Letter

Nature 460, 999-1002 (20 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08238; Received 20 February 2009; Accepted 14 June 2009; Published online 12 August 2009

Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India

See associated Correspondence: Subhadra, Nature 468, 173 (November 2010), Subhadra, Nature 521, 289 (May 2015)

Matthew Rodell1, Isabella Velicogna2,3,4 & James S. Famiglietti2

  1. Hydrological Sciences Branch, Code 614.3, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA
  2. Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-3100, USA
  3. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109-8099, USA
  4. Department of Physics, University of Udine, 208 Via delle Scienze, 33100 Udine, Italy

Correspondence to: Matthew Rodell1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.R. (Email: matthew.rodell@nasa.gov).

Groundwater is a primary source of fresh water in many parts of the world. Some regions are becoming overly dependent on it, consuming groundwater faster than it is naturally replenished and causing water tables to decline unremittingly1. Indirect evidence suggests that this is the case in northwest India2, but there has been no regional assessment of the rate of groundwater depletion. Here we use terrestrial water storage-change observations from the NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites3 and simulated soil-water variations from a data-integrating hydrological modelling system4 to show that groundwater is being depleted at a mean rate of 4.0 plusminus 1.0 cm yr-1 equivalent height of water (17.7 plusminus 4.5 km3 yr-1) over the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana (including Delhi). During our study period of August 2002 to October 2008, groundwater depletion was equivalent to a net loss of 109 km3 of water, which is double the capacity of India's largest surface-water reservoir. Annual rainfall was close to normal throughout the period and we demonstrate that the other terrestrial water storage components (soil moisture, surface waters, snow, glaciers and biomass) did not contribute significantly to the observed decline in total water levels. Although our observational record is brief, the available evidence suggests that unsustainable consumption of groundwater for irrigation and other anthropogenic uses is likely to be the cause. If measures are not taken soon to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114,000,000 residents of the region may include a reduction of agricultural output and shortages of potable water, leading to extensive socioeconomic stresses.

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