Ways to reverse the severe water crisis

A Narayanamoorthy/P Alli | Updated on March 22, 2020

We should shift from a ‘supply-more water’ mindset, to improving efficiency of use (and reuse) and restoring water bodies

The message is loud and clear from different reports that the world is in a water crisis and climate change is making it worse, compounding the scarcity challenge. Much of the impact of climate change is being felt through changing patterns of water availability, with shrinking rivers and changing patterns of precipitation increasing the likelihood of drought and flood. Drawing the world's attention to this key global issue, the focus of World Water Day 2020 is on Water and Climate Change.

The world's major freshwater supplies located in Antarctica, Arctic and mountainous regions are shrinking at a faster pace. Inland glaciers and many large lakes are also receding almost everywhere around the world. According to the ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment Report: 2019’, the Himalayas could lose at least two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100 affecting the livelihood of about 250 million people who live in the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya region.

The World Resources Institute estimates that a quarter of the world's population live in countries facing extremely high water stress. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a joint monitoring report, 'Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Special Focus on Inequalities' (2019), observes that about two billion people around the world do not have access to safely managed drinking water services to drink.

According to a latest report by Water Aid (2019), despite the worsening water crisis, globally we use six times as much water today as we did 100 years ago and this figure is growing by about one per cent every year.

The drying up of reservoirs in Chennai in 2019, South Africa's Cape Town narrowly avoiding 'Day Zero' water shut off, and rationing of water in Rome to conserve scarce resources, further sends a clear signal that the water situation in the world today is in fact getting much worse with each passing day.

India’s water crisis

Being one of the largest water users per unit of GDP, India has about four per cent of the world’s freshwater resources and is endowed with innumerable small and large water bodies. The Central Water Commission in its report on 'Reassessment on Water Availability in India using Space Inputs' (2019) estimates that the annual utilisable water resources stands at 1,123 billion cubic metres (bcm) per year, of which the share of surface water and groundwater is estimated at 690 and 433 bcm respectively.

A total storage capacity of about 305 bcm has been created in the country through major and medium irrigation projects.

Despite such a robust backup of water resources, the Ministry of Water Resources (2017) has stated that the country is indeed water-stressed, with the average annual per capita water availability most likely to reduce to 1,341 cubic metres and 1,140 cubic metres in 2025 and 2050 respectively.

Last year, the NITI Aayog declared that the country is “suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat”. Severe water crisis has definitely arrived far earlier than predicted. What contributes to such a crisis?

Rainfall capture

India captures only about 8 per cent of its annual rainfall which is the lowest in the world. Had the traditional modes of water capturing in ponds, lakes and tanks not been lost to the demands of rising population and liberal implementation of town planning rules, then in years of heavy rainfall they would have protected against the risk of floods by allowing the surplus rainwater flow into it while in years of low rainfall, the stored water would have fulfilled the needs of all.

India is the largest user of groundwater worldwide pumping out about 25 per cent of all the groundwater extracted in the world, as reported by World Bank (2019).

As per the latest estimates of World Resources Institute (2019), groundwater tables in some northern aquifers have declined at a rate of more than eight centimetres per year from 1990-2014.

While the Central Water Commission in its report on 'Reassessment on Water Availability in India using Space Inputs' (2019) has pointed out that there are over 20 million wells pumping water, leading to dipping of the water table by about 0.4 metres every year. The World Bank has warned that if the current trends persist, about 60 per cent of the country's districts are likely to see groundwater tables fall to critical levels within two decades, placing at least 25 per cent of the country's agriculture at risk.

Much of the groundwater extracted is in fact used for agricultural purposes. As per the latest assessment of the Central Ground Water Board, out of 447 bcm of total replenishable groundwater available annually, 228 bcm is currently being used for irrigation, while 25 bcm is being used for domestic, drinking and industrial purposes.

Moreover, many multinational beverages and packaged drinking water companies in various States reportedly draw about six lakh litres of groundwater per day against the permissible limit of 2.4 lakh litres. It is also reported that an estimated 50 lakh litres of groundwater is extracted illegally on a daily basis by tanker mafia in most of the metropolitan cities.

The road ahead

Looking at the current situation, there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift. We urgently require a transition from this ‘supply-and-supply-more water’ provision to measures which lead towards improving water use efficiency, restoring local water bodies and reuse wherever possible.

It is time to go back and make rainwater harvesting mandatory across all States and incentivise those who implement rainwater harvesting structures. There is a huge potential in reusing and recycling wastewater at least for non-potable purposes, which would be cost effective. Extensive adoption of water-saving technologies such as micro-irrigation in crops cultivation, volumetric supply and appropriate pricing of water should be implemented strictly to check reckless exploitation of groundwater. Crops that consume less water but give more output should be promoted by incentive schemes.

People should be sensitised on the judicious use of water and a new legislation needs to be urgently enacted to make encroachments on water bodies a cognisable offence.

As urban flooding is becoming more common and more intense, India can very well emulate Japan’s efforts of building a massive underground tank beneath the city that stores floodwater and releases it later. Unless these climate resilient mechanisms are adopted at the earliest, creating a sustainable water future will remain a distant reality.

Narayanamoorthy is former Member (Official), CACP, and Alli is Senior Assistant Professor in Economics, Department of Social Sciences, Vellore Institute of Technology. The views are personal

Published on March 22, 2020

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