Decades of the mismanagement of resources, a lack of awareness about the need for conserving fresh water, an absence of a well-thought-out water conservation policy, coupled with the menace of a population explosion and the public's general indifference towards keeping our rivers and lakes clean, have finally helped us create a fatal cocktail — one that could snuff the life out of the great Indian growth story.
According to the findings of the Composite Water Management Index published by the NITI Aayog on June 14, India is currently facing the "worst water crisis in its history". With about 60 crore people facing high to extreme water stress and about two lakh lives being lost every year due to inadequate access to safe water, this crisis only appears to be beginning.
#NITIAayog’s Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) analyses 9 broad sectors with 28 different indicators covering various aspects of ground water, restoration of water bodies, irrigation, farm practices, drinking water, policy and governance #WaterIndexhttps://t.co/RfdJl7aIhP pic.twitter.com/435JyyXECL— NITI Aayog (@NITIAayog) June 14, 2018
As the NITI Aayog report goes on to add, the crisis will only get worse in the coming days, because by 2030, India's water demand is projected to become twice the available supply, "implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people". With this, quite possibly, there will be more deaths and an "eventual 6 per cent loss in the country’s GDP".
Incidentally, 2030 happens to be the year by which the government plans to completely replace the current-generation petrol and diesel vehicles with an impressive fleet of all-electric cars, put over a billion of our citizens online and eliminate malaria, among achieving other feats.
As is obvious, even for a land of great contradictions such as ours, this dichotomy between our dreams and the reality staring us in the face cannot simply be chalked off as another hurdle that the collective Indian resolve will eventually overcome.
Dry dreams: There's no growth without water. Photo: NITI Aayog
Since the opening up of the economy in the early 1990s, India has shown steady growth.
However, in the last few years, there has been an increased effort to take the economy to the next level — even take on the might of superpowers such as China.
To achieve this, the government has rolled out many policies and even set lofty goals such as doubling the income of farmers in the next five years, increasing urbanisation and spurring growth in the IT and manufacturing industries to help drive the country's GDP past the 8 per cent mark.
However, none of this will be possible without first solving the water crisis we face.
Even the World Bank, in a report published earlier in the year, spoke about how India's grand plans of sustained 8 per cent plus growth are entirely dependent on how the country manages its scarce natural resources. "The fundamental constraint to India’s long-run growth is the scarcity of natural resources," the Bank's report said.
For a country like ours that's inching ever so close to a self-made disaster, it's important to take a deep breath (preferably with an air mask on) and for now, at least, stop worrying about becoming a global power and instead work towards ensuring our survival.
There is no doubt that economic growth and prosperity of ordinary citizens should be the priority of our government.
However, it is also true that the route to achieving such goals will only be through adopting technologies and formulating well-thought-out plans to help us improve the sustainability of our fresh water resources.
The pain of drought: Conserving water is not just a farmers' issue
And for those still choose to remain defiant, it will be prudent to understand that neither the farmer, nor the middle-class Indian living the city life will survive the economic fallout of the catastrophe that awaits us.
Water scarcity, which is causing great distress in rural areas and has already taken many lives in the form of drought, is fast becoming urban India’s number one problem. Twenty one cities, including Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad, are very close to running out of groundwater by 2020.
With the majority of the population expected to move to these bigger cities in the coming years in search of jobs and better wages, the inability of these cities to provide even fresh drinking water to their population will again hamper the Indian growth story. Glimpses of this dystopic future can already be seen in the biggest cities of our country.
Once known as India's "garden city" for its lush green parks, Bangalore was built around a series of lakes and had more than enough fresh water for its needs.
However, today, it's sadly in the news for traffic jams, tall buildings and the worst of all lakes overflowing with chemicals and other pollutants.
Bellandur Lake, Bangalore [Photo: PTI]
Need to conserve groundwater
With the situation already out of hand for many of the country's biggest urban centres, the need of the hour is to look towards our rural heartlands to take care of our water resources, especially groundwater reserves which are being increasingly mined for fuelling agricultural growth.
As it stands, India's critical groundwater resources — which account for 40 per cent of our water supply — are being depleted at unsustainable rates.
India is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, extracting twice as much as China. As this IndiaSpend report explains, in contrast to its more populous neighbour, India extracted 250 cubic kilometre of groundwater in 2010 — 1.2 times the capacity of the world’s biggest dam — of which 89 per cent was used for irrigation.
Photo: NITI Aayog
Although agriculture is an important contributor to the nation's economy and responsible for keeping the stomachs of more than a billion Indians full, it cannot be sustained in a way that is unviable for our groundwater resources.
But not all is lost.
If the NITI Aayog's Water Management Index is anything to go by, work has already started towards improving the situation. States like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh that have had to face severe drought in recent years seem to have learned from their problems — they have topped the NITI Aayog's composite water management index.
However, on the flip side, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Jharkhand, which form 50 per cent of the country’s population, are the worst performing ones. It is here that much more work needs to be done.
That too, before it is too late.