This article suggests that Asia’s groundwater socio-ecology is at an impasse. Rapid growth in groundwater irrigation in South Asia and the North China plains during the period 1970–95 has been the main driver of the agrarian boom in these regions. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China account for the bulk of the world’s use of groundwater in agriculture. On the plus side, groundwater development has provided sustenance to agrarian economies and millions of rural livelihoods. On the downside, it has created chronic problems of resource depletion and quality deterioration. While problems of groundwater depletion, pollution and quality deterioration are indeed serious, so are the consequences of the degradation of the resource for those that have come to precariously depend upon groundwater irrigation.
Three problems currently afflict groundwater use: depletion due to overdraft; water logging and salinization; and pollution due to agricultural, industrial and other human activity. The pathology of the decline in groundwater socio-ecology reflects a remarkably similar pattern across regions. The critical issue for Asia now is: what might be done to sustain and revive these groundwater socio-ecologies vital to the region’s economy? This article reviews a variety of techno-institutional approaches. However, transposing lessons from the industrialized world uncritically in the Asian context may not work. A more nuanced understanding of the peculiarities of Asia’s groundwater socio-ecology is needed.