A water faucet juxtaposed against a parched field. Photo: iStock / Getty Images

A water crisis of epic proportions looms as taps run dry across urban and rural India. In some parts of the country, private companies are asking their employees to work from home since they have run out of water.

However, even as most parts of India reel under an unprecedented water shortage, the Indian government has dismissed the concern as the result of “media hype.”

Water power minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, while addressing a press conference on June 17, asserted that the reports of the water crisis are exaggerated. ”In Himachal and other areas, there is enough water in the dams and reservoirs. The water crisis is not as bad as the hype created by the media,” he said.

Shekhawat’s comment came on a day when water in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district claimed the life of a 45-year-old woman, who fell into a well while searching for water.

An analysis of the water levels in 91 reservoirs across India as of June 15 showed that in 85 of them, the water level is below 40% of the capacity and in 65 it is below 20%.  Only two out of 17 dams in Maharashtra hold more than 25% of water capacity. Seven are at 0%. Similarly the Ukai dam, which supplies water to Gujarat’s Surat city, holds only 3% of its capacity. And with a cyclone drifting away from the Gujarat coast, the slow pace of the monsoon has raised concerns.

Meanwhile, private information technology companies in the city of Chennai, the capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, have asked their employees to work from home until the firms figure out ways to mange the water scarcity.

While Chennai has some desalination plants along the sea coast, it is nowhere close to coping with the scarcity.  Malls have started rationing water and restaurants have cut short their business hours. Securing water has been a point of contention for many in the city and even led to violent clashes and the death of an activist.

The crisis is by no means limited to Chennai.

The central government last month issued a “drought advisory” to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, asking them to use water judiciously.

The advisory was issued after water storage in dams dropped to a “critical” level. The water reservoir levels in all states of the Southern and Western regions are significantly lower than the 10-year average — which is considered the “normal” level.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat, is also facing a severe water crisis; 96 of the state’s 250 tehsils [administrative areas] in 17 districts have been declared drought-affected or scarcity-hit.

The Narmada River, largest west-flowing river of the country, also known as “lifeline of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh,” has gone so dry that pilgrims going to Vadodra district parked their cars in the river-bed. With little or no water released from the upstream Sardar Sarovar dam, the perennial river that once had an expanse of 300 meters is now reduced to a 6-meter stream.

Bengaluru, Karnataka’s tech-hub, also faces acute water shortage. Urbanization at massive levels, poor water management, severely frothed lakes and rapid pollution have led to reduced groundwater levels. Those are falling so fast that the federal government in 2018 predicted there would be no groundwater left below the city, at levels possible to reach, by the end of 2020.

Catchments have degraded and reservoirs are drying up but the government seems to be ill-equipped to manage the water crisis.

Asia Times spoke with Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, who said that there is lack of sufficient understanding and effort to realize the situation and take steps. ”Monsoon brings 70 to 80% water and state government should be in a position to use it. Chennai is facing such scarcity but the situation at the end of July 2018 was that all reservoirs were full but then they started to release water. This happened because the catchments have degraded and so the water that falls, quickly ends up in the river. We need a system to harvest rainwater, store it , recharge it, slow its pace.”

India is an agrarian economy and production of grains requires a lot of  water. As with all countries with large agricultural output, excess water consumption for food production depletes the overall water table. But experts say that wrong cropping pattern also contributes to water crisis.

Shripad Dharmadhikari, founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra told Asia Times that the the state and central governments’ priority right now should be reserving drinking and domestic use of water. He said, ”India’s cropping pattern needs to change. Wrong use of water in agriculture can have a big impact and can use excess amount of water. Growing commodities which require a lot of water, like sugarcane in Maharashtra and rice in Punjab are examples. We need to adversely rethink this.”

The acute water crisis has not only devastated crops, but has also ruined families due to farmer suicides, which have doubled in the last four years. The Vidarbha region in Maharashtra recorded the highest number of suicides at 5,214 in the same time period followed by the drought- affected Aurangabad division, also known as Marathwada, with 4,699. In Punjab too, crushing debts and crop failure have driven thousands of farmers to end their lives. This crisis has only deepened.

In many rural areas clean drinking water has run out and there is not enough to wash clothes, clean dishes or flush the toilet. Contaminated water and diseases are on the rise and many people suffer from dehydration. Rural women have to travel far, usually on foot, to collect water from neighboring villages, and once there they often must stand in extremely long queues. The India’s farmer is struggling to survive.

Up north,  India’s hill stations, too, are suffering from depleting water resources due to “tourist aggression.” The severe water crisis, pollution from traffic in cars, construction of new hotels and other development have clogged many “must-visit” places in the hills.

In 2018, #StopVisitingShimla went viral on Twitter as residents struggled with the water crisis in Himachal Pradesh’s popular hill station. The summer capital during the British Raj and the most visited hill station during summers, Shimla’s finds its ecosystem under serious threat.

Over and above the resident population of 172,000, around 100,000 tourists visit the place every summer, thus putting pressure on the already scarce water resources in the region. In Shimla, the price of a 20-rupee water bottle went up to 100 rupees last summer. Inadequate rainfall during summers, a non-updated water network, lack of water conservation measures and confrontations between government departments over supply of potable water has put the Shimla on a map of cities facing water crisis.

In November 2018, a Supreme Court-appointed committee to monitor tourist flow through Mussoorie’s, a hill station in Uttarakhand, discovered that the town received only 7.60 million liters daily against its peak summer demand of  14.5 MLD. Mussoorie, Nainital and Ranikhet have no provisions for water conservation. The water tanker business, which depends on groundwater, has flourished in such places. But an unregulated use of groundwater could have adverse implications, including an impact on freshwater springs, which are a major water source in all Himalayan states.

The excess of tourists adds to the burden of such hill stations but since many are dependent on the tourism industry for their survival, the traffic cannot be discouraged.

Sustainable tourism – in which the tourism industry is committed to making a low impact on the environment and local culture while helping to generate future employment for local people – may be one way to help combat an impending water crisis but that would require intervention by the residents.

Thakkar said inclusion of locals in governance is important. ”Change in governance and mindset is the need of the hour. Local people need to have a role in governance of the water sector. If this is done then every city will be able to find a range of solutions best suited for them.”

As temperatures rise across north, west and south India, the increase in the overall monsoon rainfall deficiency  to 43% is worrisome. deliver about 70% of India’s annual rainfall and are the lifeline of its US$2.5 trillion economy. Delayed rainfall can create havoc for the largely rain-fed economy. Even as 55% of the gross cropped area is under rain-fed farming, India’s water policy remains inadequate.

Deterioration of wetlands, encroachment, non-maintenance of drainage systems, groundwater overuse and the destruction of natural resources can have a permanent impact on India’s water level and can leave it with no fallback mechanism.

Niti Aayog, a governmental think tank’s 2018 report, stated that 21 Indian cities – including the national capital New Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai – are expected to run out of groundwater by as soon as 2020.

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