Imminent Water Crisis in India Part 1 of 2

Posted on October 6, 2009

Anshul Tewari

“There will be constant competition over water, between farming families and urban dwellers, environmental conservationists and industrialists, minorities living off natural resources and entrepreneurs seeking to commodify the resources base for commercial gain”
-UNICEF report on Indian water.

More than two billion people worldwide live in regions facing water scarcity and in India this is a particularly acute crisis. Millions of Indians currently lack access to clean drinking water, and the situation is only getting worse. India’s demand for water is growing at an alarming rate. India currently has the world’s second largest population, which is expected to overtake China’s by 2050 when it reaches a staggering 1.6 billion, putting increase strain on water resources as the number of people grows. A rapidly growing economy and a large agricultural sector stretch India’s supply of water even thinner. Meanwhile, India’s supply of water is rapidly dwindling due primarily to mismanagement of water resources, although over-pumping and pollution are also significant contributors. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem by causing erratic and unpredictable weather, which could drastically diminish the supply of water coming from rainfall and glaciers. As demand for potable water starts to outstrip supply by increasing amounts in coming years, India will face a slew of subsequent problems, such as food shortages, intrastate, and international conflict.

India’s water crisis is predominantly a manmade problem. India’s climate is not particularly dry, nor is it lacking in rivers and groundwater. Extremely poor management, unclear laws, government corruption, and industrial and human waste have caused this water supply crunch and rendered what water is available practically useless due to the huge quantity of pollution. In managing water resources, the Indian government must balance competing demands between urban and rural, rich and poor, the economy and the environment. However, because people have triggered this crisis, by changing their actions they have the power to prevent water scarcity from devastating India’s population, agriculture, and economy. This paper is an overview of the issues surrounding India’s water scarcity: demand and supply, management, pollution, impact of climate change, and solutions the Indian government is considering.

In 2006 between the domestic, agricultural, and industrial sectors, India used approximately 829 billion cubic meters of water every year, which is approximately the size of Lake Erie. By 2050 demand is expected to double and consequently exceed the 1.4 trillion cubic meters of supply.

Surface water and groundwater are the sources of India’s water supply. Other sources, such as desalination, are negligible because they are not cost effective.The main rivers, the Ganges, Bramhaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Indus, Narmada, and Tapti, flow into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. India receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic meters of rainfall every year. Unfortunately, only 48% of rainfall ends up in India’s rivers. Due to lack of storage and crumbling infrastructure, only 18% can be utilized. Rainfall is confined to the monsoon season, June through September, when India gets, on average, 75% of its total annual precipitation. Once again, due to India’s storage crunch the government is unable to store surplus water for the dry season. Such uneven seasonal distribution of rainfall has not stimulated the development of better capturing and storing infrastructure, making water scarcity an unnecessary yet critical problem.

Groundwater is the major source of drinking water in both urban and rural India. It is also an important source of water for the agricultural and the industrial sectors. India possesses about 432 bcm of groundwater replenished yearly from rain and river drainage, but only 395 bcm are utilizable. Of that 395 bcm, 82% goes to irrigation and agricultural purposes, while only 18% is divided between domestic and industrial. Total static groundwater available is approximately 10,812 bcm.

Climate change also has an effect on rainfall patterns, but, how it will affect them is still uncertain. Nonetheless, scientists agree that climate change will ultimately make rainfall more erratic and cause unpredictable weather.

The tragedy of India’s water scarcity is that the crisis could have been largely avoided with better water management practices. There has been a distinct lack of attention to water legislation, water conservation, efficiency in water use, water recycling, and infrastructure. Historically water has been viewed as an unlimited resource that did not need to be managed as a scarce commodity or provided as a basic human right. These attitudes are changing in India; there is a growing desire for decentralized management developing, which would allow local municipalities to control water as best needed for their particular region.

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