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Every Sector Of India’s Economy To Be Impacted By Water Scarcity

"Our water supply systems, be they for farms or homes, continue to be ill-maintained. We do not monitor our use, and continue to be negligent of how much we are consuming and how much we are wasting. This is not an individual or household problem anymore. It is a national problem," said Gauri


Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has researched on water-related problems in the Middle-East, South-East Asia, and South Asia. Her latest research has been about conflicts in the Teesta river basin. In an email interaction with BW Businessworld, she affirmed that water scarcity in India is a serious issue and will impact every sector of the country’s economy.

So what are your observations from the Niti Aayog report?     

Honestly, I do not find that surprising at all. The majority of us have been suffering from some or the other kind of water crisis for years now – be it regular water cuts, tankers, contaminated water etc. But despite that, we continue to function business-as-usual. Our water supply systems, be they for farms or homes, continue to be ill-maintained. We do not monitor our use, and continue to be negligent of how much we are consuming and how much we are wasting. This is not an individual or household problem anymore. It is a national problem.

What are the long-term economic implications if India goes waterless in the coming decade or so?           

When our very survival will be at stake, how can the economy go unscathed? Widespread water scarcity will affect millions of lives, not just human, but of trees and animals too (whom we never think about). Shortages of food and electricity and grave issues of sanitation and public health will occur. This will in turn impact employment, incomes and expenditure. Every sector of the economy – and there will be no exception – will be hit in some way or the other. Agriculture is obvious. But think of tourism, fisheries, healthcare, hospitality, transport, textiles, even the film industry… all will be hit. The more you think about it, the more you realize that water, something we don’t even think about most of our lives, is indeed the lifeline of human civilization. Without it, life as we know it will come to an abrupt halt.

What corrective measures can we take, especially by the government, to re-energize water storage in the country? What is the way forward to save our rivers and tackle the water crisis?

We need to understand, water storage, no matter how much, is useless without efficiency in water use. What is the point in building big dams when almost 40% of the water it releases to farms, homes, and factories is wasted due to terrible supply systems? What is the point of those dams when you are trying to grow water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane in drought-prone regions such as Marathwada in Maharashtra? The corrective measures we need are not in the areas of storage, but in efficiency in supply, demand, and use. We need to upgrade and maintain our water supply infrastructure, devise and enforce cropping patterns suitable to agro-climatic zones, and we need to strictly regulate water use. And for all this, we require political and civil will.

Why are water conservationists like you are vehemently opposing government’s river-linking project? So can you suggest us the alternate ways?       

My opposition to the NRLP is because it is completely oblivious to the effects of the project on the environment, public health, economy, society, water quality, and the rivers itself. I strongly believe that technology has a huge role to play in alleviating our water woes. But using it to move water from one end of the country to another is not as wise and effective as is using it to conserve water, improve quality and increase user efficiency at a local level. Metering of water consumption, mainstreaming drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, upgrading water supply systems, and establishing wastewater treatment and recycling projects on an extensive scale are some of the solutions which are technology-based, but more affordable, sustainable and socially viable than the NRLP.

Will there be an exodus of people from rural belt to urban belt going forward? If yes, what are the long-term implications?

It is already happening as we speak. Maharashtra’s cities, notably Pune and Mumbai, are already overburdened with migrants from the drought-prone Marathwada and Vidarbha areas. The numbers keep increasing. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all other major cities in the country are experiencing the same. These are water refugees, who have been forced out of their homes and farms by lack of water and other sustainable options of livelihoods. They have no chance but to come to the city for a living. This forced migration disrupts the social fabric in rural as well as urban areas. Cities become congested and experience severe strain of natural resources; villages are empty and their progress stagnates due to the enormous drain of human resources. There are socio-economic and cultural clashes, and even though less visible, an increase in psychological trauma in the society. The result is a frustrated, suffering population, which is less and less capable of making a country truly peaceful, prosperous and powerful.

If 70% of water is contaminated as claimed by Niti Aayog, what will be the ideal solution?

The first, and the most basic solution is to not let the wastewater flow into clean water – this should be a priority at all levels, in all sectors. That means setting up an adequate number of efficient wastewater treatment and recycling plants across our cities, towns, and villages, and maintaining them properly. Factories must be pushed to set up and use wastewater treatment plants, either individually or in a consortium, and must be penalized or rewarded accordingly. Farmers should be exhorted to use less of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and avoid flood irrigation, as the combination can lead to contamination of nearby water bodies, not mention soil pollution and increase in salinity of land.

Besides India, which are the other countries which have faced such a severe water crisis? How did they tackle it? Should India make a similar move? Your thoughts.

Water scarcity issues are raging in neighbouring Pakistan, all through West Asia and North Africa, and in prosperous California of the United States as well. Parts of China and Australia too face severe water issues. The case of Cape Town in South Africa is recent and famous. Many of these countries and regions are struggling to find solutions to their water crises, and we are no exception. There are some bright spots like Israel, which has made great use of technology to increase water use efficiency; despite low levels of water availability compared to us, Israelis face significantly lesser water issues than we do. We can also look towards Australia and West Africa for their water governance structures – the former at the national level and the latter at a transboundary level. 

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