India’s deepening water crisis

Making false doomsday claims of a water crisis could support problematic mega solutions, which could lead to more problems.
25 Sep 2019
0 mins read
India's demand for water will exceed supply by a factor of two by 2030, as per a NITI Aayog report (Image: Vinoth Chandar, Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0))
India's demand for water will exceed supply by a factor of two by 2030, as per a NITI Aayog report (Image: Vinoth Chandar, Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0))

The last few months have seen much debate and discussion on the fast approaching Day Zero, with claims that taps in 21 major Indian cities will dry up. People in Chennai were compelled to queue up to collect water from tankers this past June. Last year’s NITI Aayog’s report set off alarm bells that most of India’s major cities were likely to face an acute, unprecedented water shortage. Delhi is likely to run out of groundwater by next year, according to the report.

The demand supply gap

By 2030, the overall demand for water in India is projected to double and forty percent of the population will have no access to drinking water. Against this backdrop, the need to preserve and conserve water was discussed at a public lecture on ‘Water conservation methods and strategies’ by Toxics Link at India International Centre in New Delhi last month.

“There is a need to look at solutions to combat the issue through civic engagement with regard to the problem,” says Ravi Agarwal, Toxics Link who moderated the lecture.

Estimates indicate that 90 percent of drinking water and seventy-five percent of water in agriculture comes from groundwater in India. Overexploitation by landowners has driven water tables dreadfully to unforeseen depths, creating a silent and invisible crisis. The growth of cities and towns is likely to put more pressure on urban water resources.

The monsoon heralding period saw a massive deficit in rainfall this year and large parts of central India such as Marathwada remained parched. The government in the meanwhile, launched a massive water conservation campaign in 255 water-scarce districts to construct millions of check dams, trenches, ponds and watershed structures. A new umbrella Jal Shakti Ministry was set up by merging two key ministries – the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.

This restructuring of water governance at the Centre was followed by more alarm bells. "The water table is going down day-by-day and in some of the areas in India, it has come down to critical levels. Some of the areas are over-exploited and soon those areas may reach the level of 'Day Zero',” the Jal Shakti Ministry said in a note to state governments. The note blamed the situation on global warming, over-exploitation of water resources and human mismanagement of water. States staring at a Day Zero scenario include Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, as per the note.

Is Delhi running out of water?

“The rapid growth of urban populations, with population figures in several millions is leading to increasing pressure on water resources. The National Capital Region is one of the three most rapidly growing urban agglomerations in India with a population of over 16.7 million in 2011. The rapid pace of urban growth in Delhi and neighbouring urban centers is exerting an increasing pressure on water resources and escalating the regional water demand. Delhi today has evolved from a megacity to a ‘conurbation’,” says Govind Singh, environmentalist and co-founder of Delhi Greens.

Strategically located with the Aravalli ridge on one side and theYamuna River on the other, Delhi is today tackling the impacts of climate change. “The city is gearing up to meet the sustainability crisis. At the same time, policies that are formulated without keeping the sustainability aspect in mind have also been contributing to the city’s water crisis. Delhi has a water demand of 1200 mgd while it receives a supply of about 900 mgd. While some parts of Delhi receive excess water supply than needed, others receive poor supply,” says Singh.

Delhi’s water supply has been grossly mismanaged at different stages, with rampant water leakage and unbridled water pilferage. Yet, solutions offered for the pampered capital city include erecting dams in the fragile Himalayas and diverting these waters to the capital with massive ecological and socio-economic consequences.

Need for community-driven decentralized water management

Multi-pronged efforts have been deployed by the government to tackle the water crisis, such as the recent Jal Shakti Abhiyaan, at a nation-wide scale. However, promoting water conservation as a solution will not necessarily lead to the desired outcomes if this is not done on a sustained basis. 

Successful water management practices also abound, the work of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), an Alwar based non-profit organization, being a case in point. “TBS began mobilizing communities around the issue of water in the 1980s, and has been supporting them in reviving and revitalising the traditional systems of water management such as johads and bandhs in thousands of villages. Nine rivers have been rejuvenated by the people through shramdaan in Rajasthan,” says Suresh Raikwar, who works with the organization.

There is a need for community driven decentralised water management, an area that the government too is focusing on. The organization emerged when local people demanded that they needed easier access to water. “Presently, TBS’s focus is on developing resilience against the impending water crisis by focusing on demand rather than supply side management of water and access to water by rejuvenation of water resources,” quips Raikwar.

Raikwar discussed how the Aravari river parliament representing 72 villages in Alwar district of Rajasthan was created to manage their interests in sustaining the local water resources. The river parliament produced guidelines to regulate the use of resources and types of crops planted in the river basin in order to manage the levels of water.

Dystopian thinking on water

Recently, the World Resources Institute's Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas ranked water stress, drought risk, and riverine flood risk across 189 countries and their sub-national regions, like states and provinces. India, ranked 13 on this list of "extremely highly" water stressed countries. As per the Water Resources Group 2030 of the World Bank, the projected demand of water in the country sector-wise in 2030 will be – agriculture (338 billion cubic metres), industry (89 billion cubic metres) and domestic plus municipal (40 billion cubic metres).

“India is water stressed, not water-scarce as per the Fallermark water stress indicator. Is the crisis of scarcity or delivery?” says Srinivas Chokkakula, Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He drew attention to NITI Aayog’s claim that 21 cities would run out of groundwater supply by 2020.

“This raises the question of institutional accountability as it is backed by wrong extrapolation of outdated district-level data provided by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) under the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Credibility and legitimacy of knowledge production is critical. Which institution should be making claims on technical aspects – NITI Aayog or a technical agency such as the CGWB or the Central Water Commission (CWC)?” asks Chokkakula.

“Joanna Slater, the India bureau chief of The Washington Post who tried to unravel the starting point of this dubious claim is of the view that faulty claims are not the way to illustrate this crisis, even if the crisis itself may be real,” he adds. 

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