The structure and dynamics of groundwater systems in northwestern India under past, present and future climates

Lead PIs

Dr Alexander Densmore, University of Durham, UK

Dr. R. Sinha, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, India

Indo-UK Partners

British Geological Survey, UK

Imperial College London, UK

Central Ground Water Board, India 

National Geophysical Research Institute, India 

Start and End Date

August 2012 - February 2017


UKRI-Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), UK

Ministry of Earth Science, GoI

Summary of Project

The last 40 years have seen a major shift towards the use of groundwater for irrigation in India.  This shift has been especially dramatic in northwestern India, particularly the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, which has become a global hotspot for groundwater depletion.  This unsustainable use of groundwater becomes even more challenging when set increasing demands from a burgeoning population and industrialisation, together with potential but poorly understood effects of climate-driven changes in the water cycle.

Groundwater in northwestern India is thought to be largely hosted within buried, sandy former river channels, which extend from the Himalayas toward the southwest and are separated by fine-grained muds. Only a few channels are visible at the surface; most are buried and their existence must be inferred. Our approach is founded on the premise that we must first understand the geology and geometry of the aquifer system before we can hope to estimate the way it will respond to a complex set of future stresses. This means that we must be able to describe the locations, sizes, and characteristics of these channels as well as their age and three-dimensional pattern. Once these characteristics are determined, we can forecast the likely future behaviour of the system.

This project has provided the first conceptual framework for understanding, assessing, and managing this uncertain resource, and has developed new ways of using existing data to:

  • visualise the pattern and rate of groundwater decline, and
  • predict aquifer body locations and characteristics in the subsurface.

Scientists from the Central Groundwater Board and state boards have been trained in these techniques, and have developed a set of policy recommendations for groundwater resource assessment.