Study finds agriculture pushing groundwater supplies to breaking point

Posted 5 April 2017

Use of non-renewable groundwater for irrigationEnvironmentally conscious grocery shopping doesn't just involve deliberating on protein sources and searching for fair trade products. Where foods are grown is just as crucial due to the rising use of unsustainable groundwater supplies, a new study shows.

The research, published in the journal Nature, found that Pakistan exports the most crops irrigated with unsustainable groundwater (with 29% of the global source embedded in trade), closely followed by the United States (27%) and India (12%).

Crops that contributed the most to groundwater use were rice (29%), wheat (12%), cotton (11%), maize (4%) and soybeans (3%).

The use of non-renewable groundwater for irrigation rose by a quarter from 2000 to 2010. 

“Alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide ... [are] primarily due to water withdrawals for irrigation,” the report stated.

“Approximately 11% of non-renewable groundwater use for irrigation is embedded in international food trade.”

University College London's Carole Dalin, who led the international group of researchers, said action needed to be taken to address the trend. 

“Our research shows that unless both consumers and producers agree to adopt strategies that maximise the long-term sustainability of water use, most of the world’s population risks seeing increased food prices or disrupted food supply,” she said. 

“Under future climate change, droughts might be more frequent in many regions and we might want to keep groundwater reserves for these periods.”

Yoshihide Wada, a co-author and deputy director of the IIASA Water Program, said there needed to be more transparency around water resources.

“The products that consumers buy at a supermarket might have very different environmental impacts depending on where they are produced and how they are irrigated,” Wada said.

“In order to help consumers make more sustainable choices about their food, producers should consider adding water labels that make these impacts clear.”