Groundwater Mining in India

A couple of new papers out this week use a clever technique to quantify what looks like extraordinary groundwater mining going on in India.

Groundwater pumping is a classic “tragedy of the commons.” In the long run, it’s best not to mine groundwater, to pump it in a modest and therefore sustainable fashion. But any one individual has no incentive to hold back, given the fact that his or her neighbor can just suck the aquifer dry anyway.

That appears to be what’s happening in India, according to a paper in tomorrow’s Nature. This is not climate change or drought or any such “natural” calamity. This is humans overusing a resource, author Matthew Roddell and his colleagues report:

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.

The scientists calculated gravity anomalies using satellite data to track the missing water. There’s a second paper out in GRL that comes to similar conclusions. Quirin Shiermeier has a news story in Nature, and Richard Kerr wrote it up for Science.


  1. Well, this is trouble. I wonder if the Indian government has known about this. They do seem to be a little in denial about the prospect for short-term climate change impacts, although that could just be posturing. Responses of the government and media over the next few days will be interesting.

  2. Lots of coverage, all pretty straightforward so far. Most of India remains in a fairly bad drought due to a partial monsoon failure. On the plus side they had bumper crops the last two years, so there’s not an immediate crisis.

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