The recently released "Interconnected Disaster Risks Report 2023" from the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) draws attention to a pressing issue in the Indo-Gangetic basin. In some parts of India, the report reveals that the critical groundwater depletion tipping point has already been breached, while the entire northwestern region is on course to experience severely reduced groundwater availability by 2025.
Environmental Tipping Points
The report underscores the significance of environmental tipping points, representing pivotal thresholds in the Earth's systems. These junctures herald abrupt and frequently irreversible transformations, ushering in profound and, at times, catastrophic alterations to ecosystems, climate patterns, and the broader environment.
Agricultural Water Demand and Aquifers
Groundwater withdrawals, predominantly for agriculture (comprising approximately 70 percent of total withdrawals), are crucial when surface water sources prove inadequate. Aquifers, concealed underground reservoirs, play an indispensable role in alleviating agricultural losses during droughts, a challenge set to intensify due to climate change.
The report illuminates the encroaching tipping point of aquifers themselves. A disconcerting reality is that more than half of the world's significant aquifers are declining at a pace outstripping natural replenishment. As the water table descends below the level accessible by existing wells, the risk of farmers losing access to water amplifies, thus endangering entire food production systems.
Global Groundwater Depletion
Countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have already exceeded the tipping point for groundwater risk, and others, India included, are perilously close to it. India notably ranks as the world's largest consumer of groundwater, surpassing both the United States and China combined. The northwestern region, notably Punjab and Haryana, plays a pivotal role in India's agricultural output, yielding a significant portion of the nation's rice and wheat supply. Alarming data within the report asserts that 78 percent of wells in Punjab are currently deemed overexploited, while the entire northwestern region is predicted to confront critically low groundwater availability by 2025.
Urgent Call for Action
The report's lead author, Jack O'Connor, a senior expert at UNU-EHS, emphasizes the urgent necessity for action. As we approach these environmental tipping points, their ramifications are already manifesting. Crossing these thresholds often implies consequences that are challenging to reverse. The report serves as an invaluable tool for recognizing these risks, comprehending their underlying causes, and catalyzing the imperative changes needed to avert impending environmental crises.