The great water crisis


savewaterOn March 12th, the 2,300-megawatt Farakka power plant of NTPC suspended power generation for the first time in its 30 year history, creating a major shortage in national power grid. It remained shut for 10 days because the water level in the canal connecting the plant to the River Ganga had gone down to a level which could not sustain operations. In another incident, a small steel company in Latur shut down its operations in April because of lack of water. The company could not afford to buy water to keep its plants running.

Recently, the government of India, in a report to the Supreme Court said that 25 per cent of the country’s population, i.e. nearly 33 crore people are affected by drought. About a quarter million villages, in 254 out of 678 districts of the country have drinking water shortage, as per the government of India. However, this does not tell the whole picture. At a deeper level, an even more calamitous picture emerges. As many as ten crore people in 50 out of 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh are in the grip of a severe drought. While drought in Bundelkhand region managed to get visibility, rest of the state has not got any coverage in media. Elswehere, in Madhya Pradesh, 46 out of 51 districts are in the grip of drought, and in Karnataka, 27 out of 30 districts are facing drought and scarcity of water. The country has awakened to the new disturbing reality of trains having to ferry water to drought hit areas.

The result of such massive water shortage throws social problems. Fearing violence, authorities in Latur district, have imposed prohibitory orders on gatherings of more than five people around storage tanks. Northern states of Punjab and Haryana are fighting over canal that was supposed to bring water from Punjab to Haryana. In Odisha, farmers have been reported to have breached embankments to save their crops.

But the massive water shortage is neither the only water related problem that India is facing nor is it completely the nature’s making. The water availability is precarious, the quality of water is mostly bad, the farmers are wasting water, government policies are incongruous to the reality on ground and there is general unwillingness to do anything before crisis hits. On top, the best practices which have done wonders in India are not amplified and global best practices are not emulated to preserve this scarce natural resource. However, there is grudging though increasing acceptance that the country is near the tipping point and if some radical measures are not taken right now, we could be staring at a natural calamity of epic proportions.

Declining availability

According to the Central Water Commission, in March this year, much before the toughest summer months of May and June, water availability in India’s 91 reservoirs stood at its lowest in a decade, at a meager 29 per cent of their total storage capacity. Southern region was worst hit and had just 19 per cent water availability followed by Western and Northern regions which had 24 per cent and 26 per cent availability respectively. Nationally, only four river basins out of eleven had storage of more than 30 per cent of their capacities. The availability in Krishna river basin was at a dangerously low level of just about 11.5 per cent.

Water availability deviation has been high in some states Source: Central Water Commission

According to the India Water Tool, a comprehensive web platform that evaluates India’s water risks, four per cent of India faces high to extremely high water stress and almost 600 million people are at a higher risk of surface-water supply disruptions. The disturbing aspect is that the states of Punjab and Haryana which produce nearly half of country’s rice supply and 85 percent of its wheat stocks are among the worst affected. Also, of the 4,000 wells mapped by the app, over half have shown decline over the past seven years, with about one in six showing a decline of more than a meter per year. All of these display extremely stressful scenario. But future projections show an even more depressing scenario.

According to a report of 2030 Water Resources Group, by 2030, water demand in the country will grow to approximately 1.5 trillion cubic metres (CM). On this demand which is primarily driven by domestic demand of basic food items like rice and wheat, the country faces a large gap between current supply and projected demand—amounting to 50 percent of demand or 754 billion CM. Most of India’s river basins could face severe deficit by 2030; Ganga, the Krishna, and the Indus are projected to face the biggest absolute gap.

Natural or man made?

India, despite being a decently water endowed land, is not water rich per capita. With nearly one eighth of the world’s population, it has to manage with less than one twentieth of world’s freshwater. Then there are aspects of water availability in India which are unique in terms of timings and cyclicity of availability. At around 2,520 billion CM, the surface and groundwater base is substantial but highly variable. About half of annual precipitation falls during the monsoon season that lasts for a couple of months. Also, 90 per cent of river flows occur in only 4 months of the year.

Such pattern requires judicious water management policies by government and natural water saving predilection from society. Sadly neither exists in India. Because of faulty planning to retain water, the country looses much of the precipitation. At only 200 CM of water storage capacity per person, India is way behind 2,200 CM per person in China and about 6,000 CM per person in the United States. India’s accessible, reliable supply of water amounts to 744 billion CM, or only 29 percent of its total water resource.

However, there has been a distinct lack of attention to water legislation, water conservation, efficiency in water use, water recycling, and infrastructure to manage the water problem. Historically, water has been viewed as an unlimited resource in India that did not need to be managed as a scarce commodity or provided as a basic human right. Coupled with this, low agricultural water productivity and efficiency, combined with aging supply network, make severe supply-demand gaps likely in many basins during coming decades.

The depletion of water table is another case in example. India is the largest groundwater user in the world, and draw more groundwater than the US and China. The emergence of the deep rigs and the bore wells in the 1970s threw the balance with which groundwater had been used for centuries. The use of bore wells has been encouraged to such an extent that the share of groundwater for irrigation has gone up from a mere one per cent during 1960-61 to 60 per cent during 2006-07. This has obvious implications for water tables, especially when no concerted effort has been made to replenish the lost groundwater. This is dangerous as groundwater contributes to about 85 per cent of India’s drinking water security, 60 per cent of its agricultural requirements and 50 per cent of urban water needs.

The problem is that the Centre as well as states have failed to fully resolve the questions of who really owns the groundwater, how it should be mapped, extracted and replenished. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that water is a state subject. Groundwater is an open-access resource and anyone can pump water from under his or her own land. India extracted 251 billion CM of groundwater in 2010, up from 90 billion CM in 1980. Compared to this, the United States extracted 112 billion CM in 2010 which was only nominally up from 1980 level. Realizing the scarcity of water as a resource, many countries have delinked land ownership from the ownership of the water beneath, and have put in place complex systems of water rights, pricing and tight regulation. India has not yet started thinking in this direction yet.

Ironically, even as farmers, governments, industry and citizens keep on drilling deeper and deeper, accentuating the groundwater crisis, planners are over stressing the investment on surface water sources like dams and canals for irrigation, setting up pipelines for drinking water and securing water for industry. Another side effect of unbridled excoriation of the earth is that chemicals such as fluoride and arsenic have seeped into water systems including drinking water. This explains to a large extent the contamination of water in many parts of the country. Of course, open defecation is another big reason.

Moving forward, because of rising population, India is expected to remain a highly agricultural country even though the contribution of agriculture to the overall GDP of the country is about to decline. According to 2030 Water Resource Group, assuming population growth at one percent per annum, and GDP growth at 6.8 per cent per annum between 2005-2030, by 2030, agriculture will account for almost 1,200 billion CM or 80 per cent of total water demand. This is much in contrast to China, which would need half of its water for agriculture use. On the other hand, China will be using over 30 per cent of water for industrial use compared to 13 per cent in India. India will see a compounded annual growth in demand of the order of 2.8 per cent compared to 1.6 per cent of China.

A big reason for precarious water condition, especially in Maharashtra, is the sugarcane production which is a water guzzling crop. The entire dry belt of Maharashtra which is receiving below normal rains is predominantly sugarcane producing area much against the advice of many experts. Today, about 15 per cent of irrigation water is used by sugarcane, from surface water as well as groundwater, which is planted on hardly 2.5 per cent of the country’s farmland. Another instance of poor crop planning is the states of Punjab and Haryana which despite being water scarce, grow rice and wheat which need more water. In totality, water usage efficiency is quite poor in India resulting in wastage of water which is already in low supply (see detailed report: water use efficiency in Indian agriculture).

But lack of water is only one part of the picture. The other, grimmer aspect is the quality of drinking water. Nearly a quarter of the villages and 4 to 6 per cent urban population do not have access to drinking water. Apart from inadequate supply of water, quality of available water is a serious concern. It is estimated that over 70 per cent of the water consumed by rural India falls below WHO standards. Nearly 80 per cent of rural illnesses, 21 per cent of transmissible diseases and 20 per cent of deaths among children in the age group of 5 years, are directly linked to consumption of unsafe water.

The major causes of water pollution are discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluent into rivers, excessive use of fertilizers in agriculture and contamination of ground water with salts and minerals present in the lower soil profiles. In Delhi, the national capital, only half of the nearly 36 million tons of sewage, generated daily, is treated; the rest goes untreated into Yamuna. In top 23 cities, only 31 per cent of the sewage water generated is treated and the rest is flown untreated into 18 major rivers. Also, most rivers in the country are contaminated by fluorides, nitrites and toxic metals.

Creative planning required

In one of his talks “Mann Ki Baat”, PM Modi mentioned about the village Hiware Bazar, in Maharashtra, which has, by sheer force of conviction and common sense, has created an example for water scarce state. The village has not called a water tanker since 1995. The village, in arid Ahmednagar district of the state, has banned bore wells. It has also stopped growing water-guzzling cash crops like sugarcane and banana and instead, has shifted to growing vegetables, fruits, flowers and pulses, apart from dairy development. Because of diversified crop pattern and less dependence on traditional crops, the village has reduced poverty sharply over last few years. To retain whatever water it gets in rain, the village has successfully run watershed management program.  What Hiware Bazar has done is not rocket science and is a direction in which planners need to think.

In India, agriculture is and will continue to be the biggest water user. As such, most improvements have to come in this sector and there is tremendous scope for improvement which would result in income growth as well, just by taking simple measures. For example, according to estimates, drip irrigation alone has the potential to increase agricultural revenues by billions of dollars, by reducing the amount of fertilizer and increasing yield. Currently, most of the crops are watered through flood irrigation, resulting in over 70 per cent of the water wastage. By adopting micro-irrigation systems, not only water requirement will be reduced, but also the cost of production will come down, at the same time increasing the area under irrigation.

Beyond efficient irrigation, buffering the groundwater is perhaps the most crucial requirement. For this, both rainwater harvesting and watershed development are absolute necessities. India’s eleventh five-year plan (2007–12) covered some 15 million hectares with watershed development. But a lot more has to be done. Similarly the importance of small check dams cannot be overemphasized. According to many economists, Gujarat’s 8 per cent-plus growth rate of agricultural GDP could not have been possible without over 100,000 check dams that the state has built. The efforts and success created by leading activists like Anna Hazare and Rajendra Singh should be emulated and amplified to underscore the necessity of conservation. As for rainwater harvesting, many states have framed regulations and have also started penalizing for failure, but unless the society takes it by choice, implementation will not go beyond tokenism.

At policy level, governments at both center and states need to empower locals with knowledge, understanding, and real-time information on the groundwater availability and manage extraction in a cooperative way. Groundwater being an open resource can be extracted in any quantity. In Indian context, banning or rationing water may not have currency; therefore, a cooperative agreement among the users of the aquifer can be more acceptable. And the usage can also be monitored by state.

Simultaneously, efforts need to be made to improve the quality of water that citizens drink. For this, the government needs to strengthen state pollution control boards to enforce strict effluent standards. It would also require massive beefing up of the technical and human resources at states’ disposal. Currently, boards are incapable to effectively monitor activities, enforce regulations, and convict violators. Simultaneously, massive investment is needed in crating sewage treatment facilities across the country. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should be suitably modified to take care of this aspect too.

Water is a resource that belongs to society. As such, society needs to be an alert stakeholder to see that this asset is not wasted. Any governmental effort could come undone if not supported by the society and individuals at their own levels. As such, behavioral change is required to save every drop of water. While grand schemes like river linking have their own utility, it is the effort made at each home and each farm by each individual that would make the maximum impact. Despite being a near arid country, Israel has shown what can be achieved with careful planning and social cooperation. Not only it has ensured 24×7 water supply to each water tap, it has also used advanced technologies in desalination to use sea water for over half of its agricultural use. There are many success stories in India as well where people have used great ingenuity and innovation to preserve water. The need is to put in practice all the knowledge to practice to ensure that we do not bequeath a desert to our coming generations where they will have to fight for something as essential for life as water.