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Will India Too Lose Its Lifeline?

The drought in Cape Town has set alarm bells ringing across the world, especially in India, where depletion of ground water is rampant. Are Indian cities in peril, asks Avishek Banerjee

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

India’s national cricket team joined hands with its South African counterpart recently for the cause of drought-hit Cape Town, in coastal South Africa. The cricketers together donated 100,000 Rands (approximately Rs 5,50,000) for South Africa’s legislative capital and its second-most populous urban area. Cape Town’s water supplies are severely under stress and July 15 may turn out to be ‘Day Zero’, when civic bodies turn off the municipal taps.

The severe water crisis in Cape Town has tolled alarm bells across the globe, including India, where the availability is 1,519 cubic metres of  water per person per year. Even though India has never faced a water crisis at a national level, some regions like Bundelkhand, Vidarbha, Marathwada, Kajrat and Chattarpur, have been in the grips of a drought.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) projects a water deficit of 50 per cent by 2030. The Union Ministry of Water Resources estimates the country’s water requirements to be 1,100 billion cubic metres per annum (BCMA) and at around 1,200 BCMA during 2025 and 1,447 BCMA by 2050. Way back in 2014, the World Urbanization Prospects report of the United Nations predicted that India would have the largest number of urban dwellers in the world by 2050. Research studies have proved that the per capita annual availability of water is likely to drop further to 1,140 cubic metres per person by 2051. India’s population meanwhile, is expected to catapult to 1.6 billion by 2050.

Will Indian cities be able to cope with the growing demand for water, when they are already unable to provide clean water round-the-clock, even in the metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai?  “In India, a city may not go completely dry, but early signs of the demand for water exceeding supply can be seen in many states,” says Girish Chadha, an entrepreneur and a water expert.

“If you examine the current situation in major Indian cities, water shortage is an annual ritual. Growing populations, rising incomes and expanding cities have given rise to a new demand for water, with no parallel increase in supplies. By 2030, I suspect an acute shortage of clean and regular access to drinking water with a probable increase in the number of inter-state and inter-sectoral water conflicts,” says Udisha Saklani, an independent policy consultant, who is examining water governance and sanitation issues in India.

Not In The Near Term
Syamal Sarkar, a former Secretary, in the Union Ministry of Water Resources and Fellow and Senior Director, Natural Resources and Climate Programme at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) believes that the Cape Town-like situation may not occur in India in the near term. “There is a study report which says that at the macro level, our water demand is estimated to far exceed the water supply by 2050 and India may be described as a water scarce country,” says Sarkar.  A country is deemed to be water scarce if its per capita water availability is less than, or equal to 1000 cubic metres per person per year.

“Having said that, the Cape Town situation may arise only if climate change and its effect lead to a situation when there are no glacier melts,” says Sarkar, “and also if the Monsoon rain does not occur at all for many successive years. Given the geopolitical situation, these are highly unlikely, even in the distant future.”

The root cause of  water crises in urban areas is depletion of ground water, which happens for numerous reasons, like inefficient use of water in agriculture and industry. Water is inefficiently used in farming when water-guzzling crops are sown in areas that have a low water table, or when irrigation is excessive.

Deforestation and diversion of community lands and agricultural lands for other purposes also disturbs the traditional system of recharging ground water.

The world is also running out of fresh water because of rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns, owing to climate change. Some key reasons that lead to water scarcity are mismanagement of water supplies, pollution of rivers and other surface water sources because of poor sanitation and industrial pollution. Water also becomes scarce when desilting operations are not done on large water bodies, or when ground water gets polluted because of excessive use of agro-chemicals. It goes without saying that  water would not be so scarce, had rain water harvesting and storing been more efficient.

The Root Cause
Most analysts are unanimous that groundwater depletion is the root cause of the water crisis in India. Incidentally, India tops the world in depleting groundwater and currently uses up more groundwater than China and the United States put together. As much as 70 per cent of  the water used in agriculture comes from the ground. Over the last three decades, an explosive growth has occurred in private tube-wells in farms, where reliable sources of surface water are not available for irrigation. Many state governments are yet to turn proactive about water conservation.

Says Avinash Kumar, Director, Programmes & Policy at WaterAid India, “Due to overexploitation of groundwater, food production will be adversely affected.

Excessive pump irrigation has resulted in fluoride contamination of groundwater, the mainstay of the poor for their domestic water needs.” Kumar points out that scarce water would in the long run tantamount to reduced food production, depleting population of  livestock and higher costs of goods and commodities.

Rain Water Harvesting (RWH) schemes have found success only in small pockets, even though water utilities in some states like Delhi and Uttarakhand, offer financial incentives for installing RWH systems,” says Saklani. “The vast majority of the Indian population is still not committed to taking conscious steps towards preserving water resources for the future,” says he.

The dependence on ground water has continued unabated over the ages. In rural areas as much as 85 per cent of the drinking water is pumped out of the ground. In urban areas, ground water accounts for 50 per cent, or half the drinking water supply. Delhi, Punjab and Haryana top among states that abuse ground water.

Depletion of ground water is pretty acute in major parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat and even Madhya Pradesh, and some pockets of south India owing to decades of over-extraction and poor management.

It is perhaps, not quite a coincidence that the largest number of farmer protests and suicides get reported from these states. The World Bank predicts that by 2032, around 60 per cent of aquifers in the country will be in a critical state and most of them are in states that depend on agriculture.

It goes without saying that in the long run, short supply of water will impact not just agriculture, but industry too, particularly manufacturing. A joint study by Assocham & PwC in 2017 had warned that the widening gap between demand for water and its supply in India was estimated to be 50 per cent by 2030.

“Market shortages, increased need for imports and political stress become evident in places where communities are being impacted by shortages or economic pressures. The extreme impacts that we witness include prolonged droughts, famine and starvation leading to mass migrations,” says Avinash Kumar at WaterAid India.

“Given that India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, this figure adds up to losses worth billions that could instead be put to productive and urgent use such as investing in better health, education and infrastructure for citizens,” says Saklani.

Way Forward

At the government level measures are being taken to store water through reservoirs and multi-purpose dams. India’s water storage capacity is nowhere near those of the leading conservationists around the world. According to one estimate, coping with the impending shortfall in the requirement and availability of water by 2030 will cost somewhere around $291 billion (roughly Rs 1,891,000 crore).  

 “Water scarcity is happening even now in some parts of the country, e.g. some parts of Maharashtra, where supply of water resources is inadequate to meet the demands. In some places in the past, water used to be supplied by train to meet these situations,” says Sarkar at Teri.

“To solve the problem, we need, inter alia, to conserve water and increase water use efficiency in agriculture, industrial and domestic sectors. Secondly, we need to have more desalination plants for having more supply of water,” he says. Sarkar quotes Israel as an example of a nation that has made little (water) go a long way.

“When we talk about storage infrastructure to improve the supply of  water in India (and elsewhere), it is necessary to focus on reclaiming eco-friendly water storage systems, such as natural wetlands and aquifers which complement traditional infrastructure (like dams),” says Saklani.

Narayan Hegde, Trustee, BAIF Development Research Foundation in Pune says, “There is no way a country like India can progress and ensure sustainable livelihood for the growing population. Fortunately, India has fairly adequate rainfall of 1,170 mm, and with judicious use of this water, most of the demand can be met.”

Hegde recommends recycling waste water, efficient use of river water and additional production of  potable water through desalination. Linking rivers originating from the Himalayas, with seasonal rivers in other parts of the country, he points out, were “extreme and expensive options”. The country, he says, would have to resort to such options too should the per capita water availability drop below 1000 m3 per year. ”

Kumar says, “There is an immediate need to fill the knowledge gap and make people aware about the importance of water conservation. People need to understand that groundwater is a finite source and will end one day if we fail to reduce its exploitation and recharge it in time.” He feels the government needs to take severe measures to regulate and monitor use of groundwater resources.

“Currently, India treats only about 37 per cent of  its waste water,” says Singh, “If we are able to treat 100 per cent waste water and convert it into recycled water, the need for domestic water supply volumes can be reduced by 65 per cent of the current demand, assuming that 15 per cent water is wasted in transmission.”

“Every year, lack of access to water forces thousands of people to migrate in search of water, food and jobs,” points out Avinash Kumar, adding, “Mostly, the poorest and the most marginalised across the country bear the brunt.”

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Magazine 31 March 2018 water water crisis