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When Less Is Life-threatening

Increasing water scarcity in India could potentially turn into an irreversible crisis that can affect many lives if immediate steps are not taken

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Water, like air, is indispensable for life. Any threat to it, is a threat to human existence. Today India, like many other countries such as Brazil, China, Iran, South Africa, is facing a serious water crisis that can endanger the lives of its people. While we may not go completely waterless, what is already happening and is likely to happen in the long term, is that our demand for water will far exceed its supply, if adequate steps are not taken.  

Recently, government think tank NITI Aayog, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, released a study that claims that India is facing its worst long-term water crisis in history. According to the findings of the study, demand for potable water will outstrip supply by 2030 if immediate steps are not taken. The report also features a Composite Water Index that shows nearly 600 million Indians faced high to extreme water shortage in 2018 and about 200,000 people died during the year due to inadequate access to safe water.  

The study further notes that 70 per cent of the available water is contaminated and that 21 major cities including Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people. “If matters are to continue, there will be a 6 per cent loss in the country’s gross domestic product by 2050... Critical groundwater resources that account for 40 per cent of India’s water supply are being depleted at unsustainable rates,” the report said, calling for an immediate push towards sustainable management of water resources.

“The crisis is serious but unfortunately both the government and the stakeholders like common public and farmers are neither serious nor concerned about the future water crisis. This can be seen from the attitude of our policymakers and officials in not taking this issue seriously. There is an urgent need to address this issue. Water crisis will suppress agricultural production. Poor quality drinking water will increase the incidences of illness particularly in rural families and urban poor, who cannot afford to buy mineral water for drinking. Cost of food and industrial production will increase, affecting farmers’ income and national economy,” reveals Narayan Hegde, trustee at BAIF Development Research Foundation, Pune.

While NITI Aayog maintains that its Composite Water Management Index with nine areas of assessment can help state governments manage water resources better, industry observers are unanimous in their view that the root cause of water crises in urban areas is depletion of groundwater, which happens for numerous reasons such as inefficient use of water in agriculture and industry. Water is inefficiently used in farming when water-guzzling crops are sown in areas with a low water table, or when irrigation is excessive.  Furthermore, deforestation and diversion of community lands and agricultural lands for other purposes also disturbs the traditional system of recharging groundwater.

“Our water supply systems, 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 wasting. This is not an individual or household problem anymore. It is a national problem,” says Gauri Noolkar-Oak, a water conflicts researcher who has researched on river basins in the Middle East and South Asia. “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, trees and animals too. Every sector of the economy — with no exception — will be hit in some way or the other,” she adds.

Regions Worst Affected
Almost every state is facing the crisis of potable drinking water. Recent extreme water scarcity in Dehradun and other districts of Uttarakhand show the deepening water crisis in India. A UNDP finding says an estimated 2.6 lakh springs provide to 90 per cent drinking water sources in Uttarakhand. Continued deforestation for road projects and fuel and fodder for satisfying demands of local communities have caused 50 per cent water depletion in 500 water supplying sources comprising streams, springs, ponds, etc. Similar water crisis is prevailing in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Orissa, Meghalaya, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh etc.

Says Kumar Deepak, environment officer at UNDP, “Water crisis is deepening more than these findings show. I personally feel that states’ performances were rated higher. These findings didn’t consider per household submersible boring system, large-scale industrial misuse of water and degradation/loss of wetlands. States have a major responsibility to protect, conserve and restore wetlands, but they have so far failed.”

Solutions & Remedies
India is a signatory to Paris Climate Agreement, Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development Goals (particularly SDGs 6 for Clean Water, SDGs 13 for Climate Action) & Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction by 2030; so there is larger responsibility to restore, rejuvenate and restructure climate resilient natural ecosystems such as wetlands, water-wells, springs, etc, to ensure water security in the long run.  

Water conservationist Rajinder Singh, also known as the waterman of India, believes the ideal solution for water conservation is harvesting and conserving every drop of rainwater coupled with community driven water management. S.Vishwanath, also known as Zenrainman,  on the other hand, maintains that India should focus on institutional architecture.

According to Hegde of BAIF, “In order to re-energise water storage in the country we can take a series of steps such as development of river basins through contour bunds and percolation tanks to increase groundwater storage, afforestation in river catchment areas, water storage in reservoirs, linking of rivers to harness flood waters, efficient harvesting of rainwater, ban on flood irrigation and awareness around wasting water.”

But Noolkar-Oak believes more in efficient water usage than only storing well. “We need to understand, water storage, no matter how much, is useless without efficiency in water usage. What is the point in building big dams when almost 40 per cent of the water released to farms, homes and factories is wasted due to terrible supply systems? 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 strictly regulate water usage.”

Ground Reality
While the situation looks definitely alarming, is it worth the hype created by NITI Aayog? Vishwanath, thinks not. According to him, “The figures by NITI Aayog (Water Composite Index) are exaggerated. It is a beginning, and NITI is only starting to figure out ways and means of measuring water scarcity as well as water quality deterioration. But there is a lot more that needs to be done and understood about how we need to tackle this (water) crisis.”


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