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BW Businessworld

India Is Not Quite In Deep Waters Yet

Depleting groundwater will lead to a yawning gap in demand and availability of fresh water by 2030. Is India’s profligate society on a self-destructive mode?

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Victorian poet Robert Browning had once said, “I felt a strange delight in causing my decay.” Two centuries later, the world seems inclined to emulate him, as it recklessly squanders a dwindling resource – fresh water. A report by Mckinsey & Company and the Water Resources Group establishes that the demand for water will spurt at a terrific velocity with the projected increase in population.

(Please see Table: Projected Growth in Global Demand for Water by 2030)    

The newly formed Jal Shakti Ministry has statistics to show a 43 per cent deficit between the demand and availability of fresh water across the country. In 2011, the annual availability of water per person in India was 1,545 cubic metres, which will peter down to 1,345 cubic metres by 2025 and there on to 1,140 cubic metres by 2050 (See chart: Countries heading toward a water crisis).

In the midst of these scary projections landed the NITI Aayog’s report on a Composite Water Management Index (CWMI). The 2018 report predicted that 21 cities around the country were heading toward Zero Water Day as early as in 2020. The ‘Day Zero’ moniker had actually evolved with the Cape Town water crisis in 2018. The CWMI report predicts that Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad would be among the 21 Indian cities that would run out of fresh water next year, ringing alarm bells all around.

The NITI Aayog report seemed to add grist to the mill, for some cities around the globe like Cape Town in South Africa and Shimla in India,  had indeed run out of water in 2018. This year water scarcity reached alarming levels in Chennai and Hyderabad and some other cities.

Avinash Kumar, WaterAid India’s Director-Programmes and Policy says, “As cities and towns grow, the pressure on urban water resources is expected to increase. In 2016, Delhi Jal Board, which is responsible for the city’s drinking and wastewater management, estimated total distribution losses of around 40 per cent. The situation is no better for Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai. Lack of government machinery and financial constraint has already brought Day Zero for water parched rural areas of India.”



According to Kumar, villages like those in Mokhada district in Maharashtra and Ajmer district in Rajasthan are completely at the mercy of water tankers sent by the state governments. At Tikamgarh in Bundelhand, villagers pool money to purchase water tankers.

BW Businessworld found that even though the need to preserve and conserve water is a concern with both the newly formed ministry of Jal Shakti and experts engaged in water conservation projects, the ‘Zero Day’ alarm bell did not quite find resonance among them. Experts BW Businessworld spoke to, laconically described every Indian summer as ‘Day Zero’, which is surprising because India is a repository of 49 per cent of the blue virtual water of the world.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Minister for the Jal Shakti Ministry, which has taken upon itself the task of conserving fresh water on a mission mode, does not quite agree with the ‘Zero Day’ concept either. In an exclusive interview he points out that the NITI Aayog report “does not take into account the groundwater availability in the deeper aquifers and they account for the largest availability of water in the nation.” (Read the  interview on page 78). The Scary Numbers
India is not deficient in water. As a matter of fact, India is the third largest exporter of groundwater. Yet, availability and access to potable water remains a concern. Statistics show that 70 per cent of  the ‘drinking water’ available within the country is contaminated. Every year two lakh people literally die of thirst, for lack of access to safe drinking water.

A WaterAid report titled Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019 says a billion people in India face water scarcity during some part of the year. It says 75 per cent of households do not have water on their premises and about 73 million working days are lost owing to water-borne diseases each year.

India ranks 120 among 122 countries on the Water Quality Index. Srinivas Chokkakula, a Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR) Professorial Research Chair - Water Conflicts and Governance, at the Centre for Policy Research says it is  high time we acknowledge that the quality of water is of critical concern and address the India-specific challenges associated with it.

The India Water Portal shows a major mismatch between the demand and availability of water in most major river basins in India. (Please see chart:Regions with severe gap in demand and supply of water). Says Avinash Mishra, Adviser, Niti Aayog, “Considering the business as usual scenario, we are still not being water efficient, we are not recycling and reusing it. So, the water requirement shall increase because of growth in population, standard of living and high requirement of the industry. Due to this there is a great impact on the economy.”  

A Mckinsey report says that by 2030, India’s thirst for water would swell to almost 1.5 trillion cubic metres, driven by the domestic demand for rice, wheat, and sugar of a growing population (Please see table: Projected Cost Curve of India). The water availability in India now is approximately 740 billion metres cube. Most river basins in India are therefore heading toward a severe deficit in water by 2030 unless concerted action is taken to stave it off.  

Deciphering Wateronomics  
Director of the National Institute of Hydrology, S. K. Jain, attempts to pinpoint the problem. He says the temporal variability in the availability of water is among the reasons for  disasters like floods and droughts. Both the shortage and the poor quality of water in many rivers, lakes, ponds and aquifers, he points out,  impact health conditions in India.

The McKinsey report estimates the cost of preparedness for coping with the water crisis –imminent by 2030 – to be $6 billion annually, which should work out to 0.1 per cent of India’s projected GDP by then. Dr Vikram Soni, Professor Emeritus for environmental economics says, “The suggested per cent of the GDP is a very low number. However, the water problem is both related to its quality and quantity. If India’s population grows to 1.5 billion by 2030 then the demand for water shall go up presumably by that amount because with increase in population the standard of  living also goes up. So, to solve the projected gap, at least five per cent of the GDP will be used.”

About 40 per cent of water from municipal supply for drinking purposes is lost due to leakage or theft in some cities. Over 60 per cent of urban India’s sewage enters water bodies untreated. Dumping of industrial and other wastes in the sub-surface zone has resulted in contamination of the top 10 to 20 metres of the subsurface zone.

Nirma Bora, Policy Officer at WaterAid India quotes a recently released study by IIT Kharagpur that shows that usable groundwater storage has been rapidly depleted in most parts of northern India between 2005 and 2013, resulting in loss of 8.5 cubic kilometres of groundwater per year (km3/year).

In eastern India the loss is of the order of 5 km3/year of the total groundwater. Southern and western Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh show replenishment of usable groundwater storage trends, however.

The large abstraction in the northern and eastern part of India is because of water-intensive agricultural practices. The Secretary in the Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (DoWR, RD & GR), says the country needs to change its agriculture pattern to save water.

The Mission Mode
The ‘mission mode’ adopted by the present government to preserve and conserve water is therefore, understandable. Among the measures that have top most priority is the river-linking project. Director General of the National Water Development Agency, M. K. Srinivas, says that the aim of the project is to transfer water from one basin to another, so that the basin with a deficit is replenished by the basin with a surplus.  

The new Jal Shakti Ministry has now brought all water-related departments of the government within it to be able to monitor water resources from a holistic perspective. Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat says the “Jal Jeevan Mission is focussed on integrated demand and supply-side management of water at the local level, including creation of local infrastructure for source sustainability like rainwater harvesting, recharging groundwater and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture. The Jal Jeevan Mission includes the ‘Nal se Jal’ (tap water) scheme and strives to provide all households with safe drinking water through a network of pipes by 2024.”

Shekhawat assured us that his ministry plans to bring water-related technologies to the country and involve water-related startups in development projects. The piped water scheme is expected to bring in a huge investment into the country. A recent report by Bank of America says that the water infrastructure will need funding to the tune of Rs 18.5 trillion in the coming 15 years.
A JM Financial report suggests that per capita spending for piped water projects could be Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000. Arshad Pervez, Vice President, Institutional Equity Research Strategy, JM Financial says, “Water is getting high attention from policy makers, media, and increasingly so from the markets, given the rising concern on future availability as well as the deterioration in drinking water quality. In this note we have studied the key issues around water in India.”

“The successful expansion of sanitation coverage from 39 per cent in 2014 to 99 per cent in 2019 through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan makes us optimistic on the take up of piped water scheme by the same administration,” Pervez goes on to say. The JM Financial report estimates that covering 150 million households would tantamount to doubling the spending on water-related infrastructure.

Private Capital 
Most water supply boards and entities run on losses, bridging the gap between tariffs and costs through operating and capital subsidies from the government. The upshot is low tariffs, poor service and limited access to essential water, especially for poor households. Now startups have begun to get involved in water metering, wastewater management, last mile supply and similar avenues. Water management is a promising sub-sector, accounting for 26 per cent of India’s environmental technologies industry. Investors, however, seek a substantial return on investment.

Says Poyni Bhatt, CEO at the Incubation Centre at IIT Bombay’s, Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), “Investors in India want to invest in high impact and social enterprises solving problems like clean portable water, water ATMs and other water access solutions for human, plants and animals. However, they have reservations dealing with startups in these sectors where their business is mainly B2G.”  She points out that it was difficult for startups to engage with the government. “The government has many stringent rules like the experience of the company, quantum of business etc. to permit these companies to work with government agencies. These rules are not enabling the growth of startups. So, investors are reluctant to invest in this sector,” she adds.

Nature’s Bounty
At the end of the day, one does have to factor in that profligate though Indians have been in using a precious natural resource like water, our rain and river-fed nation still has resources that many nations do not have. Yet they have found solutions to tap and manage water.

The desert nation of Israel, for instance, is entirely self-sufficient in water. Israel treats 80 per cent of its sewage. The entire sewage from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is treated and reused as irrigation water for agriculture and public works. Cities in Germany, Japan and South Korea are harvesting rain water from public spaces on a city-wide scale. Singapore meets 45 per cent of its fresh water demand from reuse and 30 per cent from desalination technologies. The United States has been able to restrict its water consumption in agriculture to just 35 per cent.

Agriculture guzzles up most of the fresh water available in India. The Mckinsey report suggests reducing energy subsidies for farmers, who now pump groundwater at a very low cost. Ashok Dalvai, CEO, National Rain-Fed Area Authority points out however, that “a rationalisation of energy cost has to go along with promoting a water use efficiency package – crop alignment, micro- irrigation, use of sensors etc.” He says, “We also need an improved water distribution system and a water users’ association to check wastage of water and its responsible use.”

Rajinder Singh, known as the waterman of India, believes that there is “a need of community driven decentralised water management,” which incidentally, is the prime focus of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan of the Union government. “However, people look for solutions when the problem comes at their doorstep,” quips Singh. “Most of the rainwater flows into the oceans and there is no proper system to conserve water,” he says.

“Thus the solution is to conserve the rain water, grow more plants and ensure that the soil is healthy,” says Rajinder Singh, adding, “If they conserve rainwater where it falls, then there is no crisis!”  


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