A couple of decades from now, all rivers in India will be contaminated. In just about one decade from now, 60% of all Indian aquifers will be at a critical stage; meaning more than half of the country’s underground water sources will be contaminated or reach a point beyond rejuvenation. Does this ring an alarm bell? It should, because even today half of India’s wells are showing ever reducing groundwater levels and half of India’s rivers are already contaminated. I don’t know any Indian town or rural centre which provides clean, drinking tap water throughout the day. Fall in water level percentage (2003 to 2013) for some of the states are:
Tamil Nadu: 76, Punjab: 72, Kerala: 71, Karnataka: 69, Meghalaya: 66, Haryana: 65 and West Bengal: 64.
And given the burgeoning middle class – consuming water at an unprecedented rate due to a more affluent lifestyle, an agriculture sector with inadequate water use efficiency as well as polluting sources with pesticides and an unregulated industrial sector with hazardous waste all flowing into both the surface and underground sources, the impending disaster is much closer than we can imagine.
The Green Revolution in India has led to the unfettered use of groundwater for agriculture. More than 80% of water in India is consumed by agriculture – with water utilisation capacity being less than 30%.
India is the highest consumer of groundwater, more than the US and China combined.
The cause of surface water pollution in India is largely due to the discharge of untreated domestic and industrial waste from urban centres. The dying river Yamuna, is a classic case of lax regulations and unchecked toxic waste from households and industries freely flowing into it- 515 million litres of sewage water is discharged every day. Similar is the trend across other river systems in India. Groundwater is being contaminated through domestic, industrial, mining as well as agricultural discharges. The falling water table has also forced deeper digging – leading to a high concentration of cancerous elements like Arsenic in the extracted water. Groundwater in 10 states is contaminated with Arsenic.
In short, there are two aspects to this crisis: exploitative extraction from both ground and surface water, and untreated waste flowing back to the source.
India is bracing itself for an extraordinary catastrophe with water wars not only between states but those spilling off to every aspect of the society. Farming will simply become unviable for most of the population, particularly the small landholders, who now form a bulk of the agricultural population. As these teeming millions swarm the cities in search of alternative livelihoods with little or no skills and opportunities, water crisis will snowball into one of the biggest social crisis. This will put extraordinary pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure, in terms of housing, food and water. Then, stands the question of food security in the country. Farmer suicides also point in the direction of water-exploited and depleted regions. In coastal areas of the country, sea water will make inroads into the depleting water table making them unviable to live. Urban centres with already polluted water bodies and depleted groundwater sources will crumble under pressure. The squabble for water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is well published. Similar situations are building up across the country with multiple states at loggerheads.
Water contamination has already triggered a health endemic in India. According to WaterAid report on “State of the World’s Water 2017”, around 37.7 million are affected by waterborne diseases annually, 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne diseases every year. Drinking contaminated water causes the death of 140,000 children every year in India. In rural India, 63.4 million people living in villages lack access to clean water, the highest in the world. In fact, 42% of urban Indians and 60% of rural Indians are getting contaminated water (2014).
Water crisis will be one of the biggest tests for India as a nation. There are no easy solutions on a plate here. For starters, urgent steps should be taken not to aggravate the situation further, and move towards some semblance of a consistent and long-term response to the issue. This will require a coherent water policy and data, as much as urban conservation and contamination management, along with initiatives in rural India. Exploitative water extraction, contamination, sanitation and hygiene, and climate change are all interwoven phenomenon and cannot be seen in silos. Let us look at some of the possible approaches to address this issue:
India has four central bodies regulating groundwater. Water supply and sanitation is the responsibility of the state under the constitution of India. There is the Central Pollution Control Board along with a plethora of other agencies, including the Ministry of Rural Development. Most of these agencies work without a coherent policy framework and with little coordination. The time is now for everyone to come together under a common framework of policies with a clear-cut demarcation of roles and responsibilities.
There is very little available data on the exact situation across the country. Ironically, despite so many agencies, there is no single database available in the country on groundwater. While the average rainfall data in India is available, there has been very little analysis on the patterns, the percolation across regions and run away loss. The average rainfall of India is 1190 mm per year. With an area of 3.287 million square kilometres, this effectively translates to a whopping 3.5 million cubic kilometres of water. Further conversion gives us about 7000 litres available per person per day in India. While this is a very simplistic calculation, it also underlines the fact that the potential for water availability is high and could pave the way for more sustainable use.
60 million people in urban areas lack access to decent sanitation, and two-thirds of wasted water flows out untreated into water bodies. While additional funding is needed to address this gap, new technological interventions can bring about a more rational approach to address the issue.
Small and medium scale industries numbering 3 million, under very little regulation or adherence to environmental norms directly pollute many water bodies. The other major sources of water contamination are large-scale industries and thermal power plants. Without technological upgradation of these industries and stricter norms, they will continue to be a major source of contamination.
Most Indian cities lose one-third of their water due to leakage or pilferage. Investment in infrastructure in a profit-driven model, checking petty thefts and urban water conservation efforts – should be the way forward.
There are several traditional practices of water conservation in India that have been put to the backburner. In fact, one of the first watershed practices in the world originated in Rajasthan – in the form of a network of earthen dams locally called the Paals. Johads in Bihar is another holistic approach to water conservation. Similar practices abound across the country, and it is imperative to integrate these with the investment of government on watershed development and conservation.
Several watershed models in programs like MGNREGS have evolved which tie economic security with efforts of conservation and farm security in rural India. Panchayats should be empowered with technicalities of watershed management so that a chunk of these funds is used to conserve water in villages. This will ultimately enhance soil productivity and improve agricultural production.
There is a direct link between sanitation and hygiene practices, and water contamination. Swatch Bharat Mission is a good start in this direction, but it will also require major infrastructure overhaul in terms of quality of toilets constructed, access of water in toilets and behavioural change in communities – if it is to change entrenched practices of open defecation in India.
Let us face it, India’s water exploitation will not go away with the current over-consumption of water in the agriculture sector which accounts for the major wastage. This calls for a 360-degree change in our cropping practices and technology including new ways of looking at the underground water which has become the private property of landowners today.
In the 21st century and in an inter-connected globe, the issue of water scarcity, erratic monsoons and periods of flood and drought cannot be comprehended without taking climate change into account. This will mean deeper cooperation at both state-level initiatives as well as international level.
The water crisis that India is facing will in many ways, define the future of the country in the coming decades. The situation is grim, but with proper policies in place and implementation, much change can be made in the right direction. Are we ready for policy discourse and a more meaningful engagement to resolve this issue? We really do not have a choice. The old Hindi adage never rang truer:
“Jal Hi Jeevan Hai”