Water is the most valuable natural resource as it is essential for human survival and life on earth. However, the availability of freshwater for human consumption is highly under stress because of a variety of factors. This crisis of water scarcity is most visible in India as well as in other developing countries.
This topic of “India’s Water Crisis – How to Solve it?” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.
What is water scarcity?
- Water scarcity is the lack of freshwater resources to satisfy water demand.
- It is manifested by partial or no satisfaction of expressed demand, economic competition for water quantity or quality, disputes between users, irreversible groundwater depletion, and negative effects on the environment.
- It affects every continent and was categorised in 2019 by the World Economic Forum as one of the largest global risks with respect to its potential impact over the next decade.
- One-third of the global population (2 billion people) live under situations of severe water scarcity at least one month of the year.
- Half a billion people in the world affected by severe water scarcity all year round.
- Half of the world’s largest cities have been facing water scarcity.
How is the water scarcity measured?
- The absolute minimum water requirement for domestic usage is 50 litres per person per day, though 100-200 litres is often recommended.
- Considering the needs of agriculture, industry and energy sectors, the recommended minimum annual per capita requirement is about 1700 cubic meters.
- If a country like India has only about 1700 cu. meters water per person per year, it will experience only occasional or local water distress.
- If the availability falls below this threshold level, the country will start to experience periodic or regular water stress.
- If the water availability declines below 1000 cu. meters, the country will suffer from chronic water scarcity. Lack of water will then start to severely affect human health and well-being as well as economic development.
- If the annual per capita supply declines below 500 cu. meters, the country will reach the stage of absolute scarcity.
What is the status of water availability in India?
- India receives 4000 bcm (billion cubic metres) rainfall each year. Out of this, 1869 bcm remains after evaporation = The actual availability is only 1137 bcm.
- Even in that 1137 bcm of water, there is a lot of temporal as well as regional variations in the availability.
- For instance, on the one side, there are water surplus states such as Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and on the other side, there are water scarce states such as Maharashtra (Vidarbha, Beed), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat.
- Moreover, some states that are known to be water abundant such as Punjab, Haryana have their own issues.
What is the magnitude of the water crisis in India?
- Currently, the annual availability of water is 1123 bcm in India and the demand is around 750 bcm. However, by 2050 the annual demand for water will be 1180 bcm which will exceed the water availability = wide ramifications for the country.
- Nearly half of the country (around 600 million people) face severe water scarcity with around 2 lakh people dying every year due to inadequate access to potable water.
- 70% of India’s water is contaminated.
- 75% of households do not have drinking water on its premises.
- 84% of rural households do not have access to piped water.
- 54% of the country’s groundwater is declining rapidly than it is being replenished.
- India’s water table is declining in most regions. Also, there is a presence of toxic elements like fluoride, arsenic, mercury, even uranium in our groundwater.
- Water levels in India’s major reservoirs have fallen to 21% of the average of the last decade.
- Hundreds of small and seasonal rivers are perishing permanently.
- Almost all the major perennial rivers remain stagnant.
- Cauvery and its tributaries haven’t met the ocean for decades; the upstream dams choke its flows downstream, affecting people in Tamil Nadu.
- Krishna river runs dry in her delta region for most of the year.
- According to NITI Aayog’s water quality index, India ranks 120th among 122 countries.
What is the recent water crisis in India?
- Maharashtra is facing a water crisis of unprecedented proportions. After years of drought, the river currents have ebbed, water in dams and reservoirs have depleted and over-exploitation of groundwater has raised concerns regarding the long-term availability of water.
- Meanwhile, media reports claim IT firms in Chennai are asking employees to work from home. The reason is that they don’t have enough water to sustain their operations. It hasn’t rained for almost 200 days in the city and it may not get adequate rain to get over the water crisis for the next 3 months.
- In North India, the people of arid Thar Desert of Rajasthan are spending Rs. 2500 for getting 2500 litres of water which they share with their cattle.
- With Punjab facing the threat of desertification and the state struggling to break away from the wheat-paddy cycle, farmers in the state have been adopting a decade-old scheme to utilise underground pipeline system for irrigation.
- In light of this crisis, Central government on its part has created a Jal Shakti Ministry under a full-fledged cabinet minister to resolve the water crisis but a lot more needs to be done.
What are the reasons for this crisis?
There is a huge dependence on monsoon rains to replenish most of India’s important water sources such as underground aquifers, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. But monsoon is vulnerable to factors such as climate change, El-Nino, etc.
Uneven distribution of water and Rainfall pattern:
Certain regions have surplus amounts of water for their need while others face perennial droughts for most of the year. For instance, Drought is a recurrent phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh where no district is entirely free of droughts. Rajasthan is one of the most drought-prone areas of India.
Population growth, industrialization, rapid urbanisation, rising needs of irrigation and increase in domestic water usage have accelerated the demand for water. Since urbanization increases in India at a rapid pace = water demand will increase rapidly as city dwellers consume more water than rural people.
Urbanisation & Water scarcity:
- Currently, about 285 million or 33% of India’s total population resides in urban areas. By 2050 this figure will reach 50%.
- Rapid urbanisation is adding to the water scarcity issue in the country.
- Presence of buildings, tar, and cement roads = even if a city like Mumbai gets good rains, the rainwater is not retained in the area as the water is not allowed to percolate underground.
- Therefore, water required for cities is largely drawn from neighbouring villages and far-off rivers and lakes = threatening the availability in those areas.
- Large cities also generate large quantities of urban sewage which pollutes the freshwater sources and ocean waters. However, only about 20% of urban wastewater is currently treated globally. In India, the figure is even lower.
- In developing countries like India, groundwater fulfills nearly 80% of irrigation requirement = resulted in a fast depletion of groundwater sources.
- Free power and inefficient utilisation of water by farmers has added to the issue of groundwater depletion.
- The groundwater and sand extraction from most river beds and basins has turned unsustainable.
- Tanks and ponds are encroached upon.
- Dug-wells and borewells are carelessly built to slide deeper and deeper to suck water from greater depths.
Shift to cash-crops:
Water is being diverted from food crops to cash crops that consume an enormous quantity of water.
Inefficient cultivation practices:
- In India, around 70% of the population is still dependent on agriculture for its livelihood.
- Since the adoption of Green Revolution in the 1960s, nearly 50% of the food production comes from irrigated land.
- But inefficient cultivation practices have led to the flooding of fertile land which in turn has caused salinization, siltation of reservoirs, etc = causing groundwater reserves of major agricultural states to be depleted at an alarming rate.
- Release of industrial and domestic waste, including urban sewage, into rivers, lakes, and estuaries has polluted freshwater sources at an alarming rate in India = those fresh water sources are not fit for drinking or other activities.
- Eutrophication of surface water and coastal zones is expected to increase almost everywhere leads to nitrogen pollution.
What are the impacts of the water crisis?
Economic growth: A Niti Aayog report predicted that water demand will be twice the present supply by 2030 and India could lose up to 6% of its GDP during that time.
Power supply: Water shortages are hurting India’s capacity to generate electricity because 40% of thermal power plants are located in areas where water scarcity is high.
Agricultural crisis: Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on monsoon (not dependable) + Ineffective agricultural practices in irrigated areas = Water stress in agriculture = Poor Cultivation = Farmer suicides.
Drinking water scarcity: Not only farmers are affected by the water crisis, urban dwellers in cities and towns across India are also facing a never seen before drinking water scarcity.
Conflicts over water: In India, there are conflicts between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of Cauvery waters, between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh over sharing of Narmada waters, between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over sharing of Krishna waters, etc.
What are the measures taken by the government?
Across the country, states are taking the lead:
- In Rajasthan, there is a scheme named ‘Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan’. One of its objectives is to facilitate effective implementation of water conservation and water harvesting related activities in rural areas.
- Maharashtra has launched a project called ‘Jalyukt-Shivar’, which seeks to make 5000 villages free of water scarcity every year.
- The Telangana government has launched a mission called Mission Kakatiya, the objective of which is to increase the agriculture-based income for small and marginal farmers, by
- accelerating the development of minor irrigation infrastructure,
- strengthening community-based irrigation management and
- adopting a comprehensive programme for restoration of tanks.
Jal Shakti Abhiyan:
- It is a collaborative initiative of various Union Ministries and State Governments, being coordinated by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS).
- Focus Area: is water-stressed districts (256) and blocks (1592).
- Team: Central government officers, headed by joint secretaries and additional secretaries, are assigned to these 256 districts and district administration will also select 2 members to join the team. This team of officers from the central government and district administration will visit and work on water-stressed districts and blocks to ensure water conservation initiatives.
- The campaign is centered on 5 aspects
- Water conservation and rainwater harvesting
- Renovation of traditional and other water bodies/tanks
- Reuse of water and recharging of structures like bore well
- Watershed development
- Intensive afforestation
- Significance: With this initiative, the government seeks to provide drinking water to all households on a priority and in a sustainable way. It is also expected to bring a positive mindset in people for water conservation. The campaign will assist people to work for rainwater harvesting, maintenance, and upkeep of ponds and village tanks and conservation of water.
Jal Shakti Mantralaya
- The government has created a new Ministry named ‘Jal Shakti’after merging Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
- ‘Jal Shakti’ ministry will deal with the issues as follows:
- Providing clean drinking water,
- International and inter-states water disputes,
- Namami Gange project aimed at cleaning Ganga and its tributaries, and sub-tributaries.
- The ministry will launch the government’s ambitious plan (‘Nal se Jal’ scheme under jal jivan plan) to provide piped drinking water supply to every household in India by 2024.
- Furthermore, National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) has been shifted from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change to Jal shakti Ministry.
- This Move seeks to consolidate the administration and bringing water-related issues such as conservation, development, management, and abatement of pollution under a single ministry.
- National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) is responsible for implementing the centrally sponsored national river conservation plan for all rivers across the country except river Ganga and its tributaries (as issues regarding Ganga and its tributaries are taken up by National Mission for Clean Ganga).
Jal Jeevan Mission *
Atal Bhujal Yojana*
- It is a world bank funded central scheme that aims to improve groundwater management at the national level…Read More.
Can a new water ministry tackle the worst water crisis in Indian history?
- Experts are of the opinion that an exclusive ministry can only bring about a cosmetic but not a real change.
- Water is a state subject = Unless states make specific requests the centre cannot intervene.
What are the solutions to the water crisis in India?
Good water management practices:
- India receives adequate annual rainfall through the south-west monsoon. However, most regions of the country are still water deficient mainly because of inefficient water management practices.
- Rainwater harvesting should be encouraged on a large scale, especially, in cities where the surface runoff of rainwater is very high.
- Roof-top rainwater harvesting can also be utilised to recharge groundwater by digging percolation pits around the house and filling it with gravel.
- Indian cities need to learn from Cape Town of South Africa which when faced with the water crisis in 2018 had announced “Day Zero“. During that day, water-taps in the city turned off = people had to use communal water-taps to conserve water. Restrictions on water use per person were also fixed.
- Since water is a state subject in India state governments should take active measures and create awareness for the minimal use of water.
- Interlinking of rivers is a topic that has been discussed and debated for several years as a possible permanent solution to the water crisis in the country.
- The 3 primary advantages mentioned in favour of the scheme are (1) droughts will never occur (2) there will be no more floods in the major rivers and (3) an additional 30,000 MW of hydropower will be generated.
Coordination in aquifer usage: There is an urgent need for coordination among users for aquifers. There should be laws and contracts for sharing of aquifers. Groundwater aquifer mapping has started only recently in India which is a welcome step.
River basin authority: There should be a River Basin Authority for sharing information among states since most of the rivers in India pass through different states.
Coordinated efforts among states for management of groundwater at a localized level.
Community-level management: At the village level, there can be decentralized management of water at the community level.
Charging money for efficient use of water (like electricity). For example- Water ATMs at Marathwada provide water @25 paisa per litre a day.
Good Cultivation practices:
- Changing the cropping pattern, crop diversification and encouraging water use efficiency in agriculture by moving towards food crops from cash crops.
- Innovative farming practices like precision farming, zero budget natural farming, etc. could be employed for efficient water utilisation.
Incentive-based water conservation in rural parts of the water-stressed regions is another solution.
- For example, if a particular level of groundwater level is maintained, higher MSP can be provided to the farmers of that region.
- MSP can also be provided based on crop’s water usage = Crops that consume a high amount of water will get less MSP.
India is not a water deficit country, but due to severe neglect and lack of monitoring of water resource development projects, many regions in the country face water stress from time to time. Therefore balancing water demand with available supply is the need of the hour for future economic growth and development as well as for the sustenance of human life.
New National Water Policy (NWP)
In November 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti had set up a committee to draft the new National Water Policy (NWP). This was the first time that the government asked a committee of independent experts to draft the policy.
Highlights of NWP
1) Demand-side: Diversification of public procurement operations
- Irrigation utilizes 80-90% of India’s water, most of which is used by rice, wheat, and sugarcane.
- Therefore, crop diversification is the single most crucial step in addressing India’s water crisis.
- The policy recommends diversifying public procurement operations to include Nutri-cereals, pulses, and oilseeds.
- This would incentivize farmers to diversify their cropping patterns, resulting in huge savings of water.
- Reduce-Recycle-Reuse has been suggested as the basic mantra of integrated urban water supply and wastewater management, with the treatment of sewage and eco-restoration of urban river stretches, as far as possible via decentralised wastewater management.
- All non-potable use like flushing, fire protection, vehicle washing should mandatorily shift to treated wastewater.
3) Supply-side measure: Using technology to use stored water in dams
- Within supply-side options, the NWP points to trillions of litres stored in big dams, that are still not reaching farmers.
- NWP recommends how the irrigated areas could be considerably expanded at very low cost by using pressurised closed conveyance pipelines, in addition to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and pressurised micro-irrigation.
4) Supply of water through “nature-based solutions”
- The NWP places major importance on the supply of water via “nature-based solutions” like the rejuvenation of catchment areas, to be incentivised through compensation for ecosystem services.
- Specially curated “blue-green infrastructure” like rain gardens and bio-swales, restored rivers with wet meadows, wetlands constructed for bio-remediation, urban parks, permeable pavements, green roofs etc are suggested for urban areas.
5) Sustainable and equitable management of groundwater
- Information on aquifer boundaries, water storage capacities and flows provided in a user-friendly manner to stakeholders, assigned as custodians of their aquifers, would allow them to create protocols for effective management of groundwater.
6) Rights of Rivers
- The NWP accords river protection and revitalisation prior and primary importance.
- Steps to restore river flows include: Re-vegetation of catchments, regulation of groundwater extraction, river-bed pumping and mining of sand and boulders.
- The NWP outlines a process to draft a Rights of Rivers Act, including their right to flow, to meander and to meet the sea.
7) Emphasis on water quality
- The new NWP considers water quality as the most serious un-addressed issue in India today.
- It proposes that every water ministry, at the Centre and states, include a water quality department.
- The policy advocates adoption of state-of-the-art, low-cost, low-energy, eco-sensitive technologies for sewage treatment.
- Widespread use of reverse osmosis has led to huge water wastage and adverse impact on water quality.
- The policy wants RO units to be discouraged if the total dissolved solids count in water is less than 500mg/L.
- It suggests a task force on emerging water contaminants to better understand and tackle the threats they are likely to pose.
8) Reforming governance of water
- The policy makes radical proposals for improving the governance of water, which suffers from three kinds of issues: That between irrigation and drinking water, surface and groundwater, as also water and wastewater.
- Government departments, working in silos, have generally dealt with just one side of these binaries.
- Dealing with drinking water and irrigation in silos has meant that aquifers providing assured sources of drinking water dry up because the same aquifers are used for irrigation, which consumes much more water.
- And when water and wastewater are separated in planning, the result is a fall in water quality.
9) Creation of National Water Commission
- The NWP also suggests the creation of a unified multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder National Water Commission (NWC), which would become an exemplar for states to follow.
- Governments should build enduring partnerships with primary stakeholders of water, who must become an integral part of the NWC and its counterparts in the states.
How Gujarat transformed from Water-deficit state to surplus state?
- The Gujarat government created the state-level Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BISAG) to aid in the supply of services and solutions for the deployment of map-based GeoSpatial Information Systems.
- Micro-level check dams.
- Macro-level projects particularly in the Saurashtra, Kutch, and North Gujarat areas.
- Gujarat launched the Kutch branch canal from the Narmada Main canal, which helps provide water to the most distant parts.
- Sujalam Sufalam Yojana: to irrigate the areas of North Gujarat.
- The SAUNI Yojana (Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation Yojana), which means literally “reincarnation of the Narmada River in the region,” was thus introduced.
- Administrative and Governance reforms.