India’s Water Nightmare

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India’s Water Nightmare

Millions of Indians can’t access fresh water on a daily basis, Shreyasi Singh reports. And the situation is set to get worse.

Pinky Devi begins her long day in the chaotic urban sprawl that is Garhi, New Delhi, at the crack of dawn. She has to, otherwise she risks missing out on the seven minutes of municipal water supply that will splutter through the two taps in her tiny one room home.

‘My day is a collection drive,’ laughs the 32-year-old mother of three as she explains the different water sources she has to resort to each day. At 8 o’clock every morning, she queues up to fill colourful plastic buckets from the water tanker that chugs through her neighbourhood each day. The area’s residents have to pool money to buy tanker water to supplement their meagre supply.

‘About 15 percent of our household budget goes to water. How did water become a luxury?’ Pinky asks.

That she has to ask the question this year is something of an irony considering that Delhi received an unusually large rainfall last month of about 450 mm. The Yamuna River, normally a shallow trickle, exceeded danger levels on several days in August, while torrential downpours played havoc with traffic in the city. Many roads were water-logged, leaving commuters stuck for hours in jams.

Yet Pinky’s district in Delhi is far from alone. Analysts say India’s per capita water availability is set to slip below the critical 1,000 cubic metres mark by 2025, and the country is expected to join China in facing significant water stress.

The turnaround in India’s water situation has been dramatic. In 2005, the Global Water Initiative said India had ‘abundant’ water in 1975 but that by 2000, this happy state of affairs had turned into ‘stress’ even as demand has continued to grow.

‘Water–The India Story’, a widely quoted study by market research firm Grail Research, points out that India’s per capita domestic consumption of water is expected to grow to 167 litres a day by 2050, up from 88.9 in 2000. Factor in the growing population (expected to increase from 1.13 billion in 2005 to 1.66 billion by 2050) and the picture starts to look bleak.

One recent report, by Ravi Narayanan, vice chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum, stated that even conservative estimates suggest that over 40 million people still need to be provided with safe water and about 100 million people with adequate sanitation just to reach Millennium Development Goals for urban India, much less reach universal coverage.

Such forecasts should be sounding alarm bells among policymakers.

In May this year, the vast central state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) saw violent clashes over water that led to five deaths. Such incidents have become common in MP, where official estimates (likely to prove optimistic), suggest about 70 percent of the state’s 65 million people don’t have adequate access to water.

Indeed, one recent newspaper report said as many as 175 towns in the state have water supply only once every 2 or more days, while another 20 make do with water once every 5 days. Even in its leafy, green capital of Bhopal (ironically known as the city of lakes), there’s an increasing struggle to access water, with police being called in to some districts to ensure water distribution remains orderly.

Water issues are also driving politics. The southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been locked for decades in a battle over sharing the water of the 800-kilometre Cauvery River.  The riparian states, one on the river’s upstream and the other on the downstream, continue to clash over the quantity of water that’s being distributed from the river.

Rohini Nilekani, Chairperson of Arghyam, a water conservation not-for-profit, says the lack of thorough analysis of the issue has fuelled many of the problems now being encountered across the country. As a funding agency, Arghyam focuses on quantity, quality and access to domestic water. ‘Water is one of the key resources of all economic activity,’ Nilekani says.

‘But have we really tried to understand it? How much do we take it into account before planning our economic strategy?’

At present, agriculture guzzles nearly 90 percent of India’s water consumption, even though it contributes only about 17 percent of the country’s GDP. This imbalance is, suggests Grail Research’s report, set to grow, with production of water-intensive crops expected to jump by 80 percent between 2000 and 2050, while the volume of water used for irrigation in India is likely to increase by 68.5 trillion litres between 2000 and 2025.

D.R. Sikka, former director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, says tough policy decisions need to be taken to ease agriculture’s dangerously insatiable appetite for water. Overall, India isn’t a naturally water-rich country, he explains, noting that it has several dry areas and only two main sources of fresh water—glacier melt, which is restricted to the months of April to June, and the three-month-long monsoon season that runs until September.

‘So 90 percent of our rainwater is available for only 3 to 4 months a year. If the monsoon fails, an entire season is lost,’ Sikka says. ‘But governments haven’t taken a long term view of our water policy. Over the last many decades, political systems have given farmers free electricity. This has enabled them to use electrical pumps at will to extract groundwater.’

India is generally seen as under-legislating its groundwater, with almost anybody being able to extract water with little or no permission. As things stand, the population density supported by India’s river basins is higher than most other developing countries. Yet Grail’s findings suggest that by 2050, groundwater levels in the Ganges basin will be depleted by between 50 and 70 percent; levels in the Krishna, Kaveri and Godavari basins, which provide water to the big southern states, could be depleted by as much as half.

‘Farmers have also been encouraged to produce bumper, water-intensive crops like rice, even in states like Punjab, Haryana and Western UP which aren’t really water-rich,’ adds Sikka, a member of several committees on climate change at the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Indian Space Research Organisation and Indian Meteorological Department. ‘Scientists can only express the dangers we see imminent. Keen political will is required for big changes. (But) the farmer lobby is so strong ‘.

Providing Indians with adequate water faces other challenges, too. Analysts say water regulation suffers from India’s notorious hydra-headed government mechanisms that make a clear course difficult to arrive at, while inadequate revenue flows from providing water are another concern—although tariffs and policies differ across states, in most, water is either highly subsidised or virtually free.

But issues like pricing are both complex and sensitive. ‘It’s a very politically polarising question—how do you price water?’ says Nilekani.‘Living people and the environment need water to survive. That can’t be disputed. But water has a financial cost because investments are made to transport it, treat it.’

‘We need to figure out a sustainable financial and social model. Many approaches need to be evaluated, to be explored.’

But she believes that as is so often the case in India, necessity is the mother of invention. ‘That’s begun to happen in India,’ she says. ‘Over the past five years I’ve worked in this sector, I’ve seen water move to the centre of dialogue.’

For industry, at least, simple economics is necessitating fledgling conservation and renewal programmes. ‘The larger companies in sectors like paper, chemicals and refineries have realised they need to limit water consumption,’ says K.S. Venkatagiri, Principal Counsellor at the CII–Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad.

The GBC, set up by India’s apex business body, the Confederation of Indian Industry, offers companies advisory services on a range of environmental issues such as energy efficiency, water management and renewable energy.

Many European buyers have begun asking companies to state their carbon and water footprint, and to show reductions on that year on year,’ Venkatagiri says. Some companies, like ITC and Mahindra & Mahindra, have led by example, with ITC actually having already become ‘water positive’ (it replenishes more water than it uses) thanks to its determined water management efforts.

Since it was established in 2004, the CII–GBC has conducted 40 water audits and now helps save 8 billion cubic metres of water annually. Meanwhile, 413 large and medium-sized companies have become signatories of the CII Code for Ecologically Sustainable Business Growth requiring them to reduce specific consumption of energy and water by 2 to 6 percent every year over the next 10 years.

But Venkatagiri admits that although industry is only expected to account for just under one-fifth of annual water consumption by 2050, much more still needs to be done.

‘It’s not going to be top priority, not like drinking water or agriculture,’ he says, but adds that industry must still play a leadership role by working with local communities beyond their own premises and profitability to create awareness on the three R’s—reduce, recycle, replenish.

Indeed, analysts say local community participation is crucial because large engineering projects and ambitious ideas like the interlinking of rivers could actually lead to more disruptions if not carried out properly.

The rush to ‘tame’ river waters using ‘hard’ investments over ‘soft’ alternatives needs to be carefully monitored, says Sikka. ‘The increase in the number of floods isn’t because of excessive rainfall. Water released from dams has caused many of them.’

Nilekani, meanwhile, believes that a decentralised approach will be vital. ‘If we don’t take (water) monitoring and administration to the third level of governance, it won’t work,’ Nilekani says. ‘Local bodies need to have some authority over the usage of water…We just can’t create water infrastructure that’s so capital and maintenance heavy that we can’t afford it.’