In Retrospect


India is facing the worst water crisis in its history, and 21 cities are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020 – continuous conversation on finding a solution at all levels is mandatory

Under the scorching sun, as the visitors' line grew longer outside a water-park in Delhi-NCR, Chennai witnessed one of the worst water crisis of the decade. According to reports, drought has also intensified in Maharashtra with just 18.51 per cent live storage left in dams, 8.5 lakh livestock in fodder camps and 12,000 villages and hamlets depending on water tankers.

Amid the ongoing dispute on climate change, air pollution, destruction of ecology and air pollution, the inequality in the terms of the access of water and the acute water crisis increased in India over the last decade. Water activists raised the issue of water inequality and water crisis at times. Droughts did made headlines but then with the arrival of monsoon, all conversations on water crisis are washed away – an accustomed picture of discussions on water crisis in India.

The beginning of 2019 witnessed one of the deadliest droughts in Maharashtra followed by the one in Chennai. Since then, water crisis in India has been knocking the door of political parties seeking attention. In the recently concluded elections, both the national political parties put this particular issue on their election manifesto. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP government formed the new government they made a separate ministry named as "Jal Shakti" to look into the water-related issues of India.

The Big Picture

According to recent reports, nearly 330 million people are drought affected – approximately the quarter of India's population.

One of the major reason behind water crisis is due to decreasing rainfall in the country. Since last year, most of the southern and western states of India witnessed below average rainfall. Climate change, air pollution and destruction of green cover are other major reasons behind the decrease in the rainfall. "We must not say that water crisis is only connected with rainfall but as rainfall is the major natural source of water, the decrease of rainfall definitely affects the whole situation," said a senior India Meteorological Department (IMD) official.

On January 16, IMD released a statement on climate in India during 2018. The report observed that rainfall in the last monsoon has been substantially below normal. This was the case for both North-East monsoon and South-West monsoon. The report noted that the North-West monsoon was only 56 per cent of the long term average – a record sixth lowest since 1901.

The report showed that there has also been a significant decline in the pre-monsoon rain. The cumulative rainfall departure was noted as minus 24 per cent.

Rainfall is an external factor and the agriculture in India has become very rainfall dependent, therefore, decreasing rainfall is not only causing water crisis but also farm crisis across India.

According to experts and various reports, the most important reason behind water crisis is the depletion of groundwater level. In 2018, NITI Aayog published a report entitled Composite Water Management Index. The report observed that 21 major cities including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad would run out of groundwater by 2020.

"The report clearly shows that the condition of groundwater has reached the danger mark. Unplanned groundwater extraction should be stopped immediately in the major metro cities. The water distribution in India is very unequal. At the posh areas urban areas you will get ample amount of water but at the same time the slums, unauthorised colonies and the villages are mostly dependent on water tankers," said a water activist.

Another important aspect of water crisis is the depletion of water level at the water reservoirs and dams. After the water crisis in Chennai, it was noted that all the major reservoirs of the Tamil Nadu which includes Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Red Hills and Cholavaram, have a negligible amount of water. These are the only sources of water the city has and hence the water crisis could not be avoided.

Similarly, the recent report published by the Central Water Commission which monitors the water storage of 91 reservoirs across India, observed that the live storage currently is 27.265 billion cubic meter which is just 17 per cent of the live storage capacity of these reservoirs.

According to the report published by South Asian Drought Monitor in India, 44 per cent of the areas is facing a drought-like situation whereas 11 per cent areas are severely dry.

The most drought-affected areas are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.

"Looking at the current situation, there is a need for a paradigm shift. We urgently require a transition from this 'supply-and-supply-more water' provision to measures which lead towards improving water use efficiency, reducing leakages, recharging/restoring local waterbodies as well as applying for higher tariffs and ownership by various stakeholders," wrote Mahreen Matto, the Programme Manager, Water Management at the Centre for Science and Environment, in an article.

Matto added that it is high time to go back and start using our traditional practice of rainwater harvesting. "Another aspect is the treatment and reuse of waste water. About 80 per cent of the water that reaches households, leaves as waste. There is a huge potential in reusing and recycling this treated waste water at least for non-potable purposes, which is cost-effective," wrote Mahreen Matto.

Major causes

There are various reasons behind the water crisis in India but the major reasons are: over exploitation of groundwater, unequal distribution and availability, wastage, loss of wetlands and water bodies and law regulating groundwater.

On the other hand, a section of experts blames Indian agriculture and animal husbandry as one of the primary reasons behind the water crisis. "India is a bigger exporter of water than far better-endowed countries such as Brazil, Russia, U.S. and Canada, and represents nearly four times the 25 billion cubic meters consumed

by India's households and industrial enterprises," observed David Fickling, a noted columnist. He added that most of that comes down to the fact that India's largest agricultural exports are rice and cotton – both being water extensive.

Fickling observed," There's no scarcity of these crops in global terms. India blocks rice imports with tariffs and

typically sends about 10 per cent of its crop overseas. That puts the country on par with Thailand as the biggest exporter and contributes to a worldwide glut of rice, expected to hit a record 172 million metric tons in the 2020 crop year.

Cotton prices have fallen 20 per cent over the past year, with a global stockpile equivalent to about 60 per cent of consumption."

Despite the alarming situation, there is little attention and political discourse over water crisis in India. Access to water is uneven in India. While a section of the urban crowd enjoys 24x7 water supply for 365 days, there are villages where people dig deeper every day in search of water. To bring an end to shortage of water in India, it is not only the various administrations which needs to be more aware and active but also the consumers, farmers, industrialists and scientists should work collectively. It is high time that we as individuals play our part in conserving the elixir of life for generations to come.

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