People gather to draw water from a well in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Photo: Reuters
People gather to draw water from a well in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Photo: Reuters
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A thirsty argument

The subcontinent’s water crisis stems from a mix of economic, geographic and political factors, but climate change could force a lasting solution

April 16, 2017 11:00 AM (UTC+8)

With climate change leading to searing heatwaves across the country, India’s weather pundits are starting to sweat over this year’s monsoon prospects and the country’s water equation.

According to international water safety organization Water Aid, India has the most rural people living without access to clean water – 63.4 million. The rural poor were highly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather and climate change, the group said in a report.

India supports 15% of the world’s population but possesses only 4% of the world’s water resources. World Bank data shows that only 35% of India’s agricultural land is irrigated – defined as the artificial application of water to land or soil. This means that 65% of farming depends on rainfall. Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use.

Despite constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters, a relatively small achievement when compared to Russia’s 6,103 cubic meters, Australia’s 4,733, and China’s 1,111.

The country still breaks out in a cold sweat every time the southwest monsoon (the subcontinent’s tenuous lifeline that arrives anytime between June and September) is delayed.

Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India's monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Rajarshi MIitra
Farmers at work in Madhya Pradesh during India’s monsoon season. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Rajarshi Mitra

India’s water crisis stems from a complex mix of economic, geographic and political factors.

While climate change has caused rains to become more erratic, most parts of the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall. Water harvesting and management, though required, remains little more than a fad. Many of the areas that are prone to flooding are the same ones that face drought months later. A staggering US$52.7 billion has been allocated to so-called Major and Medium Irrigation projects from the first five-year plan (1951-56) to the 11th (2007-12), but irrigation has reached only 45% of India’s net sown area.

A girl fills pitchers with drinking water from a tubewell at a temple in Ahmedabad, India. Photo: Reuters
A girl fills pitchers with drinking water from a tubewell at a temple in Ahmedabad, India. Photo: Reuters

Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for more than 90% of total water drawn but contributes only 15% to the country’s GDP.

Scientists and activists have consistently warned that relentless groundwater extraction will lead to a steep drop in water tables across the country. Some farmers in these parched states now need to drill down 100 meters or more for water, compared to the 1.5 meters that was the norm in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist.

India will need to rein in the systemic corruption that has dogged irrigation projects across the country. In some states these projects have sparked social unrest and political turmoil as seen in Maharashtra and Karnataka, where tenders were awarded at grossly inflated prices.

Perhaps the best hope comes from the judiciary.

Last week, soft drinks multinationals PepsiCo and Coca-Cola were restrained from drawing water from Tamirabharani River in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district until April 30 for their bottling plants in view of the acute water shortage.

The suspension was ordered even as a public-interest litigation seeking a stay on drawing of water by the two companies from the river was filed last year in the High Court.

The government has asked farmers to shift to less water-consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oil seeds and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them

The proliferation of power plants is another area that requires serious re-examination. Government policies that make water and land cheap in the area seem to be the reason for the location of thermal plants.

Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favor of less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government has asked farmers to shift to less water-consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oil seeds and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.

Israel has been a role model for the world in matters of water management and India is now actively seeking the country’s help. Israel’s successes were in large part due to the major innovation of drip irrigation. The country has also set the template for reusing wastewater in irrigation. It treats 80% of its domestic wastewater, which is recycled and constitutes nearly 50% of the total water used for agriculture.

Realizing its dire predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent from Mother Nature. Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But New Delhi must summon the political will to act before the water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.

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