India’s Looming Drinking Water Crisis
Rajesh Singh

NITI Aayog has warned of a crisis that must make policymakers and the rest of us act now, and not later, because later could be too late. The danger the panel has spoken of has not been considered important enough for prime time television debates and, therefore, it is possibly out of the radar of most Indians who determine the importance of news based on how prominently it is raised in the electronic media. But the issue has the potential to trigger major social unrests across the country, since it relates to water.

The Aayog released the findings of a study that said India was facing its “worst’ drinking water crisis in history; that failure to take remedial measures now will result in demand outstripping supply many times over by 2030; that this would lead to a six per cent loss in the country’s Gross domestic Product by 2050; that groundwater resources which account for 40 per cent of the water supply, are being depleted at “unsustainable” levels; and that nearly 70 per cent of supply available is “contaminated”. The report titled, ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (CWMI), was released by Union Minister for Water Resources Nitin Gadkari this June, and is based on data collected by various independent agencies such as UNICEF and Food and Agricultural Organisation. It has chillingly observed that 40 per cent of the population will have no access to drinking water by 2030; and that 21 cities, including New Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2020 — this last scenario would impact nearly 100 million people. There is more bad news. Nearly 600 million Indians faced either high or extreme water stress. Almost two lakh people died every year due to inaccessibility t clean water.

The Aayog’s initiative is commendable. In a first of its kind index, it ranked all the States on the subject of water management, with nine broad parameters and 28 different indicators encompassing issues such as groundwater, irrigation, restoration of water bodies, drinking water and governance. Although it may sound satisfying that some States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura have done well on the listing, the fact also is that most States register a score of below 50 per cent and have a great deal of work to do to reach safe levels. The good part is that the index has at least provided a means to assess the ground situation and can assist in the creation of policies and programmes to reverse the looming crisis. There have been recent reminders of the problems ahead. In May, taps in Shimla, one of the country’s most popular summer resorts, went dry, triggering a crisis in the hill town. Residents had to wait for nearly four days to receive water; schools were shut for a week; and tourists were advised to stay away. Far away in the south, Bengaluru too faced water shortages; in fact, it has had the dubious distinction of joining Cape Town, Jakarta and Sao Paolo in being among the world’s select cities that are likely to run out of drinking water in the coming years.

The grim situation is ironical, given that India is blessed with a network of major and minor rivers and their numerous tributaries. It has seven major rivers and a number of tributaries from them, that make up the country’s river system. These rivers emerge from watersheds in the Aravalli range, the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, the Western Ghats, and the Vidhya range. Three river basins — Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra — are fed by the Himalayan glaciers. Nearly a thousand glaciers sustain the Ganga alone. The country receives an annual rainfall of close to 1200 millimetres. Thus, India is not a water-scarce nation. By any reckoning, therefore, it should not have been facing a drinking water crisis. Apparently, something went terribly wrong in the decades gone by.

The reasons are not difficult to seek. Policymakers over the decades, as also lay citizens, have taken water availability for granted, despite having surely known the basic information that only two per cent of earth’s water is fresh, and that nearly two per cent of that fresh water is contained in glaciers and polar ice caps — thus effectively out of reach of the common citizen. However, while the availability of water has remained restricted, the need has been growing manifold. Consider the following statistics: India has 16 per cent of the world’s population but possesses just four per cent of the world’s fresh water. India’s use of groundwater is approximately one-fourth of the global usage — its consumption is more than that of the US and China combined. Indeed, China with a larger population uses 25 per cent less groundwater than India.

Then there is a lack of proper water management strategy at the national level which has result in perceptibly unfair distribution of water to States. That is why, notwithstanding the generous network of major and minor rivers criss-crossing the country, various States are at daggers drawn with one another for access to river waters. At any given point of time, water dispute tribunals are working overtime to settle disagreements between States. When that fails — as it has often done — the matter reaches the Supreme Court. But on occasions, neither the courts nor the tribunals have been able to settle amicably. Besides, a solution becomes even more difficult because politics and regional sentiments come into play.

Given that not all the available water is used for drinking purpose and that a good part of it is channeled for irrigation, it becomes imperative that what is available is optimally utilised. Here comes another problem: Not all water that is available minus irrigation (which consumes nearly 80 per cent of available water) needs is fit for consumption, because it is contaminated. A Water Aid report in 2016 had ranked India among the worst countries in the world for the number of people having access to safe drinking water. Some 76 million people were without safe potable water.

Despite efforts made by Governments over the years — and the incumbent regime in the last four years through various new initiatives such as the Rs 20,000-crore Namami Gange project— the fact of our major river waters remaining highly polluted has not changed drastically. The Ganga, for instance, flows through 11 States and provides water to nearly 500 million people. And yet, large parts of the river remain highly contaminated. In fact, the water of the river in many parts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is completely unfit for drinking purpose because it is choked with industrial waste and dead bodies floating all over. According to some official figures, nearly 500 million litres of wastewater from industrial sources is let into the Ganga each day.

To makes matters worse, groundwater sources have been tested for high levels of arsenic in many regions that exist in the Ganga-Brahmaputra belt. According to findings of a survey done by the International Journal of Preventive Medicine a couple of years ago, nearly 16 districts of Bihar were reported to have been affected by arsenic poisoning as a result of groundwater pollution. At least three districts of Uttar Pradesh too were found to have been impacted severely by high arsenic poisoning in groundwater. The instance of arsenic poisoning is triggered by overdrawing of groundwater through a surfeit of hand pumps, tube-wells etc. spread across the Gangetic belt. With the water-table plunging in summer, oxygen reaches into the aquifers and causes oxidation of arsenic-rich iron sulphide in soil sediments. The end result is that once the water is recharged, it gets contaminated since the entire aquifer has already been polluted with arsenic.

The problems are there for all to see, and the solutions too ought to be at least easy to identify — if not to implement. But the country is at a crossroads; non-implementation of those solutions, however formidable the task may be, is no longer an option. Waste water treatment and recycling, for instance, needs a boost across the country. Housing societies must be encouraged through Government incentives to engage in rainwater harvesting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his recent visit to Israel, was witness to how saline water is treated to make it potable. And, of course, the project of cleaning rivers needs to proceed with increased vigour.

(The writer is a senior freelance commentator and public affairs analyst.)

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