India is facing a severe stress on its water resources not just due to climate change but also several human factors, including an injudicious use of water and its pricing.
On June 18 this year, Chennai, one of the largest Indian cities and the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, went dry. Right in the middle of an usually warm summer, the metropolis, home to over 11 million people, went bone dry, with taps pumping hot air instead of water, all over the sprawling city and its suburbs. The city was left with a deficit of over 200 million litres a day (mld) of water, as against a daily need of 1200 mld.
The emergency was blamed on the drying up of the city’s four lakes, its key source of water due to extremely little rain during the winter monsoon late last year. The government was obliged to run special water trains and trucks ferrying water to provide succour to the parched city.
But climate change was only partially responsible for the epidemic. Chennai’s was largely a man-made disaster – one that more Indian metropolises are soon to suffer no matter the weather.
India is facing the worst water crisis in its history, and 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, says a report by NITI Aayog, a government thinktank, calling for ‘urgent and improved’ management of water resources.
“With high rate of urbanisation and unprecedented population growth in cities, there is increase in water demand and over exploitation of groundwater. In addition, 70 pc of urban sewage is not treated thus polluting water bodies. Also, as we value land more than water, in the last few decades encroachment of water bodies has been on rise, and excessive focus on extraction technologies and related infrastructure has widened the demand-supply gap. At this point of time one needs to value the local resources e.g. water bodies, floodplain areas as they act as sponges of any city. We need a change in approach from centralised to decentralised mode of water management,” explains Mahreen Matto, water management programme manager, Centre for Science and Environment in an interview to Biz@India.
That is pretty much the case with Chennai. The city is blessed to have three rivers flowing through it as well as five wetlands, including large lakes and six forest areas. Yet, the city has run dry, largely due to poor water management.
Managing infrastructures to manage water
Less than four years ago, the now drought-ridden Chennai was dealing with devastating floods. Though located on a flood plain, the city had paved over the lakes and wetlands that might have helped the process of recharging the water table. As a result, heavy rains couldn’t percolate into aquifers under the city. Water pooled and surged above ground. That reduced the resources available to deal with a crisis like this year’s.
Had there been a proper water management system to collect or cure all that water, Chennai would have saved itself from the drought this year.
A similar situation prevails practically all over the country, even in the areas where torrential rainfall is an annual affair. Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala have all been facing challenges of water. Amongst the 20 other cities that would run out of ground water next year are the capital, New Delhi, India’s tech hubs Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune.
“It is sad to see that due to the current water scenario now the centre is becoming active about water resource management. However, still it’s not late if the resources, schemes and policies are directed towards a water prudent society targeting at conservation, the revival of water bodies which are the sponges of any city or area; doing rainwater harvesting at various scales. Focus on stormwater management is also essential, the way how Mumbai is flooded is an example of the poor stormwater drainage system. Further wastewater recycle and reuse for pollution abatement. If we integrate the above three approaches it will lead to a circular economy, which is required – a holistic approach,” says Matto.
With nearly 600 million Indians facing high-to-extreme water stress – where more than 40 pc of the annually available surface water is used every year – and about 200,000 people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the situation is likely to worsen as the demand for water will exceed the supply by 2050, cites the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report, the government’s first comprehensive collection of nationwide water data.
“We follow a centralised approach of water management, that is, fetching water from farther and farther away which causes huge energy foot print along with leakage losses. Need to also focus on decentralised approaches, that is, value and use the local resources and integrate storm, rainwater and wastewater. Also strong institution capacity backed with legal policy and penalisation is required,” says Matto.
Population, pollution, politics and policy
The main reasons behind India’s dramatic water shortage are rather well known and have been so for years, if not decades. The first is the growth in population. In the seven decades since independence, India’s population has grown four fold, while the natural water resources have remained the same or declined due to a variety of reasons.
This means that even if all other factors were absent, India’s per capita water availability would have declined by nearly 75 pc in the 70-odd years.
One of the biggest reasons is the huge increase in the use of water for farming, not because Indian farmers are producing more, but mainly because of the wrong choice of crops being cultivated even in the areas where the climatic conditions are anything but suitable. In order to increase their incomes, farmers all over have adopted water guzzling cash crops like sugarcane and freely use groundwater, aided by the fact that farmers don’t pay for water and in most Indian states, even the electricity used to operate the pumps that draw out billions of litres of groundwater, is offered free by governments.
Industry is another key reason behind the current water shortage. Even though pollution treatment, water harvesting and recycling is mandatory for the industry, this rule is followed on paper only, leading to immense pollution of the rivers, lakes as well as the groundwater sources. Farming, too, contributes to the pollution through excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers by farmers keen to make the most with their harvests.
The impact of absence of pricing of groundwater is also felt in urban areas where every well-to-do or even middle class household has access to borewells that draw water from deep under the earth, often stretching to more than 100 metres deep. In the absence of any regulation of groundwater, not only households but also commercial establishments like hotels, offices and restaurants dip into the free water that they suck out of the earth each day. The impact of this free for all is seen regularly in a place like New Delhi, where the groundwater table in the well-to-do parts of the city has collapsed to 80 metres below the surface.
Globally, India is the biggest user of groundwater. It extracts more groundwater than China and the US, the next two biggest pullers of groundwater, combined. Groundwater meets more than half of total requirement of clean water in the country, with the consumption only increasing. About 89 pc of groundwater extracted in India is used for irrigation. Household use comes second with 9 pc share followed by industries that use only 2 pc of it. Overall, 50 pc of urban water requirement and 85 pc of rural domestic water needs are fulfilled by groundwater.
Of course all this consumption has caused the groundwater levels to fall. According to a report by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the groundwater level dropped by 61 pc between 2007 and 2017. Not just this, use of availability to fetch groundwater by only some people, ones with access to the right machines, such as electric motors to fetch underground water, has also led to parity in fair availability of water.
Leakage of water is another problem with as much as 40 pc of water lost in the process of distribution.
As per an analytical study conducted by the Delhi Committee of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), distribution losses are primarily due to leakages in a network of nearly 9,000 km-long water supply lines and also because of theft committed in unauthorised connections. Due to this leakage, 27 pc of homes in Delhi receive tap water for less than three hours a day.
Not just elaborate water systems, leakage is a menace inside homes too! As per a report published on an international daily’s website if one drop fell per second from a leaking tap, each month 1,000 litres would go down the drain.
A need for better governance
To address these challenges, the government needs to put in place an effective regulatory mechanism covering all areas where there is either wastage of water or improper discharge. ‘‘A national drive supported by penalisation and incentive is required. These approaches will help in groundwater recharge, ease pressure of water supply, help in pollution abatement,’’ says Matto.
Although governments have, in past, come up with various rules and laws, their implementation has been weak so far. For example, in 2017, the Uttarakhand government accorded the status of a living entity to the two key rivers of north India, the Ganga and the Yamuna. Under the law, denoting that anybody found polluting the rivers would be seen as harming a human being. However, two years on, the condition of the rivers remains poor. The condition of the Ganga is critical. Last year, noted water conservationist and Magsaysay awardee Rajendra Singh had said, the centre’s claims about cleaning the river by March 2019 were impossible as nothing had been done so far in that direction and rather true so looking at the conditions now.
Another policy, the National Lake Conservation Plan (NLCP), which aims at restoring the water quality and ecology of the lakes in different parts of the country, is failing too. Even iconic lakes across the country are dying a slow death with many running dry and almost all getting polluted.
“The effect of pollution is that with only 30 pc of sewage treatment plants working in our country, 70 pc of water bodies are contaminated. Further with encroachment of water bodies less water is penetrated in the ground, causing floods. With climate change we are facing floods and drought both. It has a huge impact as water bodies are one of the sources of water,” says Matto.
Shockingly, the apathy towards some water bodies like lakes and ponds is so stark that little is known about their numbers or the state of their use, disuse or abuse. Little wonder then they are fast disappearing and no one is even noticing.
Moreover, encroachment of water bodies has been identified as a ‘major cause’ of flash floods in Mumbai (2005), Uttarakhand (2013), Jammu and Kashmir (2014) and Chennai (2015) in the past one-and half decades. Clearly not just better management, better governance is also the need of the hour, with India’s water governance regime crying for reforms. Then there is the National Water Mission that seeks to conserve water through minimising wastage and ensure equitable distribution of water across and within states through integrated water resources development and management. A report by the water conservation ministry, the per capita water availability in India declined to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011 from 1,816 cubic metre in 2001.
“The success rate of previous initiatives has not been so high as enforcement is lacking. Enforcement, backed with penalties or incentives, is important. Many things written on paper are not translated into action. Take the case of Chennai, which was the first state to make rain water harvesting mandatory in 2001 or 2002. However, currently 700-800,000 such systems are nonfunctional,” says Matto.
One of the most recent developments has been that of Jal Shakti Abhiyan, a nation-wide campaign-based programme that has asked all urban local bodies to undertake rejuvenation of a water body under their jurisdiction.
“The Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA), a water conservation campaign is a welcome step. Rainwater harvesting will be one of its prime focus. Also, pollution abatement with regard to wastewater discharge into water bodies will be looked in as currently 70 pc of water bodies are contaminated in our country. However, it is important that enforcement is taken into consideration. Also if any project is implemented then the budget is allocated for the O&M of the system which will, in turn, affect the sustainability of the project,” points out Matto.
The challenges of inequality
When Chennai went dry, residents complained of receiving sewage water in the hand pump lines. But not just during the time of crisis, India has had consistent troubles with running tap water. Even though 81 pc of all households have access to 40 litres of water per day, only about 18 to 20 pc of rural households in India have connections for piped water supply. This has created mismatch in water availability and supply.
In 2015, 163 million Indians lacked access to clean water near their homes, the highest figure in the world according to WaterAid, a nongovernmental organisation focusing on global water issues. Most of these Indians live in rural areas where both the quantity and quality of water is inappropriate. As per Census 2011, only 32 pc households in India receive tap water supply from treated sources.
Even in New Delhi, 18 pc households do not have piped water supply at all, making the national capital the one to receive one of the highest percentages of piped water in households. The situation is far more serious in some other states, where the residents are forced to look for other options. Uttar Pradesh, a largely rural and farm state with very few piped households, still has high water coverage because of handpumps and borewells drawing water from the high water table in the Indo-Gangetic plains.
“Due to urbanisation, many periurban areas are emerging out of once rural areas, creating pressures on governance systems and public services. Only 32 pc of India’s population receives treated water and only 43.5 pc of the households in India use tap water as their key source of drinking water. Unchecked growth of urban agglomerates has also led to unequal availability of and accessibility to water for different socio-economic groups residing in these regions. In India, 50.7 pc of urban households have direct access to a piped network but access in nonslum and slum areas is 62.2 and 18.5 pc, respectively,” says Matto.
The inequality in access to water was also starkly visible in Chennai where the lower income groups suffered the most as they could not afford tanker, it was hardly a struggle for the middle class, for whom the only challenge was to consume less water due to the high cost of water tankers. “In India, water is subsidised but still the benefit of it is taken by the rich as poor are still struggling for water. Due to absence of water connections they are dependent on low quality water of public taps, government/private tankers impacting their health and household. Thus differential pricing can be one of the ways to make water valuable thus reducing its misuse,” concludes Matto.
But as was seen in Chennai, even those ready to dispense money could not get water at times due to the massive demand and minimum availability of water tankers. As India nears day zero, much more than just saving water needs to be done. While newer policies are needed, their strict implementation can only save the day for the country, which is on its way to become the world’s most populated.