The Current Water Crisis in India

About 17% of Indian cities and towns are hard pressed for water. The water crisis has been spreading rapidly across the country, while the government grapples to find solutions. It is expected that 21 cities in India will run out of groundwater in the next couple of years. This includes heavily populated metro cities like Delhi and Bengaluru. The water crisis has inconvenienced mainly the landless people, as waterless cities like Chennai depend on imported water delivered to their doorstep in tankers. This water is paid for and is mainly unavailable for the large section of the homeless poor, living well below the poverty line.

Earlier in 2018, Cape Town in South Africa almost became the first city to run out of water due to climate change. A year later, the city seems to have recovered partially from the scarcity scare, allowing them to ease restrictions on consumption. They have, however, improved the consumption pattern to ensure that it is in line with their abilities to recharge their aquifers with rainwater. It is this ability to recover, that may be lacking in India; its large population and its inability to strictly impose a rule on its people together causes this water scarcity to be the biggest water crisis in the world.

The current water crisis that India is facing is multifaceted. Our country is the second most populated nation only after China. However, it is predicted that India is most likely to surpass China’s population by 2025. That is far less than a decade. India was once bountiful but no longer holds that pride. With the constant increase in population and breakneck urbanization, the country runs a large risk of scarcity and shortage of important resources. The first of many, is the water crisis, which is largely the result of climate change. This crisis can be re-emphasized by highlighting that India contains only 4% of the world’s freshwater reserves. The present situation is alarming, considering that Chennai, an Indian metro city, is surviving mainly on water tankers.

In the current context, roughly one billion people live in areas that are hard pressed for water, of which more than 600 million dwell in areas of extreme water scarcity. In retrospection, India is home to the ninth largest freshwater reserves which have a renewable capacity of 1.6 billion cubic meters a year. Yet, in just a year, 21 Indian cities may completely run out of groundwater affecting over 100 million people thriving in these overpopulated cities. The miserly rainfalls received in the last couple of years have not recharged the groundwater aquifers due to multifarious reasons, some being, completely concreted roads, deforestation that causes the groundwater to simply wash off the ground, lack of efficient rain water harvesting in urban areas etc.

The lack of efficient methods manage groundwater levels may be the main reason the country is troubled due to scarcity of water. We have practiced very liberal free-for-all groundwater usage for many years. There is no limit to how much groundwater can be utilized. One machine used by the public, commonly referred to as the ‘bore machine’, is installed when the building is created and the average depth of a “bore” created 10 years ago was about 70m in the city of Chennai. In 2019, as the city is grappling to find sources of drinking water, people are driving in their private bore machines to reach a minimum of 400-450m before they touch the surface of the remaining groundwater. This of course differs area wise.

The larger estimates put India’s groundwater consumption at par with 1/3rd of the global use and the total use surpasses that of China and USA combined. We have to remember that our country’s population is barely equal to that of those two countries combined, and this is the magnitude of the crisis. The country has not been able to competently supervise the use of groundwater. The government’s strategies to provide subsidies to install bore machines to pump freshwater for the use of agriculture is another reason that some urban areas have become dry. India has the third largest grain harvest in the world and actively exports its yield.

The largest agricultural exports are rice, cotton, sugar and buffalo meat. Crops such as rice and cotton are water intensive plants, that require the farm to be immersed in water. Thousands of litres of water are used for every kilogram of these products. There is no scarcity of these crops in the global context. India exports almost 10% of its crop overseas which roughly adds up to that of Thailand, the largest exporter of rice. Our exports are expected to reach a total of 172 metric tonnes in the 2020 crop year. The country has already reported to have a surplus of 62 million metric tonnes or 62% of the previous year’s harvest. This surplus has been stocked for a situation of famine.

India is no nearer to a famine than it is far away from it. About 70% of agricultural water use comes from the groundwater resources, most of it pumped out using bores. While urban groundwater sources have been wiped out, rural areas enjoy subsidies and easy access to groundwater. The use of water to produce surplus crops like rice exemplify a criminal waste of these resources. 79% of Chennai’s water basin is allocated for agriculture and only 11% is being allotted for domestic use. In a country that is largely urbanized, agriculture still utilizes 90% of the fresh water resources available, leaving the rest of the country to suffer the consequences of the depletion of groundwater resources.

This unequal allocation of groundwater resources can be attributable to inefficient government planning, increased privatization, corrupt officials and industrial effluents that contaminate freshwater. The water scarcity is expected to worsen as a result of the constant increase in population which would make it much more difficult for the government to supervise consumption and encourage thrifty use of water resources. The current attitude of the people in cities like Chennai, that are facing severe water scarcity, give us no hope for sustainable water usage in the future. Residents are frivolous with their consumption, despite having to buy water every second day.

It has been noticed that the demand for private water tankers in Chennai has been increasing by the day. The average cost of 12,000 litres of water is roughly Rs 3000. The prices differ within the city between each company and the particular area that it serves. The residents are oblivious to the fact that the current supply of water is exhaustible and continue to consume water indiscriminately. The government has not comprehensively communicated to its people, that if water is consumed in the same fashion, the prices of the same will be driven up by the demand. This simple economics theory is evading the minds of the commoners.

This water crisis can be efficiently managed if the government is able to supervise consumption on a daily basis. The effort to conserve water must be observed by the entire country and not just by cities that are high and dry. The chief quandary that the country faces is the unequal distribution of water. The agricultural sector is being highly prioritized despite the current surplus situation. The country has to give precedence to the distribution of drinking water to the urban areas as an alternative to producing already surplus water intensive crops. This would undoubtedly encourage more sustainable consumption by the public as well.

Picture Courtesy- Media India Group

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