Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A century of groundwater accumulation in Pakistan and northwest India


The groundwater systems of northwest India and central Pakistan are among the most heavily exploited in the world. However, recent, and well-documented, groundwater depletion has not been historically contextualized. Here, using a long-term observation-well dataset, we present a regional analysis of post-monsoon groundwater levels from 1900 to 2010. We show that human activity in the early twentieth century increased groundwater availability before large-scale exploitation began in the late twentieth century. Net groundwater accumulation in the twentieth century, calculated in areas with sufficient data, was at least 420 km3 at ~3.6 cm yr–1. The development of the region’s vast irrigation canal network, which increased groundwater recharge, played a defining role in twentieth-century groundwater accumulation. Between 1970 and 2000, groundwater levels stabilized because of the contrasting effects of above-average rainfall and the onset of tubewell development for irrigation. Due to a combination of low rainfall and increased tubewell development, approximately 70 km3 of groundwater was lost at ~2.8 cm yr–1 in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Our results demonstrate how human and climatic drivers have combined to drive historical groundwater trends.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Overview of the study area, OW data and historic water resource developments.
Fig. 2: Groundwater levels and trends and influence of canal construction, tubewell development and precipitation.
Fig. 3: Mean long-term groundwater levels in CC areas.
Fig. 4: Summary of precipitation, groundwater levels, canal construction and tubewell development between 1900 and 2010.

Data availability

The full dataset of groundwater levels is available from the National Geoscience Data Centre at the following address:


  1. Siebert, S., Portmann, F. T. & Döll, P. Global patterns of cropland use intensity. Remote Sens. 2, 1625–1643 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Rodell, M., Velicogna, I. & Famiglietti, J. S. Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Tiwari, V. M., Wahr, J. & Swenson, S. Dwindling groundwater resources in northern India, from satellite gravity observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, (2009).

  4. Chen, J., Li, J., Zhang, Z. & Ni, S. Long-term groundwater variations in northwest India from satellite gravity measurements. Glob. Planet. Change 116, 130–138 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bhanja, S. N. & Mukherjee, A. In situ and satellite-based estimates of usable groundwater storage across India: implications for drinking water supply and food security. Adv. Water Resour. 126, 15–23 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Tang, Y. et al. Reconstructing annual groundwater storage changes in a large-scale irrigation region using GRACE data and Budyko model. J. Hydrol. 551, 397–406 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Ahmed, K., Shahid, S., Demirel, M. C., Nawaz, N. & Khan, N. The changing characteristics of groundwater sustainability in Pakistan from 2002 to 2016. Hydrogeol. J. 27, 2485–2496 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Asoka, A., Gleeson, T., Wada, Y. & Mishra, V. Relative contribution of monsoon precipitation and pumping to changes in groundwater storage in India. Nat. Geosci. 10, 109–117 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. MacDonald, A. M. et al. Groundwater quality and depletion in the Indo-Gangetic basin mapped from in situ observations. Nat. Geosci. 9, 762–766 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Basharat, M., Umair Ali, S. & Azhar, A. H. Spatial variation in irrigation demand and supply across canal commands in Punjab: a real integrated water resources management challenge. Water Policy 16, 397–421 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Irfan, M., Qadir, A., Ali, H., Jamil, N. & Ahmad, S. R. Vulnerability of Environmental Resources in Indus Basin after the Development of Irrigation System (Intechopen, 2019).

  12. Shah, T. Taming the Anarchy: Groundwater Governance in South Asia (Routledge, 2010).

  13. Tahir, Z. & Habib, Z. Land and Water Productivity: Trends Across Punjab Canal Commands Vol. 14 (IWMI, 2001).

  14. Van Dijk, W. M. et al. Spatial variation of groundwater response to multiple drivers in a depleting alluvial aquifer system, northwestern India. Prog. Phys. Geogr. Earth Environ. (2020).

  15. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Mukherji, A. Sustainable groundwater management in India needs a water–energy–food nexus approach. Appl. Econ. Perspect. Policy 44, 394–410 (2020).

  18. Panda, D. K. & Wahr, J. Spatiotemporal evolution of water storage changes in India from the updated GRACE-derived gravity records. Water Resour. Res. 52, 135–149 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Tripathi, A., Mishra, A. K. & Verma, G. Impact of preservation of subsoil water act on groundwater depletion: the case of Punjab, India. Environ. Manage. 58, 48–59 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Watto, M. A., Mugera, A. W., Kingwell, R. & Saqab, M. M. Re-thinking the unimpeded tube-well growth under the depleting groundwater resources in the Punjab, Pakistan. Hydrogeol. J. 26, 2411–2425 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Greenman, D. W., Bennett, G. D. & Swarzenski, W. V. Ground-Water Hydrology of the Punjab, West Pakistan, with Emphasis on Problems Caused by Canal Irrigation (US Government Printing Office, 1967).

  22. Jeevandas, A., Singh, R. & Kumar, R. Concerns of groundwater depletion and irrigation efficiency in Punjab agriculture: a micro-level study. Agric. Econ. Res. Rev. 21, 191–199 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Shekhar, S. et al. Modelling water levels of northwestern India in response to improved irrigation use efficiency. Sci. Rep. 10, 13452 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ground-Water Studies in the Ghaggar River basin in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan Final Technical Report Vol. 1 (UNDP, 1985).

  25. Long, D., Chen, X. & Scanlon, B. et al. Have GRACE satellites overestimated groundwater depletion in the northwest India aquifer? Sci. Rep. 6, 24398 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Joshi, S. K., Gupta, S., Sinha, R., Densmore, A. L., Rai, S. P., Shekhar, S. & van Dijk, W. M. Strongly heterogeneous patterns of groundwater depletion in northwestern India. J. Hydrol. 598, 126492 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Joshi, S. K. et al. Tracing groundwater recharge sources in the northwestern Indian alluvial aquifer using water isotopes (Δ18O, Δ2H and 3H). J. Hydrol. 559, 835–847 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. O’Keeffe, J. et al. Isolating the impacts of anthropogenic water use within the hydrological regime of north India. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 45, 1217–1228 (2019).

  29. Erenstein, O. Comparing water management in rice–wheat production systems in Haryana, India and Punjab, Pakistan. Agric. Water Manage. 96, 1799–1806 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Zaveri, E. et al. Invisible water, visible impact: groundwater use and Indian agriculture under climate change. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 084005 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Shah, T. Climate change and groundwater: India’s opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035005 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Mishra, V. Long-term (1870–2018) drought reconstruction in context of surface water security in India. J. Hydrol. 580, 124228 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Devanand, A., Huang, M., Ashfaq, M., Barik, B. & Ghosh, S. Choice of irrigation water management practice affects Indian summer monsoon rainfall and its extremes. Geophys. Res. Lett. 46, 9126–9135 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Laghari, A., Vanham, D. & Rauch, W. The Indus basin in the framework of current and future water resources management. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 1063–1083 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Wijngaard, R. R. et al. Climate change vs. socio-economic development: understanding the future South Asian water gap. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 6297–6321 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Butler, J. J., Bohling, G. C., Whittemore, D. O. & Wilson, B. B. A roadblock on the path to aquifer sustainability: underestimating the impact of pumping reductions. Environ. Res. Lett. 15, 014003 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Turner, S. W. D., Hejazi, M., Yonkofski, C., Kim, S. H. & Kyle, P. Influence of groundwater extraction costs and resource depletion limits on simulated global nonrenewable water withdrawals over the twenty-first century. Earths Future 7, 123–135 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Khan, S., Rana, T., Gabriel, H. & Ullah, M. K. Hydrogeologic assessment of escalating groundwater exploitation in the Indus basin, Pakistan. Hydrogeol. J. 16, 1635–1654 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Mekonnen, D., Siddiqi, A. & Ringler, C. Drivers of groundwater use and technical efficiency of groundwater, canal water, and conjunctive use in Pakistan’s Indus basin irrigation system. Int. J. Water Resour. Dev. 32, 459–476 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Report of the 5th Census of Minor Irrigation Schemes (Ministry of Water Resources, 2017).

  41. Qureshi, A. S., Tushaar, S. & Mujeeb, A. The Groundwater Economy of Pakistan (IWMI, 2003).

  42. Bennett, G. D. Analysis of aquifer tests in the Punjab region of West Pakistan (US Government Printing Office, 1967).

  43. Bonsor, H. C. et al. Hydrogeological typologies of the Indo-Gangetic basin alluvial aquifer, South Asia. Hydrogeol. J. 25, 1377–1406 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Lapworth, D. J. et al. Groundwater quality in the alluvial aquifer system of northwest India: new evidence of the extent of anthropogenic and geogenic contamination. Sci. Total Environ. 599–600, 1433–1444 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Krishan, G. et al. Isotopes (δ18O, δD and 3H) variations in groundwater with emphasis on salinization in the State of Punjab, India. Sci. Total Environ. 148051 (2021).

  46. Punjab Development Statistics 2003 (Bureau of Statistics, 2003).

  47. Punjab Development Statistics 2019 (Bureau of Statistics, 2019).

  48. Statistical Abstract of Punjab 2019 (Economic and Statistical Organisation, 2019).

  49. Statistical Abstract of Haryana 2018–19 (Department of Economic and Statistical Analysis, 2020).

  50. Harris, I., Osborn, T. J., Jones, P. & Lister, D. Version 4 of the CRU TS monthly high-resolution gridded multivariate climate dataset. Sci. Data 7, 109 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Hirsch, R. M., Slack, J. R. & Smith, R. A. Techniques of trend analysis for monthly water quality data. Water Resour. Res. 18, 107–121 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. McKee, T. B., Doesken, N. J. & Kleist, J. The relationship of drought frequency and duration to time scales. In Proc. 8th Conference on Applied Climatology Vol. 17, 179–183 (1993).

Download references


D.J.M. and A.M.M. publish with the permission of the Director of the British Geological Survey (BGS). We owe our thanks to the Director of the Agricultural Department of Punjab for providing digital scans of original paper records of historical groundwater levels in Punjab. Thanks to the Agricultural Department of Punjab and Haryana for providing groundwater-level data from 1970 onwards. Thanks also to the Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority, who provided historical data for Pakistan Punjab. Finally, we thank all those from BGS who helped digitize historic paper records and data from reports. Particular thanks to E. Chabat, who spent part of her summer internship at BGS digitizing and quality checking data that were subsequently used in the analysis presented here. Finally, we thank all the reviewers for their constructive comments which improved this manuscript. This study was supported by the British Geological Survey NC-ODA grant NE/R000069/1: Geoscience for Sustainable Futures.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.J.M. conducted the analysis and wrote the manuscript with inputs from A.M.M., G.K. and M.B. D.J.M. and A.M.M. designed the research. D.J.M. led digitization of the data; he also collated and cleaned the data. G.K. and M.B. collected the data. D.C. conducted the Mann–Kendall analysis.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to D. J. MacAllister.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Geoscience thanks Vimal Mishra, Mary Michael O’Neill and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editors: Simon Harold and Tom Richardson, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–23 and Note 1.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

MacAllister, D.J., Krishan, G., Basharat, M. et al. A century of groundwater accumulation in Pakistan and northwest India. Nat. Geosci. 15, 390–396 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing