Letter | Published:

Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India

Nature volume 460, pages 9991002 (20 August 2009) | Download Citation



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 ± 1.0 cm yr-1 equivalent height of water (17.7 ± 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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We thank H. K. Beaudoing for assistance in preparing the GLDAS time series. This research was funded by grants from NASA’s Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Program, Terrestrial Hydrology Program and Cryospheric Science Program.

Author Contributions M.R. and J.S.F. performed background research and designed the study. I.V. led the GRACE data analysis. M.R. and I.V. wrote the manuscript and prepared the figures. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Hydrological Sciences Branch, Code 614.3, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • Matthew Rodell
  2. Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-3100, USA

    • Isabella Velicogna
    •  & James S. Famiglietti
  3. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109-8099, USA

    • Isabella Velicogna
  4. Department of Physics, University of Udine, 208 Via delle Scienze, 33100 Udine, Italy

    • Isabella Velicogna


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Rodell.

The GRACE data used here were produced by the Center for Space Research, University of Texas at Austin, and are available from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center (http://podaac.jpl.nasa.gov/index.html). GLDAS data are available from the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (http://disc.gsfc.nasa.gov/hydrology).

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