The combination of climate change and population growth poses a serious threat to India's water security, and without adequate measures to address these challenges, water scarcity will worsen with social, economic and environmental impacts, experts have warned.
According to the United Nations (UN), India might have already become the most populous country in the world with over 142 crore people. However, the government is yet to conduct a census to give an official figure.
Experts highlighted the urgent need for better water management, policy reforms, and protection of natural ecosystems to address the combined challenge of climate change and population growth on water security.
Climate change further exacerbates the challenges, they said, with rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and sea-level rise intensifying the water scarcity problem.
According to Aditi Mukherjee, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) author, poor water management due to distorted policies and incentives has long plagued India's water situation.
"Climate change aggravates these problems by increasing rainfall variability and extreme weather events," she told PTI.
Mukherjee highlighted the historical impact of water-intensive crops introduced during the green revolution and faulty urban design as contributing factors to India's water woes. Proper policies, institutions, incentives, and governance are necessary to mitigate the water crisis.
The challenges faced by India are not limited to water scarcity. Rising sea levels and storm surges caused by intensifying tropical cyclones result in saline intrusion in coastal areas, further diminishing freshwater resources, she said.
Preserving mangrove forests and adopting appropriate land-use practices become critical to protect coastal regions as traditional hard infrastructure like sea walls offer only temporary solutions, Mukherjee said.
With 18 per cent of the world's population but only 4 per cent of its water resources, India is among the most water-stressed in the world.
The per capita availability of water will dip from 1,486 cubic metres to 1,367 cubic metrs by 2031, according to the government data. The situation of water scarcity worsens during summer in the country.
Anjal Prakash, an expert and research director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, also stressed that both climate change and population growth pose significant challenges to water resources in India.
"Rising temperatures accelerate evaporation rates, depleting surface water and groundwater reserves. Altered precipitation patterns lead to unpredictable monsoons, causing floods in some areas and droughts in others. These extreme events reduce water availability, adversely affecting agricultural productivity, water supply, and overall economic stability," he said. To tackle these issues effectively, a comprehensive approach is required, he added.
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"India needs to implement sustainable water management practices, develop policies that promote efficient water use, and protect crucial ecosystems such as mangrove forests. Only through concerted efforts can India secure its water resources for future generations and ensure a resilient and sustainable water future," he said.
According to estimates by the UN, India's population is expected to increase for the next three decades before beginning to decrease.
Ashok Kumar, Director-Farm Prosperity at Transform Rural India, sheds light on the increased burden faced by women and young girls in rural areas due to water scarcity.
"As safe drinking water sources become scarce and are often situated far from dwellings, women and young girls are forced to undertake arduous journeys to fetch water. This situation leads to heightened drudgery and potential health risks as polluted water sources contribute to waterborne diseases. The impact is more severe in hilly and plateau regions due to limited water storage capacity," Kumar said.
He said livestock, a crucial source of income for rural households, faces reduced productivity as a result of water stress. Insufficient fodder availability, unclean drinking water, and unsanitary conditions increase parasite load and waterborne diseases among animals.
Livestock rearers, herders, shepherd families, and inland fishermen who rely on stressed water sources face significant challenges. Conflicts may arise between fishing and farming communities as they compete for access to water, Kumar said.
He further said that unpredictable yields in farming pose a major threat to smallholder farmers heavily reliant on rainfall for crop cultivation.
"The water stress caused by climate change leads to irregular yields, reduced incomes, and a subsequent decline in investment in agriculture. Farmers may resort to unsustainable practices such as mining groundwater from unreplenishable sources or engaging in water theft, further exacerbating the water scarcity issue. This situation ultimately drives farmers towards distress migration, leaving behind vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children in villages," he added.
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