The structure and dynamics of groundwater systems in northwestern India

Discussion of groundwater levels and water quality with wheat and turmeric farmers near Patran, Punjab

India is the largest agricultural user of groundwater in the world. The last 40 years have seen a revolutionary shift from large-scale surface water management to widespread groundwater abstraction, particularly in the northwestern states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. As a result, northwestern India is now a hotspot of groundwater depletion, with 'the largest rate of groundwater loss in any comparable-sized region on Earth' (Tiwari et al., 2009). This unsustainable use of groundwater is compounded by increasing demands from a burgeoning population and industrialisation, together with potential but poorly understood effects of climate-driven changes in the water cycle.

There are a number of innovative socio-economic strategies that can address this issue, but their success depends upon solid regional understanding of the geology and hydrogeology of the aquifer systems, and of the patterns and rates of groundwater flow and recharge. To date there has been no large-scale, cross-state integrated study of the groundwater system.

Approach

Deep agricultural well near Patran, Punjab

Groundwater in northwestern India is thought to be largely hosted within buried, sandy former river channels. Only a few channels are visible at the surface; most are buried and their existence must be inferred. We must first understand the geology and geometry of this aquifer system before we can hope to forecast the way it will respond to a complex set of future stresses.

In this project, we will provide, for the first time, a regional assessment of the aquifer system in northwestern India, along with models for its evolution under changes in the water cycle and in the way in which groundwater is used. Our project combines expertise in sedimentology, stratigraphy, sediment routing and basin evolution, hydrology, and isotope geochemistry to understand the geological framework of the aquifer system, the ages of the waters within it, and the likely evolution of the system over the next 50 years.

Initial fieldwork and stakeholder meetings

Initial resistivity survey along the Ghaggar River, Punjab state

In September 2012 an initial resistivity survey was undertaken along the Ghaggar River, Punjab state.

Meetings were held in Chandigarh with the Central Ground Water Board and state governments of Punjab and Haryana.

Initial resistivity survey along the Ghaggar River, Punjab state

Key project members

UK Principal Investigator: Prof Alexander Densmore, Durham University

India Principal Investigator: Prof Rajiv Sinha, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

Prof Sanjeev Gupta, Imperial College London

Dr Philippa Mason, Imperial College London

Prof Martin Blunt, Imperial College London

Prof Shashank Shekhar, Delhi University

Dr S.P. Rai, National Institute of Hydrology Roorkee

Related publication

Sinha, R., Yadav, G.S., Gupta, S., Singh, A., and Lahiri, S.K. (in press 2012) Geo-electric resistivity evidence for subsurface palaeochannel systems adjacent to Harappan sites in northwest India. Quaternary International, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2012.08.002.

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