The London-based New Scientist magazine reported on Wednesday that that underground reserves were being depleted so alarmingly that fields might now turn into deserts.

"This little-heralded crisis is repeating itself across Asia and could cause widespread famine in the decades to come," the magazine said in a report on scientists' findings at a recent water conference in Sweden.

The country worst affected is India. There, small farmers have abandoned traditional shallow wells where bullocks draw water in leather buckets to drill 21 million tube wells hundreds of metres below the surface using technology adapted from the oil industry.

Indian nightmare

Another million wells a year are coming into operation in India to irrigate rice and sugar cane fields round the clock.

While the $600 pumps have brought short-term prosperity to many and helped to make India a major rice exporter in less than a generation, future implications are dire, New Scientist said.

"So much water is being drawn from underground reserves that they, and the pumps they feed, are running dry, turning fields that have been fecund for generations into desert," it said.

Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station in Gujarat, said there was no control over the expansion of pumps and wells.

"When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India," he said.

Desertification

"The same revolution is being replicated across Asia, with millions of tube wells pumping up precious underground water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan, Vietnam and in northern China," the New Scientist said.

In China's northern plain, 30 cubic kilometres of more water is pumped to the surface each year than is replaced by rain. Experts say water shortages will soon make China dependent on grain imports.

 

Meanwhile, half of India's traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up.

Another consequence is electricity blackouts reaching "epidemic proportions" in some Indian states where half of the power is used to pump water from up to a kilometre down.