Growing water scarcity is now being recognised as an important problem facing India, and the recent statistics in this regard are mind-boggling. By 2030, the government expects demand for water to be twice the level of supply. Demand outstripping supply could equate to a loss of 6% in India’s GDP over the course of the time period. It appears that we are on the verge of an acute water crisis.
The sectors that contribute most to the economy are also excessively water-dependent. For example, irrigation consumes 90% of India’s water supply. Currently, the total utilisable water resource of the country is 1,123 billion cubic meters (BCM), which includes 690 BCM of surface water and 433 BCM of ground-water. The demand situation is useful to note here. While the increase in population continues to put pressure on per capita water availability, a depleting water table makes the situation critical. The annual extraction of groundwater in India amounts to over 250 BCM, one of the highest in the world.
Moreover, issues like saline water intrusion in coastal areas and deteriorating water quality further curtail the availability of potable water. While 81% of rural habitations are currently estimated to have access to 40 liters of water per capita per day, the coverage is only 47% when estimated with 55 liters of water per capita per day. Just about 18% of rural households in India have connections to piped water supply, which the government hopes to remedy by reaching all rural households by 2024. It is, thus, a huge challenge in an already resource-limited country to meet the various water needs of the people, especially those who already lack access to clean water.
The recent formation of the Jal Shakti Ministry by integrating the ministries of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is a positive first step. The new ministry has tasked a Jal Shakti Abhiyan (a mission-mode campaign for water conversation and security) with supply augmentation methods like water conservation through rainwater harvesting, storage and reuse wherever possible, developing infrastructure for collection and basic treatment of domestic non-faecal water to recycle for agriculture use in 1,592 water-stressed blocks identified in 256 districts.
But, in spite of a new policy vision, the approach remains lopsided. We cannot hope to address India’s water problems by trying to endlessly increase supply. We need to recognise the multi-dimensional nature of the current water crisis–managing surface and groundwater, tackling demand-side management issues and improving water use efficiency.
Our water-use planning must take an integrated view of the water-cycle from source to distribution, economic use, treatment, recycling, reuse, and return to the environment, and thus, planning has to happen from every river basin and watershed onwards. For example, the Cauvery conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is unlikely to be resolved till primary water users such as farmers, the industry, and local communities understand that the demands they are placing on limited water resources are unsustainable.
What are the routes to address challenges? I look at two such ways.
First, is to decentralise water, and let communities take ownership. In the present day, a chronic issue for water supply systems is not only the quantum of water to be supplied but it’s quality and equitable supply to all. Out of approximately 18 crore rural households in India, only 3 crore households have individual household connections, not to mention the quality of water supplied within or across habitations in the country. As a result, the poor often have to spend a great deal of time and money to obtain clean water. Thus, we must focus not only on the augmentation of the water supply but also on managing the supply of clean water for all.
There are important lessons to be learned from the community-owned water supply system (Swajal model) in Gujarat. Community groups who wanted better water supply were supported by the Gram Panchayat to build and run their own water supply schemes. They followed the best practices of decentralised planning for water conservation to increase the water table and revive local water bodies. They tapped upper layers of water, built new systems to draw water from numerous springs, streams, rivers, and lakes.
While beneficiaries paid 10% of the total capital expenditure, the Gram Panchayat paid 15% and the rest was borne by the state. The communities ensured adequate, regular water supply to beneficiaries by determining the quantum and duration of water supply, and levied charges to meet their operation and maintenance expenses, including installing water meters to curb excess consumption.
The decentralisation of water resources, i.e. management and supply of water resources, by those who primarily depend on them (communities) can ensure equitable supply of water. What has worked in the Swajal model is the fact that users have been willing to, and are able to, pay for the water service, once they were convinced that the water would be ‘theirs’ to share. This made the program self-reliant and sustainable.
A similar concept can be up-scaled wherein Pani Samitis (water committees) can be constituted under local bodies and made responsible to plan, implement, manage, operate and maintain their own water supply systems. State governments must take the lead in strengthening these Samitis, ensure that equitable representation from all sections of the community, including women, is met, and empower them to be able to shoulder their responsibilities effectively.
The second critical area is reforms in irrigation techniques and changes in cropping patterns. While drinking water is a major priority for the Union government, India’s usage of fresh water for irrigation accounts for among the highest in the world at 688 billion m3. Therefore, any serious effort towards water management in the country should also focus on the management of irrigation.
Over the years, India has witnessed a major shift in the source of irrigation. The share of canal-irrigated areas in the net-irrigated area has declined from 39.8% in 1950-51 to 23.6% in 2012-13. During the same period, the share of groundwater sources in the net irrigated area has increased from 28.7% to more than double, at 62.4%.
It is the over-exploitation of groundwater resources that has become a contributing factor to India’s water crisis. A good example to tackle this is seen in some states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh who have rapidly increased agricultural land under micro-irrigation sprinkles and drips. In its recent state budget, the Andhra Pradesh government has prioritised water efficiency in agriculture, by earmarking ₹11,000 crores to bring 40 lakh acres of land under micro-irrigation systems over the next five years.
But even more important is a radical transformation in cropping patterns. Groundwater is used to cultivate some of the most water-intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane in water-stressed regions of India. For example, Punjab, which is the largest producer of rice, depends on groundwater. A kilogram of the grain consumes 3,500 liters of water. Moreover, state procurement policy and subsidised electricity make it profitable for Punjab farmers to produce rice, whereas, farmers in states like Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam, which are better endowed in terms of rainfall, lack these incentives.
The story is similar for sugarcane, another water-guzzling crop, in Maharashtra. Farmers in the state cultivate sugarcane using groundwater because they are assured of marketing by the sugar mills, whereas Bihar, which is more suitable for the production of sugarcane, produces less than 5% of the country’s total sugarcane output.
Therefore, state governments should encourage the cultivation of less water-intensive crops like pulses, millets, and oilseeds in water-stressed regions through changes in the public procurement policies, and incentivise farmers in water-rich areas.
Understanding and acting on the demand for water is a key step in addressing India’s water scarcity issues. It is now for the government to upscale its efforts by introducing appropriate measures. A community-driven, decentralised water management system can be such a step. The realigning of cropping patterns and irrigation systems with respect to water availability should also be adopted, otherwise, we might be left with little choice on the sustainability of water supply.
With inputs from Avani Kapur and Avantika Shrivastava.