The world is heading towards an unprecedented water catastrophe. A majority of the world’s water systems that keep the ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population have become stressed. According to NASA satellite data, about 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are running out too fast to be replenished; an additional 13 are declining at a faster rate.

More than half the world’s wetlands have disappeared, while some of the world’s major water bodies such as the Aral Sea, the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake and Lake Chad are disappearing at a faster pace. If the current patterns of consumption continue unabated, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages as a daily reality by 2025.

In its most recent data, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, 2014) has highlighted that 45 countries were experiencing water shortages of less than a thousand cubic metres per person a year. The UNICEF in its report, ‘Thirsting for a Future: Water and Children in a Changing Climate (2017)’ has predicted that within two decades, about 600 million children will be in regions enduring extreme water stress.

Water scarcity is becoming increasingly common all around the world, as country after country hits the limit of what it can use. The World Economic Forum has also ranked water crisis among its top three global risks in terms of impact since 2012. The WEF’s Global Risks Report (2017) has highlighted the World Bank’s forecasts that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050. As South Africa’s Cape Town is just few weeks away from becoming the first major city in the modern era to face the threat of running completely out of water, it is evident that water crisis is now a reality, not mere a warning.

Water in India

In India, a water crisis has been in the making for a long time, but the last three decades has seen this calamity reach epic proportions. The Global Runoff Data Centre, University of Hampshire and International Earth Science Information Networks have projected that around 30 per cent area of India falls in the extreme water-scarce zone, having less than 500 cubic metre per person of renewable freshwater supply.

A report by World Resources Institute (2015) reveals that about 54 per cent of the wells across India are decreasing at a faster pace and almost 600 million people are at higher risk of surface water supply disruptions.

According to a latest survey by the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB), the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka are in a worse state as far as ground water is concerned with decline rate much higher than the national average.

Given such an alarming situation, a World Bank report reveals that at least 21 Indian cities are moving towards zero groundwater level by 2020. If the present rate of groundwater depletion persists, India will only have 22 per cent of the present daily per capita water available in 2050, possibly forcing the country to import its water. What is to be blamed for such a precarious state?

Nature and water

Centuries of mismanagement of small water bodies is one of the prime reasons for a decline in water availability. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE, 2015) reports that Chennai had more than 600 small water bodies during 1980s, but now only a fraction of them could be found healthy. Bangalore had around 280 interlinked tanks during 1960s which is reduced to less than 80 at present.

Of the total 611 water bodies in New Delhi, around 274 have reportedly dried up and as many as 190 cannot be revived anymore. Rapid and unbridled urbanisation has led to these community resources into concrete structures and dumping grounds. The Standing Committee on Water Resources (2012-13) on “Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies” underlined in its 16th report that most of the water bodies in the country were encroached upon by municipalities and panchayats.

The frequent massive flooding and water logging within a span of few days of torrential rains in most of the urban cities is not due to climate change alone, but because of the destruction of such natural groundwater recharge mechanisms which otherwise would hold back some water and release the excess into the oceans.

Increased population pressure along with competing demand for water from different sectors (drinking, agriculture, industry and energy) also contributes to the decline in water availability. The data published by the Central Water Commission indicate that agriculture alone accounts for about 85 per cent of all water use, mostly drawn from groundwater.

This was also highlighted in the Standing Sub-Committee Report on Assessment of Availability and Requirement of Water for Diverse Uses in the Country (2000). The World Resources Institute (2018) in its latest findings has indicated that the freshwater consumption from the country’s thermal utilities grew by 43 per cent between 2011 and 2016 from 1.5 to 2.1 billion cubic metres a year. How are we going to manage this precious resource?

Rethink water management

Climate experts have predicted that there will be fewer rainy days but in those days it would rain more, increasing the chances of flooding. Creative and imaginative governance in the form of building larger storage dams which can store excess water in lesser time is the need of the hour. People should be sensitised about the judicious use of water and educated about water-retention dams and other conventional structures such as eari, bawli, talab, anict, dam etc. to store water.

The old practice of rainwater harvesting should also be popularised. Tamil Nadu has made mandatory installation of water harvesting structures in every house and this must be replicated in other States as well. Investing and promoting water-recycling, storm-water capturing technologies and micro-irrigation techniques in crop cultivation can also solve the problem of water scarcity.

The cost effective method of reviving the traditional small water bodies under the age old practice of Kudimaramath should be given top priority. As emphasised in this year’s theme on World Water Day by the UN, let us connect with nature to help rebalance the water cycle in a sustainable and cost-effective way by planting new forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains and restoring wetlands.

Narayanamoorthy is Professor and Head, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi. Alli is Senior Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Vellore Institute of Technology