Editorial: Water-scarcity day

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Published: March 23, 2016 12:30:05 AM

Too few dams, bad policy make India water-scarce

After two years of back-to-back droughts, India experiencing a water-crisis—on World Water Day!—is hardly surprising, but as a Kotak Institutional Equities report points out, it needn’t be so. Even in a bad year, India gets around 2,600 billion cubic metres (bcm) of rain while it needs around 1,100 bcm to meet all requirements, so where’s the problem? The problem lies in the fact that India’s capacity to store water is a mere 253 bcm. So, with 90% of the available rain water not getting stored, a failure of rain is a near-catastrophe, and it has been two years on a trot this time around. In the 91 large reservoirs—with a capacity of 158 bcm—that are tracked, current storage is a mere 43 bcm as compared to 93 bcm six months ago; against the long-term average, reservoir deficiency is over 26% at an all-India level and much higher in states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Given dam construction in India is slowing—while the number of dams built peaked in 1971-1980 (1,294 dams), this fell to 1,255 in 1981-90, 625 in 1991-2000 and a mere 330 since 2001—there seems to be little effort to remedy the problem of inadequate storage capacity.

India’s man-made crisis is exacerbated in the agriculture sector that accounts for nearly 80% of annual consumption. In Maharashtra, which has just announced a ban on water for swimming pools and for rain-dances on Holi, cultivating the water-guzzling sugarcane means 60% of the state’s irrigated water is used up by a crop that accounts for just 3% of the total cropped area. The problem of cultivating the wrong crop—sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra, per kg of crop, uses up more than double the water as compared to Uttar Pradesh—isn’t restricted to just Maharashtra. Rice in Punjab, for instance, uses 5,389 litres of water per kg of crop as compared to 2,713 litres in West Bengal. Since farmers pay little for water or the electricity to pump it, the government’s lop-sided policy of procurement—concentrated in a few crops and in a few states like Punjab but not West Bengal—incentivises farmers to grow water-guzzling crops; corn uses 80% less water than rice, but since this is not procured by the government, farmers in Punjab do not grow it though profits are similar to those on paddy. Indiscriminate urea usage, thanks to a heavy fertiliser subsidy, is rapidly altering soil chemistry and pushing up water requirement. While a 2010 CWC report states that receipts from irrigation account for only 23% of the non-plan revenue expenditure on irrigation, and the 13th Financial Commission had recommended that this be enhanced to 60% by FY14, precious little has happened.

The problem gets worse when it comes to drinking water in cities. There is, of course, the well-documented wastage of water from leaking pipes in cities like Delhi. And since water is priced at a fraction of its cost—the Delhi chief minister, in fact, is supplying the water free to large sections of the city’s population—there isn’t enough money to build out more piped water infrastructure. Nor is there enough recycling or treatment of the water—Delhi generates 3,700 million litres per day (mld) of sewage as compared to the sewage treatment plant (STP) capacity of 2,330 mld. More important, the STPs run at low capacity since, where there is sewage, there is no STP and vice versa. India’s water crisis is purely man-made, let’s not blame the weather gods.

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