In summer (pre-monsoon) of recent years, low water level among the last few decades, has been observed in several lower Indian reaches of the Ganges (or Ganga) river (with estimated river water level depletion rates at the range of −0.5 to −38.1 cm/year between summers of 1999 and 2013 in the studied reaches).

Recent hydrological modelling and Earth observations have located and quantified alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide. This depletion is primarily due to water withdrawals for irrigation but its connection with the main driver of irrigation, global food consumption, has not yet been explored. Here we show that approximately eleven per cent of non-renewable groundwater use for irrigation is embedded in international food trade, of which two-thirds are exported by Pakistan, the USA and India alone.

The contributions from terrestrial water sources to sea-level rise, other than ice caps and glaciers, are highly uncertain and heavily debated. Recent assessments indicate that groundwater depletion (GWD) may become the most important positive terrestrial contribution over the next 50 years, probably equal in magnitude to the current contributions from glaciers and ice caps. However, the existing estimates assume that nearly 100% of groundwater extracted eventually ends up in the oceans.

Groundwater is a life-sustaining resource that supplies water to billions of people, plays a central part in irrigated agriculture and influences the health of many ecosystems. Most assessments of global water resources have focused on surface water but unsustainable depletion of groundwater has recently been documented on both regional and global scales. It remains unclear how the rate of global groundwater depletion compares to the rate of natural renewal and the supply needed to support ecosystems.

Water used by irrigated crops is obtained from three sources: local precipitation contributing to soil moisture available for root water uptake (i.e., green water), irrigation water taken from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and renewable groundwater (i.e., blue water), and irrigation water abstracted from nonrenewable groundwater and nonlocal water resources. Here we quantify globally the amount of nonrenewable or nonsustainable groundwater abstraction to sustain current irrigation practice.