Water Crisis in India – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

India has 17% of the world’s population, but possesses only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. Further, the country is facing a water crisis due to climate change, rising water pollution levels, and other critical factors responsible for depleting water resources.

This created numerous problems for the Indian masses, which are going to rise in the future if water wastage is not stopped. But the good news is that people have woken up to the reality of this crisis, and there are now several projects aimed at rejuvenating rivers and recharging aquifers.

What is the current status of the water crisis?

In the 75 years since Independence, the annual per capita availability of water has declined by 75% – from 6,042 cubic meters in 1947 to 1,486 cubic meters in 2021.

India is facing multidimensional challenges like depletion of groundwater together with pollution of surface water, and also vanishing water bodies – ponds, lakes, tanks, wetlands.

For instance, provisional data from the country’s first census of water bodies show 2% of water bodies i.e. 18,691 of 9. 45 lakh water bodies, have been encroached. The number is likely to be much higher because figures from states like UP, Maharashtra, Karnataka, MP, and Rajasthan are still not in.

According to the most recent Central Ground Water Board data, as many as 256 of 700 districts in India have reported ‘critical’ or ‘over-exploited’ groundwater levels.

No one had seen water tankers in Punjab before, but now they are a common sight. Things have come to such a pass that people are being forced to buy water, sometimes even unpurified water.

What are the reasons behind water crisis?

Discharge of Pollutants: There is the discharge of industrial chemicals and sewage into the rivers. It is happening due to a lack of compliance with environmental rules by the industry and a dearth of sewage treatment plants in cities.

Further, improper mining activities also pollute the nearby aquifers and deplete water quality.

Encroachment: There is an encroachment of water bodies to meet the infrastructure needs of burgeoning populations. Lakes and small ponds often get destroyed while making townships and industrial complexes.

Climate Change: The rising temperatures have reduced water levels in many rivers. It has further made the monsoon more erratic in nature, which is making rain-fed agriculture a difficult task.

Wastage of Water: Water is being wasted and overused due to the excessive subsidies coupled with a lack of awareness among the masses. This is seen in the states of Punjab and Haryana where a high degree of water usage in agriculture has dramatically pushed down the groundwater levels.

Indiscriminate use of water for irrigation and the absence of conservation efforts have left, over 10% of water bodies in rural areas, redundant.

Cropping patterns: The Green Revolution helped India become self-reliant in food grain production, but it also triggered the water crisis. For instance, farmers in Punjab switched to water-intensive paddy cultivation, and things have gone downhill ever since.

Policy-related issues: The national water policy is very irrigation-centric. Ever since independence, water governance has suffered from hydro-schizophrenia. The issue of water (Surface water, groundwater) has been governed by different departments independently, without any coordination. For example; the Central Water Commission (CWC and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).

What would be the adverse consequences of water crisis?

Health Problems: Heavy chemicals like fluoride, chloride, and nitrate are found in water, and in some districts, there were even traces of uranium. Kids have developed deformities due to water contamination. The hair of children has started greying prematurely, and many have teeth and skin-related problems.

Economic Loss: Water is a critical component that is used in almost every economic activity, either directly or indirectly. Water scarcity, aggravated by climate change, could cost some regions up to 6% of their GDP, according to a World Bank report. 

Greater Hardships of women: The household work is mainly managed by women in our country. A shortage of water means they have to stand in long queues of water tankers or travel long distances to get clean water for their families. A rural woman in Rajasthan walks over 2.5 kilometers to reach a water source, according to a report by the National Commission for Women.

Since men in rural India have completely made women responsible for water management, this has led to polygamy in one drought-prone village in Maharashtra. This involves having more than one spouse to collect water. The arrangement is termed as ‘water wives’

Biodiversity Loss: A reduction in the number of lakes or excessive discharge of pollutants in them is causing the loss of pristine flora and fauna. Many plants and animals are now on the verge of extinction due to the rising Biological Oxygen demand of water bodies.

Food Security: Polluted groundwater and erratic monsoon are leading to greater hardships for carrying out agricultural activities. The lower the Agri output, the greater would be the threat to India’s food security.   

Inter-State Conflicts: Inter-State river conflicts are going on Kaveri, Krishna, Godavari, etc. Rivers. This would get amplified, and new conflicts may emerge in the future. 

Must Read: What India is doing to tackle its water crisis?
What steps have already been taken?

Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA): It was started in 2019 as a movement for water conservation, recharge, and rainwater harvesting in 256 water-stressed districts. The JSA now covers all 740 districts in the country. States are implementing it, while the Centre provides the nudge.

Amrit Sarovars: The Centre has decided to build 50,000 water bodies (Amrit Sarovar), with an approximate area of one acre, across the country by August 15 next year to conserve water.

Atal Bhujal Yojana: The programme is expected to lay emphasis on the recharge of groundwater resources and better exploitation of the groundwater resources.

The scheme also seeks to strengthen the institutional framework and bring about behavioral changes at the community level for sustainable groundwater resource management.

Paani Bachao, Paisa Kamao (Save Water, Earn Money): It is a scheme of the Punjab Government that incentivizes farmers to reduce groundwater and electricity usage. Around 300 enrolled farmers were given cash incentives to save electricity used for irrigation. This has resulted in water savings of between 6 and 25 percent without any adverse effect on the yield.

Ganga Rejuvenation: The World Bank has been supporting the Government of India’s efforts to rejuvenate the Ganga River since 2011. Two World Bank projects, worth $1 billion, are helping set up the institutions needed to manage the river and build the infrastructure to keep it clean.

Jal Shakti ministry: The formation of the Jal Shakti ministry is an important first step in the direction of overcoming hydro-schizophrenia. It will bring the irrigation and drinking water departments, together, within one ministry.

What more should be done?

First, the focus should be on enumerating, geo-tagging, and making an inventory of all existing water bodies on priority under the JSA so that encroachment can be prevented.

Second, the states must forward and cooperate based on Hydrological boundaries rather than merely on administrative boundaries to tackle the water crisis. This will help in better management of water and reduce inter-state water conflicts.

Third, the masses need to be sensitized by taking support of public-spirited individuals like Rajendra Singh (Waterman of India).  He built thousands of “Johad” (percolation ponds) for the revival of rivers in the Rajasthan Desert. He won the Stockholm water prize for water, river, and forest conservation.

Fourth, the government should also renegotiate international treaties like the Indus Water Treaty 1960 which were made decades ago and don’t reflect the changing needs and realities of contemporary times. 

Lastly, improving the water governance in India. The CWC and CGWB should be merged, and their capacities greatly expanded to form a brand new National Water Commission (NWC). It will improve the coordination and different sources of water would get the required expertise.

Conclusion

The government needs to augment its efforts toward water conservation and sensitize the masses about the depleting nature of water across the world. Efforts in this regard must be made on a war footing keeping in mind that ‘Jal hi Jeevan hai’ i.e Water is Life.

Sources: Times of India (Articles 1, Articles 2), Down To Earth, World Bank

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