India’s bulging water crisis: Is it too late for us to do something?



By Harshmeet Singh

Sarvesh, a 9-year-old boy, is among the thousands of kids living in an unauthorized slum in West Delhi’s Vikaspuri area. A student of 3rd grade at the nearby Vikaspuri municipal school, he always arrives at the school half an hour late. When asked repeatedly by his teacher about the reason behind his late arrival, he says, “I need to go and fetch 4 buckets of water for my house every day from the nearby public tap. The supply only starts at 8 am and there is a big queue every day.”

Unfortunately, his household is not the only one in the capital facing water shortage. India’s per capita availability of fresh water has dropped significantly to 1,123 cubic metres as compared to over 3,000 cubic metres 50 years ago. In comparison, globally, the average fresh water availability per capita remains 6,000 cubic metres. The USA enjoys 8,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person as of today.

If the World Resources Institute’s report is to be believed, India’s groundwater levels are declining sharply due to reckless digging of aquifers and drain wells by the local farmers, industries and residents alike. Moreover, in most cases, the water taken out from the ground is found to be severely polluted. A World Bank report says that more than 20% cases of communicable diseases in India can be traced to unsafe water.

According to the report titled ‘Charting Our Water Future’ and published by McKinsey & Company, Standard Chartered Bank, Nestle and others, India’s water supply could come down to 50% of the total demand by 2030.

Why is there so much shortage of water?

More than half of India’s geographical area comes under ‘extremely high water stress’ territory. An ever galloping population has certainly added to the country’s water woes. Additionally, large proportion of agricultural lands in the country ensures that water demand never shrinks.

Most of the Northwest area of the country comes under ‘high water stress’ territory. The agricultural habits of the area have a major role to play behind this situation. Haryana and Punjab account for half of government’s total rice supply, along with over 80% of its overall wheat supply. Rice and Wheat cultivation demand high quantities of water. Moreover, slow acceptance of genetically modified crops, which require lesser water, has also ensured that the demand for water in agriculture shoots up gradually.

While there is no dearth of rivers in India, water in most of these rivers is unsafe even for bathing, let alone drinking. The ambitious ‘Ganga Action Plan’ of 1984 was launched to clean the river within 25 years. And yet, over 30 years down the line, we are still making plans to clean up Ganga. The funds splurged during these years have come to nothing since the facilities were never maintained properly. Absence of stringent laws against industrial effluent standards has seen the situation changing from bad to worse.

Areas of concern

Balancing increasing demands of irrigation with acute water shortage is indeed a tough challenge. To achieve the targeted 4% agricultural growth, proper irrigation and high yield seeds are imperative. Uneven distribution of rains across the country means that water storage and transportation capacity needs to be developed. Water harvesting methods can only help to a certain degree. Local storage and watershed management must be given emphasis. Although a number of environmentalists oppose the construction of storage dams, their reservoirs can come in extremely handy when needed. India’s poor record of displacing lakhs of tribal people from dam sites and leaving them in a lurch without adequate compensation hasn’t added to the popularity of dams in the country.

India’s past experience of grain import from USA in 1960 and a peaking population won’t allow it the luxury of reducing water usage in agriculture anytime soon.

The news of Water Mafia operating in the National capital has been reported several times. An acute water shortage has ensured that the Water Mafia’s work blooms constantly. With no other option, the citizens turn towards these Water Mafias who supply water filled tankers within hours of the order being placed. Though the Delhi Jal Board dispatches close to 900 water tankers everyday to the localities without a pipeline connection, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

How to go forward then?

First and foremost, the Government must engage the local bodies and educate them about the gloomy future if such reckless extraction of groundwater continues. Monitoring groundwater extraction is a necessity if the situation is to be taken under control. Secondly, emphasis on watershed development across the country is a must. The efforts of some states have shown that it is a profitable and convenient method to overcome water scarcity. Thirdly, environmentalists speaking against storage dams must be engaged in a constructive dialogue to arrive at a consensus. Other countries have adopted this method successfully in the past. Lastly, the pollution control boards must be strengthened to deal with industries violating norms. State of the art treatment facilities for the sewage would ensure that our water bodies are in a much better state.

India’s water crisis has been in the making for a number of decades now. Expecting it to avert within a few years would be impractical. But taking the first few steps would surely get us moving in the right direction.