If the World Water Development Report 2023, which said India will be the most severely affected country in terms of water scarcity by 2050, wasn’t a dire enough indicator of the unfolding water crisis in the country, what the government told Parliament last week should hammer home the point. Per capita availability of water in the country is projected to fall from 1,486 cubic metres in 2021 to 1,367 cubic metres by 2031, the government said, citing data from a report compiled by the Central Water Commission (CWC). Per the 1951 census, the per capita availability was more than 5,000 cubic metres. The government says increasing population is behind the fall, while acknowledging the role hydro-meteorological and geological factors play. Population growth does play an obvious role, but the steady fall in per capita availability of water also has a lot to do with the historical over-exploitation of available resources and the inadequacy of storage capacity in the country.
India, with 18% of the global population, has just 4% of the planet’s water resources. In 2022, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) reported in its periodic assessment of dynamic (capable of getting replenished) ground water resources that 1,006 of the 7,089 assessment units, spread across 15 states/Union territories, were over-exploited (annual extraction exceeds recharge) and 260 were classified as over-exploited (extraction at 90-100% of recharge). The data show an improvement from 2020, but experts say that these are at odds with ground realities, faulting the methodology adopted. What is irrefutable, though, is the urgent need to push Indian agriculture away from water-guzzling crops towards water-frugal ones. As per CWC data, 89% of the ground water extracted is directed towards irrigation—with well over 200 million grid-connected agricultural water pumps that enjoy free supply of ground water, the picture on wastage and depletion of ground water (with consequences for soil chemistry) should be clear to all. India remains the largest ground-water extractor in the world. Policies that favour water-guzzling crops such as paddy, sugarcane, etc—procurement at assured prices and state-administered pricing—need to change. The Centre’s attempts so far to contain the water crisis, though much-needed, are far from adequate. Whether it is the Per Drop More Crop vision to encourage micro-irrigation or the Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, progress needs to take off at a much faster pace to steer the country away from acute water-scarcity in the coming decades, when even worse climate change effects play out.
For a country that receives 80% of its rainfall in a span of just four months, climate change resulting in intensive rainfall over a very short period of time during the monsoon portends a twin problem of flooding and drought. India must fix its problem of inadequate storage. Per CWC data, the gross and live storage capacity from completed projects stands at 325 billion cubic metres (BCM) and 257 BCM. Read against the average annual rainfall of 3,880 BCM and a mean run-off of close to 2,000 BCM, there is a huge potential for expansion of storage capacity, even when we account for almost 50% of the annual precipitation being lost to evaporation/transpiration. More so, when the annual water requirement, as assessed by CWC, stands at close to 3,000 BCM. Beating future water distress will depend on what the country does about conserving and augmenting utilisable water today.