India is facing its worst water crisis in generations

India is facing a perfect storm in managing water.

Centuries of mismanagement, political and institutional incompetence, indifference at central, state and municipal levels, a steadily increasing population that will reach an estimated 1.7 billion by 2050, a rapidly mushrooming middle class demanding an increasingly protein-rich diet that requires significantly more water to produce—together, these are leading the country towards disaster. On top of that, there is an absence of serious and sustained attempts at the central or state levels to manage water quantity and quality, a lack of implementation of existing laws and regulations, and pervasive corruption and poor adoption rates of new and cost-effective technologies.

Despite this sad state of affairs, there are no signs of politicians waking up to the situation, or those willing to take hard but essential political decisions. Actions are mostly cosmetic. Policies are primarily ad-hoc, incorrect, incoherent, and rarely properly implemented.

Politicians are looking for visible, but mostly quick and temporary, results from one election cycle to another. It does not matter which party had been in power.

India is now facing a water situation that is significantly worse than any that previous generations have had to face. All Indian water bodies within and near population centres are now grossly polluted with organic and hazardous pollutants. Interstate disputes over river waters are becoming increasingly intense and widespread. Not a single Indian city can provide clean water that can be consumed from the tap on a 24×7 basis.

Surface water conditions are bad. However, the groundwater situation is even worse.

Groundwater extraction is growing and has become increasingly unsustainable. Consequently, in many parts of the country, groundwater levels are declining steadily. In some parts, the levels are declining by more than one metre per year. A lack of proper wastewater treatment from domestic, industrial, and mining sources has meant that groundwater is being progressively contaminated by known and unknown pollutants, increasing the potential health risks to humans and ecosystems.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that the highest number of protests by farmers and suicides have occurred in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, where groundwater blocks are over-stressed due to decades of over-extraction and poor management.

During the last three decades, there has been an explosive growth of private tube-wells in farms because of a lack of reliable surface irrigation. The problem is compounded by Indian law which extends exclusive rights to landowners over groundwater. These factors, along with free electricity for pumping, have contributed to an increase in groundwater use from 58% in 2004 to 62% in 2011. There are no indications that this rate is levelling off.

In order to develop policies for sustainable groundwater use, it is essential that reliable data on groundwater availability be used and quality be systematically collected.

Despite having four separate central bodies regulating groundwater, there is no single database for the country. In 2016, the standing committee on water resources of the Indian parliament finally recommended having a national groundwater database that could be updated every two years. However, when this will actually happen is anybody’s guess.

Intensive groundwater extractions will continue at least over the medium term. The current situation has already contributed to serious economic, social, political, and environmental problems. India is also facing a rising number of interstate and trans-border river conflicts.

India’s failing groundwater regime is not a new policy challenge. Groundwater use in India started to accelerate with the beginning of the Green Revolution during the early 1960s.

The best estimate is that at present India uses 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year. This accounts for about one-quarter of the global groundwater use. More than 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of domestic water use now depends on groundwater. India now uses more groundwater than China and the United States combined.

Farmers using groundwater obtain twice the crop yields compared to surface water. This is because groundwater irrigation gives the farmers more flexibility as to when to irrigate and the amount of water they can use because they have total control as to when to pump and for how long.

This expansion in groundwater use has been mostly due to a government policy of providing free electricity to farmers, irrespective of their income levels and needs. Encouraged by external donors, whose funding of agricultural projects in the 1970s was conditional upon farmers being supplied free electricity round the clock, this policy produced the short-term benefit of increasing food production. However, the ill-conceived policy had long-term costs, with serious groundwater depletion and heavy losses suffered by the various state electricity boards.

According to official assessments by the Indian ministry of water resources, in 2004, around 29% of the groundwater blocks were critical, semi-critical or over-exploited. It also concluded that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. In 2014, the central groundwater board noted that the number of over-exploited districts increased from 3% in 1995 to 15% in 2011.

In 2009, studies by NASA reported that the Indus basin was the second-most over-stressed aquifer in the world. This basin includes the states of Punjab and Haryana, which constitute India’s granaries. This study also noted that the rate of depletion of groundwater levels in north India is about one metre every three years. This is 20% higher than the earlier assessment by the water ministry and indicates the true gravity of the situation.

Accelerating groundwater extractions also have major quality implications. In coastal aquifers, declines are leading to seawater intrusion. In addition, there are serious risks due to various types of geogenic contamination, including by fluoride and arsenic. These problems are already being witnessed in several states.

Unless urgent steps are taken to manage groundwater scientifically, there will be adverse implications for India’s food, water, energy, environment, and health sectors. Nearly half of India’s jobs are now in the agricultural sector. If the current trends continue, by 2030 nearly 60% of Indian aquifers will be in a critical condition. This means that some 25% of the agriculture production will be at risk. This would aggravate India’s employment situation.

The root of the English word rival is the Latin word rivalis, which means a person using the same river. Unless India can significantly improve its water management, states will turn rivals, with similar rivalry springing up between different types of water users. This will be a dangerous development for the world’s most populous country during the post-2025 period.

This piece was published in Quartz on 15 March 2017.

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