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9.1 crore Indians don’t have basic water supply. But India isn’t paying attention

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It is a widespread belief that the 21st century conflict will be over water. However, we do not give water scarcity the attention it deserves because most of us are fortunate enough to have enough access to water at reasonable pricing.

The price of water never represents its entire economic worth. Water is a necessity. Water is irreplaceable. However, in many places, water costs far less per gallon than oil. The 2030 World Resource Group, a public-private partnership hosted by the World Bank, believes that with rising population and current practices, the world will face a 40 per cent shortfall between forecast demand and available supply of water by 2030.

Home to over 1.3 billion people, Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) places India among the world’s 17 ‘extremely water-stressed countries’.

A report by UNICEF states that less than 50 per cent of India’s population has access to safely managed drinking water. Putting it into a global perspective, over 19 per cent of the world’s population without access to clean water live in India.

The figures are set to worsen over time with an increasing population, climate change-related adversities, and depleting clean water sources. According to the report by the World Bank in 2012, India is majorly dependent on water pumped from underground aquifers for most of its agricultural, industrial, and personal usage. More than 90 per cent of groundwater in India is used for agriculture. Less than 10 per cent of groundwater supplies drinking water to more than 85 per cent of the country’s population that depends on it. Conclusively, the over-reliance on groundwater makes it the most exploited natural resource as well.

India is staring at acute water scarcity in the coming future due to over-exploitation, leading to a substantial drop in groundwater levels across India. As per a Central Groundwater Board report in 2017, as many as 256 of 700 districts in India have reported critical or over-exploited groundwater levels. Apart from overpopulation causing increased demand, wastage and inefficient use are also leading causes of over-exploitation.

Also read: User fees, state-level regulators, fewer dams — what draft National Water Policy proposes

Crores face water stress

Climate change threatens the longevity of these sources. The unintended shift in monsoon patterns results in extended dry periods intermittent with short heavy rains within the monsoon season. As a result, the number of extreme rains has increased threefold across several parts of India. The brief spells of heavy rain are associated higher run-off water rate and poor groundwater retention. As a result, dams, ponds, reservoirs, and other water sources overflows during the monsoon and reach critical levels during dry months, leading to scarcity. In addition to that, it also leads to insufficient groundwater recharge due to a high run-off rate.

With 70 per cent of the water supply being contaminated due to untreated wastewater discharge, NITI Aayog’s 2018 report bluntly stated that at least 600 million people in India are under high or extreme water stress.

As depleting groundwater levels threatens India’s long-term water security, inefficient management, contamination, and outdated policies affect accessibility for millions. A joint report by WHO and UNICEF in 2019 found that 9.1 crore people in India are without basic supply. Events highlighting the severity of challenge to water accessibility were seen in 2019 when Chennai became one of the world’s first major cities to run out of water, trucking in 10 litres of water a day to hydrate its population. Another recurring instance of water shortage is witnessed almost every year in the national capital, Delhi. Visuals of citizens lining up for hours to fill water from water tankers have become a recurring affair affecting residents of Delhi.

However, stories from other parts of India, mainly villages and smaller cities, barely make the headlines. Many parts of the country witness people, particularly women walking miles to fetch water for daily use. It affects their health, quality of life. It serves as a roadblock to a life of prosperity for Indian women. It takes away a significant chunk of time to access something that is an essential commodity required to sustain a living.

A survey conducted by Gaon Connection in 2019 found out that 39.1 per cent of the women living in rural areas have to step out of their homes to fetch water, which is nothing but unfortunate and a colossal failure of governance.

Also read: How Chennai, one of the world’s wettest big cities, ran out of water

Farming and groundwater use

Geographical constraints or structural inefficiencies are not the only contributors to India’s water crisis; lack of political will and unabated exploitation has been an active contributor to it. Most of the efforts for water conservation through policies and reforms have taken place in the industrial and utility sector. However, the agricultural sector’s irrigation methods, responsible for more than 90 per cent of groundwater consumption, have been unregulated and inefficient for decades, which has barely caught the legislature’s attention.

The modern irrigation system, courtesy of the Green Revolution, was a game-changer for India’s agrarian economy. Favourable policies (mainly paddy), subsidies on irrigation and energy increased the food production output, making India self-sufficient in foodgrain production and a significant export of goods like wheat, rice, and sugar. However, the boost in foodgrain production came at the cost of overexploitation of groundwater, which left India’s paddy-producing belt (Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh) with abysmally depleted levels of groundwater as seen today. Moreover, the flood irrigation method widely practised in India has an applied efficiency of close to 50 per cent. In contrast, according to the National Water Mission, Ministry of Jal Shakti, India’s average irrigation efficiency is 38 per cent, which is very poor.

In addition to that, excess use of fertilisers and pesticides and untreated run-off water also led to contamination of water sources. Also, it degraded soil fertility and the environment of the region. The long-term impact of such practices has proven to be devastating for the region, which was once the most fertile land part of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Unchecked exploitation of resources and subsidies had several other negative impacts on the long-term sustainability of the sector. For example, electricity subsidies increase groundwater extraction, where the estimated elasticity is -0.13, and water-intensive crops, particularly rice, are grown.

More recent examples of unsustainable cropping patterns are seen in the water-scarce part of Maharashtra engaged in growing sugarcane. It is grown on 4 per cent of the state’s land but uses two-thirds of the water. It worsens since just 19 per cent of Maharashtra’s land is irrigated compared to 48 per cent for all-India.

If one wishes to understand the negative impact of unsustainable cropping, Maharashtra recorded 3,927 suicides in 2019, the highest in the country for that year despite several welfare schemes and loan waivers in 2017 by the state government (Financial Express).

Since Independence, agriculture has been a politically sensitive subject due to India’s experiences of some of the worst famines in history. Since the Green Revolution, subsidies and welfare schemes for the agricultural sector have been popular for politicians from across political lines. However, due to the sensitivity of the industry and the size of the vote bank, the legislature has been in policy paralysis when it comes to fixing the underlying structural problems that are hurting India’s long-term food security and environment. Urgent reforms and technological advancements are needed for better water utilisation and sustainable farming before it is too late.

Disclaimer: An edited version of this article has been originally published in Habit@ — 1st Edition, 2021. The official magazine of School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Anshuman Gupta is a student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views are personal.

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