize the industry and grant farmers more autonomy, farmers fear the laws could instead allow big companies to drive down prices, thus further devastating their livelihoods.