As the world observes Water Day on March 22, the discourse on the challenges posed by unsustainable water use and its degradation across the globe continues to gather momentum with each passing year. Most of the world’s water systems that keep the ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population are under severe stress.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in its report, Global Wetland Outlook: State of World's Wetlands and their Services to People (2018), makes an alarming observation that up to 87 per cent of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. The analysis of satellite data of NASA underlines that half of the earth’s 37 largest aquifers are running too fast to be replenished and an additional 13 are declining at a faster rate.

It is indeed a matter of serious concern, considering the fact that India draws about a third of world’s water from aquifers.

Shrinking availability

Given such an alarming state of our water resources, the United Nations in its World Water Development Report 2018 has highlighted that the global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years and continues to grow at a rate of one per cent per year. Competitive demand for water from various sectors has resulted in water scarcity that is affecting almost every part of the world.

The World Bank in its latest report has underlined that the Ganga River Basin could see drinking water shortage go up by as much as 39 per cent in some States by 2040. A recent study (2016) from the University of Twente, Netherlands, warns that two-third of the global population lives with severe water scarcity for at least one month every year and nearly half of those people live in India and China. What is more worrying is the caution given by the World Bank in its latest report, High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy (2016), that countries that lack a sufficient amount of water could see their GDPs decline by as much as six per cent by 2050.

The water crisis in India is more dire than imagined. The annual per capita availability of water continues to decline sharply from about 5,177 cubic metres in 1951 to about 1,720 cubic metres in 2019. The NITI Aayog in its report on Composite Water Management Index (2018) has underlined that currently 600 million people face high to extreme water stress, about two lakh die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, about three-fourths of the household do not get drinking water at their premise and about 70 per cent of water is contaminated.

The rate of groundwater extraction is so severe that NASA’s findings suggest that India's water table is declining alarmingly at a rate of about 0.3 metres per year. At this rate of depletion, India will have only 22 per cent of the present daily per capita water available in 2050, possibly forcing the country to import water. How are we going to provide water for all?

Small water bodies

Although dams serve the purpose of supplying water for irrigation and drinking, the potential available for construction of new big dams is fast declining. The total irrigation potential created from major, medium and minor irrigation schemes has increased from 22.6 million hectares during the pre-Plan period to about 113 million hectares now.

About 81 per cent of India’s ultimate irrigation potential, estimated at 140 million hectares, has already been created and thus the scope for further expansion of irrigation infrastructure on a large scale is limited. Some estimates suggest that constructing major irrigation projects will require huge cost in future than in the past. There are also equity concerns about the major and medium irrigation projects.

The World Bank, in its report India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future (2006) , had outlined that dams in India have the capacity to store only about 30 days of rainfall, compared with 900 days in major river basins in arid areas of developed countries. Hence, more efforts need to be taken to develop water infrastructure in a decentralised manner by shifting the focus to cost-effective methods.

Small water bodies (mainly tanks) are less capital-intensive, user-friendly with fewer environmental problems and augment groundwater resources through sub-surface recharge.

However, most small water bodies have been encroached and subject to centuries of neglect and mismanagement. The Standing Committee on Water Resources on “Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies” highlighted in its 16th report that out of 5.56 lakh tanks in the country, only 4.71 lakh tanks are in use.

Tamil Nadu alone has a total of about 41,127 tanks, most of which are in bad shape today because of poor maintenance. Climate experts have predicted that there will be fewer rainy days in the future but in those days it would rain more. Therefore, it is essential to renovate and restore the capacity of small water bodies to have decentralised water distribution system.

The way forward

The corrective measures that we need to take are not only in the areas of storage, but also in efficiency in managing supply, demand and use. The agricultural sector consumes over 85 per cent of the available water today in India, and there is enormous scope to save water here through improved efficiency.

Shifting cropping pattern from water-intensive to less water consuming crops can save significant amount of water. Micro-irrigation method (drip and sprinkler) of rice cultivation promises to enhance water use efficiency with increased crop productivity. Rainwater harvesting is one of the cheapest and easiest ways of augmenting water stock. Investing and promoting water-recycling technologies and storm water capturing schemes should also be given utmost emphasis. The proposed water conservation fee on groundwater extraction is definitely a right step in the direction of regulating water use.

If these practices are not adopted, not only will water interventions fail to reach those most in need, but we will also fail in realising the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda of providing water for all by 2030.

Narayanamoorthy is Member (Official), Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, New Delhi, and Alli is Senior Assistant Professor in Economics, Vellore Institute of Technology. The views expressed are personal.