Environment

How Did India End up Staring at a Water-Uncertain Future?

In the absence of urgent water management policies with a participatory role for local citizens, our future will remain bleak.

The wars of the future will be fought over water. Flashpoints are already taking shape in parts of the Middle East and South Asia. The world’s water use is expected to increase by over two trillion cubic meters by 2030 – 40% more than the supply.

Water shortage seems to be the most immediate existential threat to humans. Some parts of Africa and South Asia are some of the most water-vulnerable parts of the world because of the high rate of depletion. The US National Intelligence Council views this as a serious problem that risks global food markets.

At the macro level, experts have identified the rising population, an expanding middle class and climate change as the main drivers of water shortage. But at the micro-level, it is obvious how water pollution, theft, leakages and neglect exacerbate the problem.

India’s dwindling sources of water

The United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects indicate that India leads the pack in the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2018 and 2050. The proportion of the urban population in India increased from 11% in 1901 to about 37.7% in 2017, adding further strain on the resource base.

As a fallout of erratic and extreme weather, the situation is expected to worsen with the rural population facing lowering productivity and income from their agricultural lands.

Over the past three decades, India has been grappling with rapid depletion of groundwater storage, driven by the erratic climate (an overall decline in rainfall) and over-extraction. Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, groundwater has played a vital role in irrigating water-hungry crops such as rice to feed the country’s growing population. But the bounty was conditional on the overuse of fertilisers and overexploitation of groundwater.

Groundwater has played a vital role in irrigating water-hungry crops such as rice to feed the country’s growing population. Photo: Reuters

Agriculture is proven to be the largest consumer of freshwater and for this reason alone, the aquifer level in the Gangetic plains lowered by 4 cm per year. According to Matthew Rodell, a prominent researcher from Hydrological Sciences Laboratory in NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, groundwater in northern India is being depleted at the rate of 19.2 gigatons per year.

India extracts 75 billion cubic meters of groundwater annually. This is approximately a third of the total groundwater mined globally – a stupendous amount with no parallels elsewhere in the world.

The over-exploitation of groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic plains is threatening the hydrological balance. The worst-affected regions include parts of Punjab in Pakistan and Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal in India.

It is estimated that groundwater utilisation in India has increased from 10-20 km3 to 240-260 km3 in the last 50 years. In a performance audit in 2015-16, 14 of 24 states scored below 50% on water management. These “low performers” are concentrated across the populous agricultural belts of north and east India, and the northeastern and Himalayan states.

As per NITI Aayog’s estimates, 40% of Indians will have “no access to drinking water” by 2030. The government body has also warned that several major cities run the risk of dry aquifers. The recent situation in Chennai is a clear example.

Also read | Quick Fixes Are Worsening Chennai’s Water Crisis

Consequences of this can be far-reaching as water shortages can hit food supplies, causing prices to soar and fuelling social unrest, according to researchers. The over-extraction is also blamed on the unregulated large-scale power subsidies to farmers who are not educated about water conservation.

Groundwater contamination

Along with the dwindling sources of water, the contamination of groundwater has also reached alarming levels in several parts of the country. India ranks 120th among 122 countries on a global water quality index.

Parts of Odisha, Bengal, Rajasthan and Gujarat are affected both by geogenic as well as anthropogenic contamination. Fluoride toxicity in Odisha – in 27 out of 30 districts – has led to acute health problems, especially among children.

Ground-based studies also indicate increased salinity and nitrate contaminants in the lower reaches of the rivers. The arsenic toxicity of the Bengal basin is another serious problem. Large-scale pumping transfers the arsenic present in the deeper levels to shallow depths and the pumped water consequently contaminates the soil and accumulates in paddy grains.

Water contamination has reached alarming levels in several parts of the country. Photo: Reuters

A recent study of water samples collected from wells in Rajasthan shows widespread contamination of fluoride, nitrate and uranium.

Much of the contaminants, except uranium, can be removed from the water. However, the country lacks technological remedies to treat both wastewater and potable water. Most of the megacities of India lack treatment plants for wastewater treatment. Kolkata, for example, generates about 750 million litres of wastewater and sewage daily. The core area of the city does not have a single sewage treatment plant with the sewage finally ending up in the East Kolkata Wetlands.

Also read | River Interlinking an Engineering, Political Fad: Former Water Ministry Secretary

Grandiose solutions

Models of grandiose technological fixes as the solution to all water-related problems have gathered momentum. Politicians are now touting the concept of interlinking all major rivers (inter-basin water transfers) as a geoengineering solution to the continued water depletion.

By diverting river water, we are starving deltaic regions of freshwater that could have helped balance saltwater coming from the sea. Now, however, the deltaic ecosystem will suffer for the change.

Indus delta offers a crucial lesson here. Alice Albinia, in her 2008 book Empires of the Indus narrates how a delta system at the mouth of Indus river – which was once “the richest in all Pakistan” – became impoverished when the British started their barrage construction, which Pakistan continued post-1947.

Such examples are aplenty in India as well. The state of downstream parts of the Narmada river since the completion of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is a modern example in the making.

Need for interventions

India’s water crisis is spiralling out of control, primarily due to poor water and environmental management, inadequate or unclear laws and corruption.

A national water policy should involve a holistic approach to watershed management with a participatory role for local citizens for monitoring the hydrological cycle with the help of hydrologists, engineers and biologists.

Also read | Will a New Water Ministry Solve India’s Impending Water Crisis?

The policy should include effective aquifer management facilitating regulation of water usage. Farmers should be taken into confidence in this exercise to help devise plans for efficient usage of water for irrigation. The government has little control over the usage of wastewater and should devise imaginative re-use programmes.

Israel, a desert country, is a success story when it comes to water resource management. Its biggest success in this regard lies in the modernisation of irrigation techniques. In Let There Be Water, Seth Siegel notes that their drip irrigation programmes save about 25-75% of pumped water. This also compels the farmers to use less water, fertilisers and pesticides. The heath of the aquifer is thus maintained at an optimum level.

Along with such interventions, we also need to incorporate elements of traditional practices in watershed management strategies. If such efforts are not put to work efficiently in a timely manner, our future will remain bleak.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.

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