Groundwater extraction has facilitated significant social development and economic growth, enhanced food security and alleviated drought in many farming regions. But groundwater development has also depressed water tables, degraded ecosystems and led to the deterioration of groundwater quality, as well as to conflict among water users. The effects are not evenly spread. In some areas of India, for example, groundwater depletion has preferentially affected the poor. Importantly, groundwater in some aquifers is renewed slowly, over decades to millennia, and coupled climate–aquifer models predict that the flux and/or timing of recharge to many aquifers will change under future climate scenarios. Here we argue that communities need to set multigenerational goals if groundwater is to be managed sustainably.