Satellite evidence on the trade-offs of the food-water–air quality nexus over the breadbasket of India

Mrinal Singha, Jinwei Dong, Quansheng Ge, Graciela Metternicht, Sangeeta Sarmah, Geli Zhang, Russell Doughty, Sharachchandra Lele, Chandrashekhar Biradar, Sha Zhou, Xiangming Xiao, Satellite evidence on the trade-offs of the food-water–air quality nexus over the breadbasket of India, Global Environmental Change, Volume 71, 2021,102394, ISSN 0959-3780


Access to food, water, and good air quality is indispensable for human life, as reflected in various United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); however, pursuing food security may pose threats to water security and/or air quality. An important case is northwest India including the Punjab and Haryana states, which is the ‘breadbasket’ of India with a significantly increasing paddy rice area. The rapid expansion of rice farming has stressed groundwater resources and impacted air quality. Satellite observations have the potential to provide data for better decisions on food security, water storage, and air pollution, which would be vital for regional sustainable development. Based on observations from multiple satellites from 2001 to 2018, we found that paddy rice expansion (+22%) increased groundwater depletion (−1.50 cm/yr), residue burning (+500%), and air pollution (+29%, PM2.5) in the breadbasket of India. Moreover, satellite observations showed changes in these interactions after the enactment of a groundwater protection policy in 2009, which decelerated groundwater depletion (−1.20 cm/yr) due to delayed rice planting and harvest dates (∼15d); the latter elevated air pollution in November (+29%, PM2.5). Our finding stresses the need to reconcile the trade-offs and consider the interactions among SDGs 2 (food), 3 (good health), 6 (clean water), and 11 (air quality in cities), in policy-making for sustainable development. An efficient crop residue ultilization and management system, bottom-up groundwater use regulations, and cropping system shift towards less water-consuming crops are critically required to resolve the trade-offs of the food-water–air quality nexus in the northern India. Our study also showcases remote sensing approaches and methods to support and aid the achievement of the SDGs and track their progreses to support regional sustainable development.

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