A Hindu devotee carries water from the River Ganges in Kolkata on April 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters
A Hindu devotee carries water from the River Ganges in Kolkata on April 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a historic visit to Israel recently, the two countries put pen to paper on a bilateral memorandum of understanding on water conservation collaboration. Its main substance was an Israeli-backed water conservation campaign in India.

In India, polluted and dried-up rivers, poor storage infrastructure, contaminated groundwater and shrinking aquifers – to name but a handful of problems – have turned the country’s water woes into a hydra-headed monster. With 76 million people – approximately 5% of the country’s total population – living without access to safe drinking water, many experts believe India faces a looming internal water war that will jeopardize all of its ambitious developmental projects, from “Make in India” to building smart cities.

Arjun Thapan, the current chairman of Unesco’s International Hydrological Program Advisory Board and also of the pan-Asian non-profit WaterLinks, says the World Economic Forum’s 2030 Water Resources Group first predicted, way back in 2010, that demand for water would exceed supply by 50% in India by 2030. “The forecast was based on a study, made by McKinsey and others, of demand-supply variation across India’s major river basins and levels of efficiency in supply and consumption, relative to economic growth,” says Thapan, who chaired the WEF’s global council on water security at the time.    

A looming crisis

India has the world’s highest number of people without access to clean water, according to the international charity Water Aid. This imposes a major burden on some of the country’s poorest people, who are forced either to buy water at high rates or use supplies contaminated with sewage or harmful chemicals.

The crisis has also spilled over to industry, which is struggling to reduce its water footprint. As India’s leading policy research organization, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), estimates, a threefold rise in water requirements in the industrial sector by 2050 is likely to mean India will lose competitive advantage simply because of a lack of water.

“India is already in the throes of a very serious water crisis,” Thapan asserts, warning that the country’s industrial sector remains inefficient in its water use. Inadequate water supply for energy production also leads to temporary power-plant shutdowns, with consequences for industrial productivity. Climate change, meanwhile, has been blamed for water shortages for hydropower generation.

“India is so large, complicated and diverse that simple answers do not exist”

Urban areas have seen a 50% reduction in treated water, losing up to an annualized 4 billion cubic meters. The agricultural sector, which sustains 60-70% of the population directly or indirectly, draws up to 87% of accessible fresh water but is said to waste more than half of that.

Moreover, a spike in “unguided automatic irrigation” has led to steady depletion in groundwater tables. According to estimates from the Indian Water Resources Ministry, approximately 58% of the country’s annually replenishable groundwater resources have already been exploited. As the government admits, India’s per capita water availability is falling progressively.

The way forward

As India grapples with a potentially unmanageable water crisis, what are the options available before New Delhi to combat a situation that may gravely imperil the country’s growth trajectory? Will launching a conservation campaign and improving water governance be enough for India to tackle water scarcity or is there a need to enact radical statutes to manage available water resources more efficiently?

“India is so large, complicated and diverse that simple answers do not exist,” feels Uri Shani, a former director general of Israel’s Water Authority, who presided over a revolution in supplying, managing, reusing and pricing water in Israel. He advocates three principles – conservation; efficient use; and possible exploration of external sources – on which a smart Indian water-use policy should be based.

While highlighting the importance of public awareness and participation in water conservation – Israel has successfully used television advertisements and educational programs, right down to kindergarten level – Shani puts special emphasis on integration of knowledge, resources and technology for incentivizing water efficiency. Pricing is one aspect that Shani feels can help underline the preciousness of water, motivate saving and fund new projects, although he doubts whether this can be easily replicated in an Indian context.

Thapan, on the other hand, believes improved delivery of water services is feasible within existing structures and frameworks and hence producing more legislation, without getting existing laws to work, is unnecessary.  

A new paradigm

“Efficiency in abstraction, supply and use has to be India’s new water paradigm,” says Thapan. Promoting holistic water-risk-management analytics to determine and limit the impact of water shortages on business investment and continuity, introducing technology for less water-intensive farming, encouraging micro-irrigation, and more community-based groundwater management are all steps in the right direction. India’s water administrators, he believes, have many solutions available to them. Whether the country has the imagination or willingness to enact them remains to be seen.

Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist.

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