Alarm over water shortage

Australia has just killed 5,000 camels to combat a severe water crisis. Experts say it is high time Bengaluru, one of 21 Indian cities hurtling towards zero groundwater, woke up

Earlier this week, Australia announced it had killed 5,000 camels for drinking too much water in drought-stricken areas.’ Over five days, marksmen in helicopters shot the animals dead.

The camels were driven towards rural communities by drought, threatening scarce food and drinking water resources. Though the step was precipitated by the mega blazes ripping through the country, it is yet another reminder of the desperate measures people take when they run out of water.

While the situation has not reached such dire proportions in India yet, water crises have gripped many parts of the country in recent years, with megacities hurtling towards zero-groundwater levels in the near future. 

According to the Composite Water Management Index report released by the Niti Aayog in 2018, 21 major cities (including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad) will reach zero groundwater levels this year, and that will affect water access for 10 crore people.

Lakshmee Sharma, senior research associate at a tech policy think tank, says water is an essential resource that defines the emergence and sustenance of ecosystems around it.

“A water source influences the behaviour of communities that depend on it, and the institutions that govern its use. In the Indian context, water has been used as a political pawn, dictating electoral activity, and thus affecting various socioeconomic groups. When water is mismanaged, it can have adverse butterfly effects on humans, flora, fauna, and environment as a whole — including extinction of species, damaging conflict between communities and a threat to security and peace,” she says.

Villages worst hit

Malvika Binny, assistant professor, SRM University AP, and environmental historian, points out that when potable water becomes scarce, it is the poorest who are the worst hit.

This is in tune with Amartya Sen’s theory in ‘Poverty and Famines’ where he argues that famines strike the poorest much more harshly than the rest, leading to starvation deaths, she says.

“Stray animals can be quite resourceful, particularly in cities, as they quickly adapt to change. But water scarcity affects birds the worst; sparrows and other small birds have been observed to be the worst victims,” she says.

Since agriculture is the dominant user of water, it will have to give way to urban and industrial use when the resource becomes scarce, says water activist and urban planner Vishwanath Srikantaiah.

“So rural areas, especially those which are groundwater dependent, will face the biggest brunt of our commercial water shortage,” he says.

Groundwater usage critical

Estimates put India’s groundwater use at roughly one-quarter of the global usage with total usage surpassing that of China and the United States combined. But policies have allowed a free-for-all in groundwater development and the ensuing crisis has been met with indifference.

Pointing out that India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, Vishwanath says, “We’ve got 33 million borewells or more. The problems will be most severe where these are running dry —  south and west of India.”

What should be done?

Contrary to popular belief, water activist Vishwanath says, urban consumption is a minuscule portion of the total consumption and what needs to be fixed is the pricing and infrastructure.

‘Pay true cost’

Water is usually subsidised which means that it is used profligately, especially by the rich. Thus, institutions don’t have money to ensure water is delivered equitiously, he says.

‘Shouldn’t water be free?’, we ask. That way, it leads to misutilisation, says Vishwanath. “I agree that there is a human rights element to water which says it should be free. But there should be a cap on it, for example, 50 litres per person per day. Above that, we must recover the ecological cost of water,” he says.

He adds that there must be sufficient investment in physical infrastructure, for correcting distribution, stopping leakages and recycling water. 

Change crop patterns

Vishwanath calls for immediate steps to tackle India’s water crisis by changing our cropping pattern and growing the right crops and switching to less-water intensive energy generation.

“Just three crops in India consume 70 per cent of the total irrigated water —sugarcane, wheat and rice. We can’t grow sugarcane where only groundwater is being used. We need to grow sugarcane in an ecological region appropriate for sugarcane cultivation,” he says.

By giving them minimum support price, we are sending wrong signals and encouraging cultivation of sugarcane. Millets, pulses and dal (less water-intensive crops) should be given a support price so these are chosen by farmers, he says.

Worldwide problem

In 2018, South Africa hit global headlines when the people of Cape Town narrowly avoided a water shutoff. Brought on by three years of scanty rainfall, it was to be the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history. The year before, Rome had to start rationing water to conserve resources.


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