Water Stress In India

Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Index Report

According to Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Index Report, India is experiencing a very significant water challenge. 

  • About three-fourth of the households in the country do not have drinking water at their premise. About 82% of rural households in India do not have individual piped water supply.
  • With nearly 70% of water sources being contaminated, India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.
  • Average per capita water availability, which is already low enough for India to be categorized as water stressed, is expected to reduce further by 2050, close to the official water scarcity threshold. 
  • Estimates suggest ~INR 20,00,000 crores in investments are required to bridge the expected water supply gap by 2030.
  • Almost around 2 lakh people die in India due to lack of access to drinking water. 21 Indian Cities are set to reach ground zero. 
  • By 2030, India’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity and a ~6% loss in the country’s GDP.

Structural challenges in water management in India

  • Limited water availability: India has 4% of world’s freshwater resources. While, we have 17% of world’s population & 17% of world’s livestock population.
  • Monsoon dependence: Much of India’s precipitation is concentrated in the months of June, July, August & September (Monsoon months). This means that during the other months water needs must be fulfilled by storing water that comes down in monsoons season.

Other challenges in water management in India

  • Climate change is expected to increase the complexity around water due to changing patterns, intensity of precipitation, changes in discharge of rivers.
  • Crisis of water
    • Falling Groundwater levels: Groundwater accounts for 90% of India’s irrigation needs. Average depth at which groundwater is available has fallen from 7.5 metres in 1998 to 9.2 metres in 2018. In Punjab, groundwater level has fallen by more than 10 metres in this period, while in Madhya Pradesh this level has fallen by 5 meters.
    • Water quality concerns – More than half of the rivers in India are highly pollutant with numerous others at levels considered unsafe by modern standards. According to a World bank report, 21% of communicable diseases are linked to unsafe water.
    • High unmet need for water: If the current pattern of demand continues, about half of the national demand for water will remain unmet by 2030.
  • In-efficient water usage:
    • Water guzzling agriculture sector: Agriculture sector consumes most water in India. Water use efficiency is very low in India, with most farmers still practicing flood irrigation and planting water guzzling crops such as sugarcane and rice even in water stressed areas of Maharashtra and Punjab respectively. This unsustainable cropping trend has led to deepening of water crisis due to the following reasons:
      • Incentives such as free-power or subsidized power, which makes it very cheap to exploit groundwater resources endlessly.
      • Minimum support prices give assurance of income to farmers. MSPs are skewed towards Rice, Wheat and Sugarcane in India.
      • Open-ended procurement of these water intensive crops by state agencies.
    • India’s industrial water footprint is one of the highest in the world. 
    • Wastage of water in activities such as vehicle washing, flushing etc. in urban areas.
    • Cities lose a lot of water in the piping and supply leakages.
    • Export of virtual water: Despite water scarcity, India has turned into a virtual water exporter as India exports water-intensive crops such as rice, sugar etc.
  • Supply side interventions no longer working:
    • The country is running out of sites for further construction of large dams. Also, water stored in dams fails to reach farmers. 
    • Water tables and groundwater quality are falling in many areas.
  • Water governance: Water resource management is fragmented and inadequate. Water issue fall in the State list of the constitution. States often lack effective capacity and focus on water issues, especially poorer states. Also, at the Central level, water issues are broken between Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board, this stops in treating water issues in an integrated manner.
  • Water user fees: Some states currently have fixed user charges for water (for ex. UP, Maharashtra, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh), but they are too nominal and inadequate compared to the expenditure incurred in providing the service. The water user fees are not revised regularly. Farmers not willing to pay the fee leads to steady deterioration of public irrigation infrastructure and impacts the quality of services.

Issues with Water Scarcity

  • Social & political risks: Depleting access to clean water impacts food security and health and can cause social unrest and political instability.
  • Threats to urbanization: Urban hubs are likely to witness severe water shortages in the future, which could risk urban growth in India and reduce quality of life for urban citizens.
  • Risk to sustainable industrial activity: Water shortages can hamper industrial operations and other economic activity. As the water crisis worsens, production capacity utilization and new investments may both decline, threatening livelihoods of millions. Commodity prices could rise steeply due to production shortages.
  • Energy shortage: 70% of India’s thermal power plants are likely to face high water stress by 2030, India’s energy mainstay.
  • Environmental risk: The rich biodiversity of India faces a serious threat from activities undertaken for creating additional water sources. Climate change, temperature rise, human engineering of hydrological flows by dam construction and river diversion is already proving catastrophic for biodiversity.
  • Desertification risk: ~30% of Indian land is impacted by desertification and land degradation, and this outcome is strongly linked to poor water management.
Screenshot 2023 06 01 121406

As per the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, the water requirement by 2050 in high use scenario is likely to be 1,180 BCM, whereas the present-day availability is 695 BCM. 

Suggestions for sustainable water future

  • Water Pricing
    • Effective pricing for water and power with subsidized water supply for basic water needs of drinking and household needs. (Jal Jeevan Mission)
    • Setting up water meters at all levels across the distribution network.
    • Independent regulatory authority should be established to determine water user fees in a rational and depoliticized fashion. 
  • Promoting use of wastewater
    • High priority for recycle and reuse of water. For ex. Wastewater usage can be increased in Thermal power plants and industrial establishments and for irrigation. This will reduce India’s industrial water footprint. 
    • In urban areas, for all non-potable uses such as flushing, fire protection, vehicle washing, landscaping, horticulture etc. wastewater should be used.
  • Increasing water use efficiency in Agriculture
    • For Agriculture: Greater marketing support for water-efficient crops in water-constrained areas along with crop diversification. Disincentivising the cultivation of water-intensive crops in states like Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana. Shifting these crops to water-rich eastern and north-eastern regions.
    • Focus on upkeep and maintenance of canal networks and lining them to reduce groundwater seepage. Also, solar power plants can be overlain canals to reduce evaporation along with generation of electricity. 
    • A general shift from price support to cash transfer to let the actual crop prices to be determined by market forces.
    • Use of technologies such as laser leveling, drip and micro irrigation systems etc. Promotion of organic farming, agroecology based farming systems and mulching etc. to preserve soil moisture. 
  • Employing nature-based solutions for sustainable water
    • Rejuvenation of catchment areas needs to be incentivized through compensation for eco-system services, especially to vulnerable communities in the upstream, mountainous regions. 
    • Thrust on local rainwater harvesting to catch the rains where it falls when it falls.
    • Demarcation, notification, protection and revival of traditional local water bodies in both rural and urban areas.
    • Restoration of rivers with wet meadows (where they can meander)
    • Infrastructure solutions such as rain gardens and bio-swales
    • Wetlands constructed for bioremediation, urban parks, permeable pavements, sustainable natural drainage systems, green roofs and green walls.
  • Water governance reforms
    • Need to break down the silos into which issues related to water is divided. A National Water Commission as advised by Mihir Shah Committee should be formed.
    • Bringing water from State list to concurrent list to develop a common national vision, greater attention and resources for water issues. 
    • Creation and empowerment of water user association and panchayats in taking up water issues and regulation. This will raise people’s awareness and participation in the management of water. 
    • More investment and private sector involvement is necessary for sustainable water scenario.
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