What efforts and innovative solutions are needed to avert the impending water crisis
India Today Editor-in-Chief looks at the massive government spending and innovative solutions needed to avert the impending catastrophe of severe water stress, in the March 29, 2021 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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Water is life. The human body needs it and the food we consume needs water to grow too. It is, of course, required for many other purposes of modern life, like sanitation. In ancient times, human habitation was built around a secure supply of water.
These days, its supply is often taken for granted as though it were endless. This is a silent crisis brewing in many parts of the world. As we approach the 75th anniversary of our Independence, the failure to supply clean potable water to most of its citizens is one of the biggest failures of the Indian state. A 2019 survey by the rural newspaper Gaon Connection showed just how bad the situation is — 39.1 per cent of Indian women, the study discovered, have to step out of their homes to fetch water.
India Today Magazine March 29, 2021 cover, The Great Thirst.
Sixteen per cent of the women surveyed in 19 Indian states said they walked between one and five kilometres twice a day to get water. Imagine the number of hours millions of these women must be spending each day for what we in the cities get at the twist of a knob. Think of the opportunity costs — the time they could have gainfully spent on education, employment or looking after their families. How a country that has sent satellites to Mars has been unable thus far to provide all its billion-plus people access to clean drinking water continues to be a monumental human tragedy. Close to 70 per cent of Indians do not have piped drinking water. And distribution is only part of the problem. India is fast running out of water.
The future looks bleak for a country that accounts for 18 per cent of the Earth’s population but has only 4 per cent of the available freshwater. With an increasing population and insufficient surface water, the crisis is only likely to worsen. India’s per capita water availability has shrunk from 5,000 cubic metres 50 years ago to 1,500 cubic metres today. The problem, as the Union minister for Jal Shakti, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, tells us in an interview, is “really, really very big”.
By 2050, 30 Indian cities will face ‘grave water risk’, says a 2020 World Wide Fund for Nature study. The reasons are not far to seek. Our cities, among the most densely populated in the world, are growing faster than civic authorities’ ability to provide basic civic infrastructure, which includes potable water. In June 2019, Chennai, India’s sixth most populated metropolis, faced an acute water crisis when all four of its major reservoirs dried up after the monsoons’ delayed onset.
Many Indians have been driven to extraordinary extremes to access this most precious natural resource. The Jal Shakti ministry estimates that India extracts 253 billion cubic metres of groundwater each year — equivalent to sucking out 250 Dal Lakes. India accounts for a fourth of the world’s groundwater extraction, causing severe stress in several parts of the country. Yet, it is never enough. India’s water story is one of acute mismanagement, the inability to trap and store water from plentiful rains or use it frugally. Parts of the country are flood-hit while others are bone dry. Thirty per cent of India lives in critically water-stressed areas. In a double whammy, nearly 89 per cent of groundwater is extracted for agriculture and goes towards growing water-guzzling crops like paddy, sugarcane and cotton. This is because we are yet to embrace micro-irrigation methods like drip irrigation and have one of the world’s worst agricultural productivity rates.
Recognising the seriousness of the crisis, this government has, under the ‘Har Ghar Nal Se Jal (water from taps in every household)’ aspect of the Jal Jeevan Mission, set itself the ambitious target of providing annually 30 million new households with tap water. The Modi government has allocated Rs 3.6 lakh crore for the task and high-end technology is being injected to monitor progress. Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa has anchored a special issue, ‘The Great Thirst’, on this subject, which saw correspondents fanning out across the country to track the mission’s progress. We were pleasantly surprised to discover how communities have turned water warriors, finding innovative solutions to an issue critical to their lives.
Our team visited the water-scarce Natwargadh village near Ahmedabad, which we put on our magazine’s cover in 2003. The village is now awash with water, thanks to the Narmada canal, which brought water here in 2018. Other innovative solutions harness technology to monitor water. Another significant change is community participation in water distribution projects. Chengappa visited a Pani Samiti in Gujarat where women operate the entire water distribution network. There are micro-irrigation schemes such as drip irrigation, and frugal technology — building bunds — or major projects like the one in Gujarat where the state government has channelled the Narmada to bring water and prosperity to its arid regions. There are double bonus schemes, too, like the one in Maharashtra where the state has de-silted thousands of dams to revitalise them and then distributed the nutrient-rich silt for free among villagers for agriculture. The Centre’s Jal Jeevan Mission promises piped drinking water for 127 million rural households by 2024. The transformative potential of this one scheme is staggering.
However, the key to all these initiatives is sustainability.
Water and climate change, as a 2020 UN study points out, are intrinsically linked. The report says that floods could cost South Asia as much as $215 billion (Rs 15.6 lakh crore) each year by 2030, contaminating water sources, destroying water points and sanitation facilities, and challenging universal access to sustainable water and sanitation facilities. A far bigger challenge we face is from consumption — estimates suggest that if we continue to consume water at our current rate, India will have only half the water it needs by 2030. A major crisis is just nine years away.
If we don’t make the right efforts and choices, you can be sure disputes, protests, unrest, controversies and even war can erupt over water. It will be the new oil if it isn’t already.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘The Great Thirst’, for March 29, 2021)