The threat of water scarcity in India is real and of frightening proportions. A recent report prepared by a government-aided body pointed to shrinking annual per capita water availability in this South Asian country, home to over 1.2 billion people, and underlined the need for sustainable conservation of water, endorsing much of what water activists have campaigned for a long time.
The report, Composite Water Management Index, prepared by Niti Aayog, a policy think tank run by the Union government, confirmed that critical groundwater resources have depleted at an alarming rate. It said that 600 million people in India have got exposed to “high to extreme water stress.” The report further noted that efforts of conservation have so far not borne any noticeable outcome.
Cities and villages that have been identified as “parched” have managed to push further their “Day Zero,” or the day when their taps would run dry, but not significantly, the report pointed out.
Already, one of India’s popular tourist resorts, Shimla, is facing a grave water crisis. The city’s residents were getting drinking water every four to five days in prime localities this summer, according to media reports. This might severely impact the tourism industry in this hill resort, experts have said.
The Niti Aayog report has warned that by 2030, 40 percent of India’s population will be deprived of access to clean drinking water. Dangerously, the report highlighted, India’s capital New Delhi, along with 19 other cities, including metropolitan cities Bangalore and Chennai, which are also major financial hubs, would run out of groundwater supply in the next two years.
According to experts, the annual withdrawal of groundwater in India far exceeds the annual recharging of it, and that there is no simple solution to this complex issue.
“One of the basic problems that has led to water scarcity in India is definitely the overuse of groundwater and also severe pollution of groundwater,” said author Rajni Bakshi, who extensively writes on people’s movements. She suggested that setting up an adequate number of filtration plants in villages could be a first step toward conserving groundwater.
“Although the problem of depleting water resources in India is a complex issue, one that does not lend us a simple solution, there is an urgent need of setting up of filtration plants in India’s rural pockets, which lack such facilities. The twin issues of pesticide use in the soil and industrial wastes penetrating into the soil are making groundwater toxic, or at any rate, unfit for drinking,” Bakshi told The Globe Post.
According to her, the excessive use of groundwater is the outcome of greed-driven economic culture. “The market has to be re-figured since as long as people are driven by commercial interest, there would be unsustainable exploitation of groundwater. One example of this is the cultivation of sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that yields attractive dividends,” Bakshi said.
Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute, a not-for-profit research organization known for its innovative work in water resource management, explained that farmers in India grow crops that bring them greater income without caring for water conservation, as the government role in creating awareness or regulating farming patterns is minimal.
“At the time of independence of India, more than half of the grains consumed by people were coarse crops such as jawar and bajra which required less water to cultivate. But as the influence of western agro-economists grew, the cropping pattern changed. Rice and wheat, water-intensive crops, now make up for the most of people’s diet and this aggravated water stress in the country,” Chopra told The Globe Post.
But experts have not come to a unanimous decision about government regulation of farming. Some experts are of the opinion that regulation in India ends up becoming notoriously over-the-top. “More often than not, regulation is of policing nature. The police end up issuing threats to farmers, but for every such control, people find bypasses too, as the administrative mechanism in India is prone to corruption,” Bakshi opined.
The introduction of any water cess by the government to minimize the wasteful use of this natural resource may also not be the best option. India’s “Water Man,” Rajendra Sing, says that any such attempt would add to the difficulties of the poor who are already at the receiving end of the inequitable distribution of water. According to him, pricing of water will lead to corporate control, with the rich still being able to waste water while the poor staring at a graver crisis.
In what was seen as another red flag for India, a UNESCO report, released on World Water Day on March 22, said an intense water crisis would afflict most regions of India by 2050, and a staggering 40 percent withdrawal of renewable surface water resources would afflict most of Central India.
Most water activists feel that the importance of groundwater resources, not visible to the eye, is not understood by either the common man or policymakers, adversely impacting the efforts made in the direction of water conservation or effective water management.
“The Science of hydro-geology, which helps us to understand the nature of resources, has not received due importance by India’s policymakers, with the consequence that groundwater table is being reduced in many regions by unsustainable groundwater extraction,” said Chopra. He added that 70 percent of India’s irrigation water and as much as 60 percent of urban household water come from groundwater, making the crisis almost irreversible.
The construction of some controversial dams in India has been a bone of contention for many water activists who feel the exercise has expedited the depletion of water in river basins. Among them is the Indian government’s questionable move to allow the construction of dams in Uttarakhand state and the hilly terrain in Himachal. Experts feel this is an “ecological disaster” in the making. Villagers in the region too have protested the move.
Said Rajni Bakshi: “There is no holistic understanding of the long-term implications of constructing dams in such a sensitive geographical location. The Himalayas is an unstable region, prone to frequent earthquakes, and tapping of Himalayas’ rivers displays the same commercial mindset which drives farmers into cultivating water-intense crops. The basic argument is that this would augment electricity supply, but one must also think about the adverse impact that might impact generations to come.”
At present, the extent of the water crisis can be understood from the fact that in the decade between 2001 and 2011 the annual per capita water availability fell by 15 percent.
There are predictions that it would fall by another 13 percent in the next seven years from now and by an additional 15 percent by 2050. The statistics point to a situation where the average Indian household will have 1.1 million liters of water per year, dangerously close to the less than 1 million liters per household per year mark, which attracts official recognition of water crisis for any country.