-The Business Standard
Without policy correctives, a water crisis is inevitable
In a future India, urban neighbourhoods might well be racked by internecine battles over water. The main reason to fear this dystopia is the astonishing rates at which groundwater is being sucked up from below the earth in this country. Groundwater finds a home in natural aquifers, layers of rock, clay and sand far underground. For thousands of years, Indians have harvested these reservoirs and replenished them. That has now stopped, and with tragic consequences. Satellite images provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a few years ago showed how bad the problem was: Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana showed a-foot-a-year decline between 2002 and 2008, double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir. The World Bank has said that 60 per cent of the country’s aquifers will be in “critical” condition by 2025; 29 per cent are already “semi-critical”.
The much-venerated Green Revolution seems to be slowly turning khaki. The increased output of water-hungry crops led farmers to sink tubewells and drain groundwater reserves at will. Growing a water-intensive, floodplain crop like paddy in a semi-arid area is simply not sustainable. Highly subsidised power exacerbated things. Today, 70 per cent of irrigation and as much as 80 per cent of domestic water supply come from groundwater. By 2020, demand is expected to vastly outstretch supply. India needs its own solutions to these problems, because of the country’s peculiar climatic circumstances: it gets heavy rain for only four short months — in Europe, say, it rains year-round. With traditional methods of storage such as temple tanks and steep wells crumbling, and rain harvesting initiatives minimal, storage is almost non-existent — leaving the country bone-dry for the rest of the year. Except, of course, for the option of plundering groundwater. Not having a steady supply of drinking water in 10 years is more than just about drinking water for the middle class. It is also about the 300 million who already don’t have access to it. And about skyrocketing food prices. Industry, too, will stagnate.
It is still too early for a verdict on the most recent avatar of the National Water Policy introduced in April this year, but there are some fundamental things essential for the policy to be relevant or effective. In Delhi, for instance, out of 30 million cubic metres of water per day supplied by the Jal Board, 13 million cubic metres is lost due to infrastructure problems such as leaking pipes. Not surprisingly, not one out of the 35 Indian cities with population of one million delivers water for more than a few hours daily. Some areas in cities like Chennai have done well to introduce aquifer-replenishing methods of water harvesting, and local authorities should be encouraged to replicate these successes. Other reforms are necessary: career bureaucrats at water utilities should be replaced by technically knowledgeable people; water tariffs should be rationalised; co-operatives and the private sector should be allowed to participate in the system; and the disincentivisation of water-efficient grains like sorghum and millet must end. Ultimately, Indians must be made to realise that water isn’t an inalienable right that can be exploited at will, but an economic good that can become very scarce.