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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.

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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:


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to D. J. MacAllister.

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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.

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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).

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