27 Aug World Water Week: Five Troubling Facts about India’s Water Crisis
5 Things You Need to Know About India’s Water Crisis
By 2050, India is also likely to experience a 6% loss in the GDP due to Water Crisis.
Conflicts have been fought for land, oil, and wealth. But could water be at the epicenter of a global war? Experts believe it could happen. The ‘water man of India’, Rajendra Singh said in a recent interview that people are fleeing Middle Eastern and African countries in part due to water scarcity, and one of the consequences of that forced migration is terrorism.
Whether we like it or not, water is playing an increasing role in the way we live our lives. Fast-depleting groundwater, excess rainfall or drought, polluted or shrinking rivers and lakes, and vanishing forests and wetlands are not just things happening far away: they are manifested in the way we live our lives. Water cuts in cities, even outside summer, are now quite common, as are farmer suicides, foaming lakes and flash floods.
As a developing country, India cannot afford the risks and obstacles placed by sustained water scarcity in its path. As we observe World Water Week, let’s look at some facts and statistics that highlight the extent of India’s water crisis.
Water hits economic growth
One of the most strident voices pointing out the economic aspect of the water crisis is the government’s own NITI Aayog, which has said that India could lose 6% of GDP by 2050 because of a water crisis.
Now, in its latest Composite Water Management Index (CMWI) report, the Aayog has said that states like Kerala, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi are low performers on the index, with scores below 50. Worryingly, these four states are among the top 10 contributors to India’s economy.
Water crises can affect a country’s economy in various ways: by hitting agriculture and thus food output, by putting a hold on industrial growth and urbanisation, and forcing individuals and to spend more on procuring water (through expensive tankers or bottled water). And then there is increased government spending on financial aid and compensation to affected communities as well as increased spending on sanitation or setting up desalination plants.
With around 60 crore people—half India’s population—affected by ‘high to extreme’ water stress and the demand for water set to exceed supply by a factor of two in the next decade, this is an issue that threatens to stall the wheels of our economic progress.
Our cities are in big trouble
Chennai has become the poster-city for urban water distress after four of its major reservoirs ran at empty or critically low levels following months of poor rainfall. But it’s not the only beleaguered urban expanse in the country.
A few days ago, the World Resources Index (WRI) said that for cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai, the dreaded ‘Day Zero’ scenario, when taps will run completely dry, could be already here. The report added that insufficient progress on providing piped water (the cheapest source of water in cities) is the biggest problem. This leads to reliance on expensive alternatives or over-drawing of ground and surface water, which comes with its own problems such as limited availability and quality of water.
A Water Stress Index, developed by a UK-based risk analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft, found that eleven of India’s 20 largest cities face ‘extreme’ water stress, while seven others face ‘high’ stress. The extremely stressed cities include Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nashik, Jaipur, Indore and Ahmedabad.
But perhaps the most widely-cited data point here is NITI Aayog’s report from last year, which predicted that 21 Indian cities could run out of groundwater by 2020, potentially affecting 10 crore people.
India is one of the world’s biggest groundwater consumers
In many ways, India’s water crisis is a groundwater crisis. India consumes about one-fourth of the globally available groundwater, more than the next two countries (US and China) combined. This dependence on groundwater is especially high in the farm belts of rural India.
Overall, nearly 89% of the groundwater extracted in India goes towards irrigation. About 85% of rural India’s water needs and 62% of its irrigation needs are met with groundwater. And all this is taking a toll on our groundwater reserves, which have declined 61% in the decade from 2007-2017, according to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).
Pointing out that the situation was particularly dire in central and southern India, the CGWB added that demand management was key to conserving groundwater.
The authors of the earlier-mentioned WRI study wrote, “… India’s groundwater resources are severely overdrawn, largely to provide water for irrigation. Groundwater tables in some northern aquifers declined at a rate of more than 8 centimeters per year from 1990-2014.”
Some of the ways proposed to deal with the crisis include levying a ‘groundwater usage fee’ and imposition of limits on groundwater use.
Getting piped water into rural households is also important. Even in relatively developed or larger states, piped water in rural areas is a rarity . Only 17% of rural houses in Kerala have piped water supply and 12% in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the figure is just 1%.
India is also the biggest exporter of water
Huge amounts of water are used in agriculture and meat production—both, the water molecules contained in those products, as well as the water used to produce them. And when we export things like rice, cotton, sugar or meat, that water also leaves our country. These are known as virtual water exports, and India leads the world in exporting its virtual water.
A report published in Bloomberg in July this year cited data from the Water Footprint Network to reveal that India exports 95.4 billion cubic metres of water every year. For comparison, India’s homes and industries consume 25 billion cubic metres a year.
Most of the virtual water exports are accounted for by rice and cotton, which need thousands of litres of water to produce a single kilogram of product, and sugar and bovine meat (mainly buffalo) which are also highly water-intensive. The report called on India to relook its export priorities, especially since there is ample supply of rice, sugar and cotton in the international market, and prices are low. And also because in the light of the current water crisis, the last thing we should be doing is shipping out more of this precious resource.
Extreme rainfall events are increasing
Thanks to global warming and climate change, extreme rainfall events are becoming increasingly common in India and around the world.
Analysis of daily rainfall from 1901-2010 by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) showed a 6% increase in very heavy rainfall events (over 150 mm every 24 hours) every decade. The frequency of these events has increased since 1981. Recently, former IMD chief KJ Ramesh had told The Times of India that while low-to-moderate intensity rainfall days are on the decrease, heavy-to-very heavy rain days are increasing.
Even compared to last year, this year, India has seen more instances of extreme rainfall. Data from the IMD shows that India experienced 100 extreme rainfall events up to August 12 this year (with another monsoon month to go). In 2018, there were 92 such incidents.
Extreme rainfall is a challenge because it is generally associated with destruction—floods, landslides, damage to crops and infrastructure and increased erosion. For cities, such events represent lost work-days and therefore, economic losses.
While rainfall extremes are a different challenge to the ground and surface water problems India faces, it is another side of the same coin. Unchecked population growth and urbanisation, greenhouse emissions, severe exploitation of natural resources, and policy gaps are the common factors that have brought us here.
The question is: where will we go from here?
August 25th 2019 – by TWC India Edit Team