Water crisis is here, and it can wipe us out

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The World Bank, back in 2005, predicted that within 20 years, 60% of all aquifers in India would be in a critical condition. Just 14 years later, the grim prognostication has already come true. According to the Niti Aayog’s 2018 Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), 21 major cities (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and others) are racing to reach zero groundwater level by 2020, affecting the access to water of more than 100 million people. The CWMI report notes that the country’s water demand is likely to be twice the available supply by 2030.

Besides implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual 6% loss in GDP, the report points out how excessive groundwater pumping and our failure to preserve natural aquifers and catchments, an inefficient and wasteful water management system and years of deficient rains have wreaked havoc on our water ecosystem.

The crux of the problem remains the same. With the agriculture sector drawing nearly 90% of freshwater, we know that India’s farms are the major water guzzlers. According to the CWMI report, adopting micro-irrigation techniques can save roughly 20% of the groundwater used annually on irrigation. But it looks like the task of convincing farmers to adopt such techniques is too daunting.

The policy to continue with subsidies on electricity, perceived to play a central role in the Indian groundwater crisis, remains as unchanged as the practice of billing at a flat, non-volumetric and highly subsidised tariff does. What is worse, the vast majority of groundwater pumps are unmetered. Encroachment over water bodies and waterways continues apace. People see land as a site to build buildings and not as a space to preserve the water.

The imperative to encourage farmers to produce water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane through increased minimum support price (MSP) leading to groundwater depletion, income inequality and unsustainable agriculture remains unchanged. Therefore, despite alarm bells sounding that the severe depletion of underground water supplies in India poses a threat to the nation’s food security and that without serious efforts to stem the mining of groundwater, food production will decline, unleashing painful social and economic consequences, are falling on deaf ears. In the dilemma between long-term resource management and short-term livelihood, no balance is ever sought to be struck.

We often forget to learn lessons from the past. When we get to hear about acute water crisis in either Chennai or Bengaluru, the predicament of Vellore district comes to the fore again, with pictures of protesting villagers over the functioning of several mineral water plants which tap groundwater for commercial purposes.

Latur remains yet another example, where trains carrying millions of litres of water had to be despatched to the drought-affected district to prevent water riots from breaking out. And reports of floods in Mumbai and Assam this year remind us of how the city administration and other stakeholders failed to preserve 90% of the rainwater that was let off to the sea during the floods in Chennai in 2015. Rainwater harvesting (RWH), the small-scale collection and storage of run-off to augment groundwater stores through recharge, is an important supply-side management tool to sustain this precious resource.

War for water

All of India’s 14 major rivers are polluted because they transport over 50 million cubic metres of untreated sewage into India’s coastal waters every year, with New Delhi alone being responsible for dumping of more than 200 million litres of raw sewage and 20 million litres of industrial wastes into the Yamuna river as it passes through the city on its way to the Ganga. Even that estimate is from a decade ago. The ground reality has only worsened since then. The stress is showing. Besides the contention over the sharing of Cauvery water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, we have a long history of inter-state rivalries over rivers such as the Krishna, Godavari, Narmada, etc. 

Is India ready to wage a war, at home and abroad, if necessary, for water? Could it wrest Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which has abundant water resources with the Indus and its tributaries flowing through PoK offering huge potential for generation of hydro-electric power that partly accounts for China’s growing interest in this region despite India’s opposition?

The controversial Diamer-Bhasha Dam project, among others, is an example of how Pakistan has been draining PoK of its resources over the decades. PoK, being the gateway to Central Asia through the Wakhan Corridor besides having rich water resources, has much strategic significance for India, and thus calls for a proactive approach towards it from New Delhi. Tibet is linked to the wider climate change issue since it has been subject to a massive investment of resources since 1999 by the Chinese premier, Jiang Zemin. Another recent development, the shockingly swift melting of the Himalayan glaciers, threatens the long-term water supply of much of Asia.

A large part of Asia is facing complex threats, including international terrorism, religious extremism, illegal drug trafficking, ecological degradation, and water shortage. The evident water-sharing problem will require the countries in the region to find common approaches and acceptance of legal frameworks for the main regional or transnational rivers as well as the use of international best practices in solving water-sharing problems.

Unless we learn to strike a balance between food security and water security and between all competing water needs (of industry, energy sector, households, irrigation, recreation, ecological flows) and all relevant economic sectors (manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, water services sector, etc), our national security is at stake. Water problems wiped out impressive civilisations such as Mohenjo-daro and others in the past. We must urgently learn from that history.

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