R Srinivasan

Blowing up the future for the present

R Srinivasan | Updated on June 26, 2019 Published on June 26, 2019

India’s lack of a coherent policy on water may prove catastrophic with demand set to outstrip supply

“In India, where demands for freshwater are continuously growing, and where limited water resources are increasingly stressed by over-abstraction , pollution and climate change, neglecting the opportunities arising from improved water management is nothing less than unthinkable in the context of Indian economy.”

These are the ominous words with which the Central Water Commission begins a report (Reassessment of water availability in basins using space inputs,), released late last year. This would lead one to think that the powers that be are fully seized of the huge water crisis faced by India and, presumably, working day and night to resolve it.

One would be wrong. India is currently in the grip of one of the worst water crises in recent memory. About half the country is struggling with drought or near-drought conditions. Two successive years of poor and badly distributed (both spatially and temporally) monsoons means that water availability — either for agriculture or for drinking — is already a huge challenge.

Chennai, my home base, has already practically run out of water. Its water supply reservoirs are bone dry. Most of the population is now dependant on ground water or private or municipally supplied water from tankers, which in turn are extracting their water from all sorts of sources. Restaurants are shutting, malls are rationing water, the Chennai Metro has switched off air-conditioning in its stations and IT companies along Chennai’s IT corridor along the Old Mahabalipuram road are asking employees to work from home and bring their own paper plates for meals in a bid to conserve water.

Ad hoc solutions

But the policy response from the State and municipal administrations has been focused more on addressing the immediate crisis rather than attempt any kind of sustainable solution. The State government, after sniffily turning down Kerala’s offer of water supplies via rail, announced that it will be transporting 10 million litres a day by rail from Jolarpettai to Chennai for the next six months, by which time the rains will hopefully arrive and obviate the need for any hard decisions for the time being. And just to hedge bets, State Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar participated in a yagna for rain. And yes, a grandiose plan to put up more sea water desalinisation plants was announced.

But an affidavit filed by the State government, reported by India Today on June 21, shows the real state of affairs. Despite the devastating floods of 2015, and promises to restore Chennai’s water bodies thereafter, only five of Chennai’s 201 water bodies have been restored till now, while work is underway in some 50-odd more. But there has been no action on demand side management. Water-guzzling construction continues unabated, while rampant ground water extraction is leading to salt water incursion into the fresh water aquifers which are currently sustaining significant chunks of the city’s population. The Chennai story is being repeated in every major city in the country. According to the NITI Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) 21 large cities, including all of India’s metros and mini-metros, will hit zero groundwater levels by 2020. A decade after that, by 2030, the same report states that water demand will be double available supply.

India has about 2.4 per cent of the world’s landmass and only 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, while being home to nearly 18 per cent of the world’s population. And given its huge dependence on the monsoon to replenish its water resources, India is also likely to be one of the most severely impacted nations by climate change.

At the central level, at least, there is dawning awareness of the scale of the challenge. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his second term, has promised access to safe water for all within five years. To make this happen, he has also created a new omnibus ministry, Jal Shakti, to bring in a holistic approach to water management. While this is all commendable, the problem is that the Centre has little actual say over water, except in the case of inter-State rivers. Water is a State subject as per the Constitution, which means that the actual policies are devised by State governments and actually executed by local governments at the municipal, zilla or gram panchayat levels.

Which effectively means that there is little to no policy coherence and execution is fraught with inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement. There is also the issue of who actually owns the water. While the State controls all mineral resources, a primary natural resource like ground water is owned by whoever happens to be sitting on top of it. This has led to rampant and uncontrolled extraction, which is depleting underground water resources way faster than they are recharged.

Pricing woes

Pricing is another major issue. Although water is supposed to be priced at a level which at least makes the user aware of the costs involved in reaching that water to him, or, in the case of extraction, pricing of inputs such as electricity or diesel are done in such a way as to ascribe a realistic cost to the water, the reality is that no administration is willing to bell the cat.

In his preface to the report “Pricing of water in urban system in India” (2017), S Masood Hussain, then member of the Central Water Commission, admits “The present scenario is characterised by subsidised price structure, infrequent and hesitant water price revisions, no rate for agricultural water use in some of the states and no provision in the water rates for automatic revision on account of inflation.”

So that’s how things stand. We are running out of water.

Everybody knows we’re running out of water. But everybody is waiting for somebody to do something about it. Or for the rain gods to step in and help kick the can down the road.

Published on June 26, 2019
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