Breaking down Punjab’s Groundwater Crisis

When we look at Punjab today, we see two main problems in regards to water:

  1. In the past two decades, the groundwater table in Punjab has been falling at a rate of 25–30 centimetres a year. This is causing droughts in Punjab and a lack of groundwater.
  2. Punjab has the highest cancer rates in India with 90 cancer patients per 100,000 compared to the national average of 80 per 100,000. 18 people in Punjab succumb to cancer everyday.

Scarcity

This is one of those problems that people aren’t really focused on right now, but it’s slowly creeping up, and when it does come in to the spotlight, the consequences could be catastrophic. Remember, Punjab is responsible for 40% of India’s agricultural supply, and if this issue isn’t prevented soon, Punjab will become a desert.

Currently, farmers retrieve their water through a series of wells and tube wells. They go deep into the ground through a massive well to retrieve their water for farming and then funnel that water through tube wells that go directly to the farms. The problem? They use a lot of water.

So, let’s break this down with a first-principles approach. Why do they use so much water? It’s simple. Rice crops.

This is how rice is farmed in Punjab:

Now, to be fair, most parts of the world use the same technique. They flood the fields because they think rice needs a lot of water, and it’s a great way to kill weeds efficiently. For other parts of the world, this works fine, but for Punjab whose source of water was not only cut in half but also exported to other states? Probably not the best method.

The thing about rice crops is they don’t actually need that much water. The method of flooding fields came about as a way to prevent weed growth, and eventually farmers became misinformed, largely because of the poor education in Punjab.

As a result of this miseducation, farmers became unaware of other methods that could not only farm rice more efficiently, but more effectively as well (for example, the SRI method which orginated in Madagascar).

SRI (or the system of rice intensification) consists of four components: soil fertility management, planting method, weed control, and water (irrigation) management. If used correctly, this method could use anywhere from 30 to 60 percent less water than the current standing water method.

Alright, so that’s huge. We have a method that could save a ton of water, but why hasn’t this solution been implemented already? Because of a poorly funded education system, Punjabi farmers aren’t aware of a lot of these methods being used. Luckily, there is one university in Punjab with a massive focus on agriculture, the Punjab Agricultural University. This is the biggest agricultural university in Asia, and it’s based right in Punjab. If a university like that were to push this method, this problem could be solved (I’ll be reaching out to them shortly), but if not, the solution would have to be on the farmer’s end. You would have to create a product or solution for farmers that would decrease the water usage for rice crops.

Sanitation

When you take a look at all the possible reasons as to why the cancer rates are so high, one reason stands out as the most probable cause with data to back it up; water sanitation.

The water in Punjab is heavily contaminated with things like Uranium, Arsenic, Selenium, Fluoride, Nitrate, Chloride, Iron, Sulfate, High pH levels, and High alkalinity. Many of these chemicals (such as uranium) are tied to increased cancer rates.

So, again using first-principles, why is the water contaminated in the first place? Well there are a few possibilities, but the main one is phosphatic fertilizers and pesticides. These were originally introduced during the green revolution as a way to increase farming production, but are now banned pretty much everywhere for being too toxic. Meanwhile, Punjabi farmers overuse them all the time on their crops, which eventually ends up in the groundwater stream going directly to their personal water supply.

There are a few other reasons for the contamination (i.e. Coal combusted atmospheric pollutants, household wastes, etc.) but for the sake of this project I’ll be focusing more on fertilizers and pesticides since it’s much harder to control those other variables.

So there’s a clear problem with Punjab’s water sanitation. What solutions were implemented? Well, in 2006 there was a project implemented by the Indian government called the Punjab Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project which would supposedly eliminate the issue by using reverse osmosis systems in each of the villages. And for a while, it worked. The villages were reporting cleaner water, people were getting healthier, happiness and approval rates were rising. The problem is they stopped replacing the filters. The project was getting too expensive when you take into account the cost of filters, the cost of hiring people to replace them in each village, etc. So, once again, the water was contaminated.

And that brings us to today. Our 2 problems have 2 root causes:

  1. Overusage of water for rice crops.
  2. Overusage of fertilizers and pesticides on crops.

The current solutions implemented for these problems failed, and in many cases, they made the problems worse.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on these problems under my organization “Dharti” to ideate, create, and implement working solutions to these problems in Punjab. Stay tuned for my progress!

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Gurjaap Brar

A 16-year-old Virtual and Augmented reality developer that's passionate about solving problems and building cool stuff with exponential technologies!