Groundwater abstraction from the transboundary Indo-Gangetic Basin comprises 25% of global groundwater withdrawals, sustaining agricultural productivity in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Recent interpretations of satellite gravity data indicate that current abstraction is unsustainable1,2,3, yet these large-scale interpretations lack the spatio-temporal resolution required to govern groundwater effectively4,5. Here we report new evidence from high-resolution in situ records of groundwater levels, abstraction and groundwater quality, which reveal that sustainable groundwater supplies are constrained more by extensive contamination than depletion. We estimate the volume of groundwater to 200 m depth to be >20 times the combined annual flow of the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges, and show the water table has been stable or rising across 70% of the aquifer between 2000 and 2012. Groundwater levels are falling in the remaining 30%, amounting to a net annual depletion of 8.0 ± 3.0 km3. Within 60% of the aquifer, access to potable groundwater is restricted by excessive salinity or arsenic. Recent groundwater depletion in northern India and Pakistan has occurred within a longer history of groundwater accumulation from extensive canal leakage. This basin-wide synthesis of in situ groundwater observations provides the spatial detail essential for policy development, and the historical context to help evaluate recent satellite gravity data.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $15.58 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009).
Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. F. P. & van Beek, L. P. H. Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature 488, 197–200 (2012).
Richey, A. S. et al. Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE. Wat. Resour. Res. 51, 5217–5238 (2015).
Alley, W. M. & Konikow, L. F. Bringing GRACE down to Earth. Groundwater 53, 826–829 (2015).
Scanlon, B. R. et al. Hydrologic implications of GRACE satellite data in the Colorado River Basin. Wat. Resour. Res. 51, 9891–9903 (2015).
Struckmeier, W. & Richts, A. Groundwater Resources of the World (1:25,000,000). World Wide Hydrogeological Mapping and Assessment Programme (UNESCO/BGR, 2008).
Foster, S. & MacDonald, A. M. The water security dialogue: why it needs to be better informed about groundwater. Hydrogeol. J. 22, 1489–1492 (2014).
Shah, T. Climate change and groundwater: India’s opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035005 (2009).
Chen, J., Li, J., Zhang, Z. & Ni, S. Long-term variations in Northwest India from satellite gravity measurements. Glob. Planet. Change 116, 130–138 (2014).
Shamsudduha, M., Taylor, R., Ahmed, K. M. & Zahid, A. The impact of intensive abstraction on recharge to a shallow regional aquifer system: evidence from Bangladesh. Hydrogeol. J. 19, 901–916 (2011).
CGWB Groundwater Year Book 2012–2013 (Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, 2014).
Basharat, M., Hassan, D., Bajkani, A. A. & Sultan, S. J. Surface Water and Groundwater Nexus: Groundwater Management Options for Indus Basin Irrigation System Publication no. 299 (International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI), Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority, 2014).
Quereshi, A. S., Gill, M. A. & Sarwar, A. Sustainable groundwater management in Pakistan: challenges and opportunities. Irrig. Drain. 59, 107–116 (2008).
Yu, W. et al. The Indus Basin of Pakistan, The Impacts of Climate Risks on Water and Agriculture (The World Bank, 2013).
Agrawal, G. D., Lunkad, S. K. & Malkhed, T. Diffuse agricultural nitrate pollution of groundwaters in India. Water Sci. Technol. 39, 67–75 (1999).
Ravenscroft, P., Burgess, W. G., Ahmed, K. M., Burren, M. & Perrin, J. Arsenic in groundwater of the Bengal Basin, Bangladesh: distribution, field relations, and hydrogeological setting. Hydrogeol. J. 13, 727–751 (2005).
Fendorf, S., Michael, H. A. & van Geen, A. Spatial and temporal variations of groundwater arsenic in south and southeast Asia. Science 328, 1123–1127 (2010).
Immerzeel, W. W., Van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. Science 328, 1382–1385 (2010).
Jiménez Cisneros, B. E. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 229–269 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Chatterjee, R. et al. Dynamic groundwater resources of National Capital Territory, Delhi: assessment, development and management options. Environ. Earth Sci. 59, 669–686 (2009).
Foster, S., van Steenbergen, F., Zuleta, J. & Garduno, H. Conjunctive Use of Groundwater and Surface Water—From Spontaneous Coping Strategy to Adaptive Resource Management GW-MATE Strategic Overview Series 2 (World Bank, 2010).
Lapworth, D. J. et al. Groundwater recharge and age-depth profiles of intensively exploited groundwater resources in northwest India. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 7554–7562 (2015).
Appelo, C. A. J. & Postma, D. Geochemistry, Groundwater and Pollution 2nd edn (CRC, 2005).
Goodbred, S. L. Response of the Ganges dispersal system to climate change: a source to sink view since the last interstade. Sedim. Geol. 162, 83–104 (2003).
Shamsudduha, M., Taylor, R. G. & Chandler, R. E. A generalized regression model of arsenic variations in the shallow groundwater of Bangladesh. Wat. Resour. Res. 51, 685–703 (2015).
Michael, H. A. & Voss, C. I. Evaluation of the sustainability of deep groundwater as an arsenic-safe resource in the Bengal Basin. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 8531–8536 (2008).
Ravenscroft, P., McArthur, J. M. & Hoque, M. A. Stable groundwater quality in deep aquifers of Southern Bangladesh: the case against sustainable abstraction. Sci. Total Environ. 454–455, 627–638 (2013).
Radloff, K. A. et al. Arsenic migration to deep groundwater in Bangladesh influenced by adsorption and water demand. Nat. Geosci. 4, 793–798 (2011).
Raza, A., Latif, M. & Shakir, A. S. Long-term effectiveness of lining tertiary canals in the Indus Basin of Pakistan. Irrig. Drain. 62, 16–24 (2013).
Harris, I., Jones, P. D., Osborn, T. J. & Lister, D. H. Updated high-resolution grids of monthly climatic observations - the CRU TS3.10 Dataset. Int. J. Climatol. 34, 623–642 (2014).
Tukey, J. W. Exploratory Data Analysis (Addison-Wesley, 1977).
MacDonald, A. M. et al. Groundwater resources in the Indo-Gangetic Basin: resilience to climate change and abstraction. OR/15/047 (British Geological Survey, 2015).
Iqbal, R. M. & Hannan, A. Groundwater Monitoring Report 2012 (Directorate of Land and Reclamation Punjab, Irrigation and Power Department, Punjab Irrigation and Drainage Authority, 2012).
CGWB Groundwater Year Book—India 2011–12 (Central Groundwater Board, Ministry of Water resources, Government of India, 2012).
Shamsudduha, M., Chandler, R. E., Taylor, R. G. & Ahmed, K. M. Recent trends in groundwater levels in a highly seasonal hydrological system: the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 13, 2373–2385 (2009).
Shamsudduha, M., Taylor, R. G. & Longuevergne, L. Monitoring groundwater storage changes in the Bengal Basin: validation of GRACE measurements. Wat. Resour. Res. 48, W02508 (2012).
Geoconsult Study of Tube Well Inventory of 22 Terai and Inner Terai Districts, Nepal (Groundwater Resources Development Board, Ministry of Irrigation, Government of Nepal, 2012).
District Groundwater Information 2013 (CGWB, accessed online July 2014); http://www.cgwb.gov.in
Cheema, M. J. M., Immerzeel, W. W. & Bastiaanssen, W. G. M. Spatial quantification of groundwater abstraction in the irrigated Indus Basin. Ground Water 52, 25–36 (2014).
AQUASTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, accessed Feb 2015); http://www.fao.org
Basharat, M. & Rizvi, S. A. Groundwater extraction and waste water disposal regulation. Is Lahore Aquifer at stake with as usual approach? Proceedings of World Water Day 2011 Water for Cities-Urban Challenges 135–152 (Pakistan Engineering Congress, 2011).
Michael, H. A. & Voss, C. I. Controls on groundwater flow in the Bengal Basin of India and Bangladesh: regional modelling analysis. Hydrogeol. J. 17, 1561–1577 (2009).
Annual Report of 2011–12 (Dhaka Water Supply & Sewerage Authority, 2012).
Seibert, S. et al. Groundwater use for irrigation—a global inventory. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 1863–1880 (2010).
BGS & DPHE Arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh. in British Geological Survey Technical Report WC-00-19 (eds Kinniburgh, D. G. & Smedley, P. L.) (British Geological Survey, 2001).
Winkel, L., Berg, M., Amini, M., Hug, S. J. & Johnson, A. C. Predicting groundwater arsenic contamination in Southeast Asia from surface parameters. Nat. Geosci. 1, 536–542 (2008).
This work was supported by the UK Department for International Development (Groundwater Resources in the Indo-Gangetic Basin, Grant 202125-108); however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government’s official policies. National and regional boundaries shown on the maps are to aid interpretation of the spatial data and do not imply official endorsement of national borders. The paper is published with the permission of the Executive Director of the British Geological Survey (NERC).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
MacDonald, A., Bonsor, H., Ahmed, K. et al. Groundwater quality and depletion in the Indo-Gangetic Basin mapped from in situ observations. Nature Geosci 9, 762–766 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2791
Science of The Total Environment (2020)
Groundwater quality assessment of Shahdadkot, Qubo Saeed Khan and Sijawal Junejo Talukas of District Qambar Shahdadkot, Sindh
Applied Water Science (2020)
Arsenic enrichment in groundwater and associated health risk in Bari doab region of Indus basin, Punjab, India
Environmental Pollution (2020)
Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (2019)