Explained: Nine Ways India Mismanages Its Water, And The Way Forward

by Tushar Gupta - Jun 26, 2019 10:54 AM +05:30 IST
Explained: Nine Ways India Mismanages Its Water, And The Way ForwardAn aerial shot of a water body
  • India is now aiming at becoming a $5 trillion economy.

    For that to happen, due importance must be given to water preservation and its disciplined use.

    Thus far, state governments have been callous towards vital resources, and that is bad strategy.

As Chennai ran out of water earlier this month, over a billion people across the country contemplated on whether the present condition of the city was mirroring their future. In Chennai, schools had to be shut and employees were advised to work from their homes, for not many public or commercial spaces could ensure a regular supply of water.

This is not the first Indian summer when a story like this has emerged. In 2018, Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh, found itself in a water crisis. Hotel bookings had to be cancelled, tourist inflow had to be regulated, and the local industry suffered. Even then, the city barely had the capacity to meet its water demands.

Water, as a commodity, is indispensable to the population. Scarcity of water has a direct impact on the economy, as witnessed in Shimla and Chennai, and can have a far more serious impact on rural livelihoods, given 800 million Indians reside in villages.

The equation is fairly simple when it comes to water. A nation, in this case, India, can go for a billion Aadhar cards, over 350 million bank accounts, a digitised economy, millions of gas cylinders in villages, and countless toilets, and yet, it could stare at a complete socio-economic collapse if it fails to manage its water resources.

Some Crude Numbers

According to the Composite Water Management Index released by the Niti Aayog in June 2018, as many as 600 million people or more than 45 per cent of India’s population suffers from water scarcity that can be classified somewhere between high and extreme.

Each year, over 200,000 people die due to lack of access to safe water, an equivalent of one-third of Sikkim's population.

As per the report, over 70 per cent of water available in India is contaminated. 75 per cent of the households were without readily accessible drinking water while 84 per cent of the rural households lacked pipe water access.

The water supply and demand in 2008 stood at 650 BCM (billion cubic metres) and 634 BCM respectively. By 2030, the supply will increase to 744 BCM while the demand shall see a hundred per cent increase and will be around 1,500 BCM.

To make matters worse, we do not have enough data to gauge the reality of groundwater in India. Given there are over 12 million wells in the country, the present data-sample covers only 55,000 or 0.45 per cent of the total wells in the country. For all we know, we may well be overestimating our groundwater reserves.

The Underlying Force Behind Water Scarcity

The water crisis may be attributed to a number of factors, starting with climate change, population increase, urban stress, growth in rural industries, and so on. However, the biggest reason is the mismanagement of water resources, especially in the farming sector.

Given the lack of understanding amongst the population, especially farmers, water is seen as an expendable resource. Agriculture constitutes over 80 per cent of the water consumed in India, and it is here where the major problems lie.

The other challenges also stem from the limited coverage, falsified and unreliable data, and the lack of coordination amongst the governing agencies from the local to the central level. Year after year, the agencies fail to represent a clear picture of water scarcity in the country, and hence, states continue to lose critical time.

As per the projections in 2018, as many as 21 major cities shall start running out of groundwater, starting next year (is Chennai a year ahead?), and the collective impact of this erosion would be on 8 per cent of India’s population. Given these major cities are thriving commercial hubs, the projected loss to the economy is yet to be quantified.

To offer a picture on water resource management in India, the Niti Aayog came up with the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI). The index focusses on efficient water governance and effective resolutions pertaining to water management. The macro trends are discussed across nine broad themes. Each theme carries a score between 5 and 15, and together, the nine themes are used to mark a state out of 100.

When it came to water resource management, Gujarat was the most successful state in India with a score of 76, followed by Madhya Pradesh (69), Andhra Pradesh (68), and Karnataka (56). Meghalaya and Uttarakhand were ranked at the bottom with a score of 26.

However, there is a macro reality that transcends these scores and portrays the origins of India’s water crisis.

One: Restoration of Water Bodies

Water bodies like lakes, ponds, and tanks are critical to the local needs in rural areas.

If the area irrigated by restored water bodies against the total irrigation potential of the restored water bodies is taken into account, the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Sikkim are the worst performing, scoring 1 or less on a scale of 5.

Together, these states constitute around 39 crore people, 37.7 per cent of the total agricultural output, and get 35.8 per cent of the total national rainfall. For a region that gets one-third of the rainfall in the country, it has squandered away an opportunity to make the best use of water bodies.

If states and districts continue to lose lakes, ponds, and other water bodies, it will directly impact the rural industry and would also facilitate greater migration resulting in urban stress.

Two: Recharging Groundwater Resources

If the water crisis has to be averted, recharging of groundwater resources is indispensable.

When it comes to states which have worked towards recharging groundwater structures at critical levels, have facilitated an increase in the water table for these structures, and have established a regulatory framework for the management of groundwater resources, the situation is somewhat grim.

Over 54 per cent of India’s groundwater wells are declining in level due to extraction exceeding recharge rates. Overall, less than 15 states have a regulatory framework to manage their groundwater resources. This is where major cities shall find a big challenge, starting next year.

Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, and Maharashtra have fared poorly on this front, scoring less than 7.5 on a scale of 15.

Together, these states constitute over 60 crore people and close to 50 per cent of the area with groundwater. If these states fail to arrest the depleting levels of groundwater resources, we could have a Chennai-like situation in two to four cities each year, with other cities barely surviving.

There are two major issues when it comes to groundwater resources.

One, their falling levels, and two, their contamination due to the excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals during farming. Together, these states constitute over 60 per cent of the total agricultural output, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting for 23 per cent of the national output. Given the lack of literacy and heavy dependence on pesticides, groundwater contamination is a major issue.

Also, there is a lack of availability when it comes to data for other states, though most states claim to have no overexploited groundwater resources. However, even with such alarming numbers, the actual groundwater situation could be far more worse.

Three: Utilisation and Maintenance of Irrigation Systems

Given how agriculture consumes 80 per cent of the water resources, proper irrigation systems are necessary to keep the water levels in check. For irrigation systems to be utilised well, it is imperative that the existing water resources are made available through greater connectivity, especially for the last-mile. If used well, the existing irrigation systems can negate the need for having new ones.

Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Bihar, Punjab, Assam, and Himachal Pradesh have fared poorly on this front, scoring less than 7.5 on the scale of 15.

The situation is alarming, given that together, these states have over 2,700 large dams. Maharashtra alone has over 2,000 of those, of the total 5,700 large dams in the country.

Together these states make up for over 60 per cent of the total national agricultural output. Thus, a mismanaged irrigation system in these states could spell doom not only for agriculture but also for other water resources.

Four: Management and Restoration of Watershed Units

Water is perceived as an infinite commodity, and therefore, there is little or no effort towards the maintenance of water harvesting structures.

With data intelligence coming into play in the next decade, the state and local agencies will have to work towards creating structures that can lessen the dependency of farmers and other local needs on rainfall. This could help our farming sector become resilient against climate change. Also, it could enable the storage of water from unprecedented spells of rainfall.

The situation, for now, on this front, warrants improvement. On a scale of 10, many states fail to reach even the halfway mark. These include Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Telangana, Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Assam, and Nagaland.

Together, these states make up for 47.1 crore people, receive over 43 per cent of the total national rainfall, and make up for one-third of the total agricultural output. Given the amount of rainfall, watershed management in these states can go a long way in lessening the dependency on seasonal rainfall.

For governments, central or local, this is where the first plan of action must be implemented against an imminent water crisis.

Five: Community Irrigation Practices

The average landholding of an agricultural household in India is less than 1.1 hectare, and therefore, community irrigation practices are indispensable. The size of over 87 per cent of the landholdings in India is less than 2 hectares, and therefore, having community irrigation practices not only helps in the preservation of water assets like ponds, lakes, and groundwater reserves but also ensures its efficient use.

However, not many states are working actively on this front. Punjab (possibly due to large landholdings), Haryana, Kerala, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim are faltering.

Together, these states receive close to 50 per cent of the total rainfall in India, cover over 48 per cent of the total area with groundwater reserves and make up for half of the country’s total agricultural production.

Thus, a collective breakdown or failure of community irrigation practices could have an adverse impact in these states and could aggravate the already alarming groundwater situation.

Six: Sustainable Farming Practices

With agriculture amounting to 80 per cent of the water demand in India, there can be no future without the adoption of sustainable farming practices.

The consequences of the lack of planning on this front are many. Firstly, agriculture would suffer as sooner or later, the groundwater reserves shall run out. Two, food security will be at risk as the farming sector faces acute water shortage.

For now, the situation is alarming. Sixteen states are failing to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. These include Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Goa, Bihar, Telangana, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Uttarakhand, Assam, and Himachal Pradesh. None of these states has scored beyond 5 out of 10 on Niti Aayog’s CWMI.

Together, these states cover more than 64 per cent of the groundwater area and constitute over 60 per cent of the total agricultural output. Thus, a failure on this front could spell trouble for food security and could hamper the export industry as well.

Seven: Drinking Water in Rural Areas

If the first tenure of Narendra Modi was about getting toilets and LPG cylinders in rural areas, the second tenure must be about getting drinking water to these villages.

India’s rural population is 800 million, that is 2.5 times that of the United States of America, and almost equal to that of Europe. Therefore, getting water to rural India is a big challenge, perhaps bigger than helping 500 million people with insured healthcare.

Also, with 200,000 people dying each year in India due to contaminated water supply, the quality of drinking water also remains an unsolved problem.

As per the CWMI, only the states of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Gujarat, Tripura, and Sikkim score highly on this front.

The remaining states have a lot of ground to cover in terms of drinking water in rural areas, and together, those states constitute a population two-thirds of India’s population with over 82 Crore people.

Eight: Urban Water Management

India’s urban population shall see an upward trend across the 2020s, and therefore, planning for new and existing cities and towns must take into account the supply of water and the treatment of wastewater.

While most urban areas have access to water for basic use, there has not been a significant improvement in the treatment of wastewater.

Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Goa, Nagaland, Assam, Uttarakhand, and Tripura languish on the bottom half of the index when it comes to urban water management. Together, these states constitute over 58 Crore people.

The consequences of not treating urban wastewater are many. Firstly, the untreated water flows into the rivers, thus contaminating the entire stretch downstream resulting in water-borne diseases and harm to marine life. Two, it leaves no room for reusing water which it could ease the stress on water resources.

Nine: Policy and Governance

Water, being a subject under the state list, is the final responsibility of the states itself. Thus, the role of the Centre, even with all the statistics and figures, is advisory in nature.

Niti Aayog’s CWMI also ranks states on the basis of policies implemented to regulate water resources.

When it comes to policy and governance, four areas are covered. One, legislation for protection and restoration of water bodies. Two, guidelines for water harvesting structures in buildings. Three, pricing of water in urban areas, and lastly, the existence of regular affirmation of integrated data of water for the state.

Policymaking by the states is critical to the first eight macro factors discussed. In the absence of validated data from districts, cities, towns, and villages, policymaking shall suffer.

Fortunately, most states are moving in the right direction with the exception of Odisha, Haryana, Assam, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. Together, these states host one-tenth of India’s population.

Final Word:

The states, going forward, will have to follow the Gujarat model for water resource management. Given Gujarat ranks the highest on the CWMI and is not alien to drought-like situations, its work with water governance should inspire policymaking in other states.

The nine macro factors must be viewed as variables of a single equation. Change in even one variable will spark chaos across the values of all other variables. Similarly, if a state does not invest in water harvesting, sustainable farm practices, or community irrigation programmes, the stress will fall upon groundwater reserves and local water bodies.

For India to hit the $5 trillion economy mark in the next 10 years, averting the water crisis will be important. Policymaking must start with farmers and gradually address all the issues on a local level, rural and urban.

Yesterday, it was Shimla. Today, it is Chennai. Tomorrow, it ‘will’ be any or all cities.

This article is the first in a multi-part series on Indias water crisis.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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