India has been ranked 13th amongst 17 ‘extremely water stressed’ countries—with a quarter of the world’s population—in the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by Water Resources Institute (WRI). Warning of unsustainable depletion, the report finds that global water withdrawals have doubled since the 1960s. India, home to more than three times the population of the other 16 countries, has seen one of its metros—Chennai’s—run dry this year. Further, a 2018 NITI Aayog report warns that, 21 major Indian cities will face extreme water crisis in the future. Yet, the WRI reiteration is perhaps necessary, given much hasn’t been done on water conservation and sustainable use. While the Centre has made the right noises, water is a state subject. More important, wasteful use of water in agriculture remains unaddressed. With large chunk of population engaged in agriculture and not enough non-farm jobs, states are steering clear of disturbing the status quo.
WRI notes that, from 1990 to 2014, groundwater tables in some north Indian aquifers have been declining at a rate of 8 cm per year. To tackle this crisis, WRI recommends increased agricultural efficiency, investing in grey and green infrastructure, and treating, reusing and recycling water. Water intensive crops—sugarcane and paddy—are still grown in regions that are facing water crises. These can be shifted to water-sufficient regions. Water-deficient regions can instead grow crops like maize and pulses.
Besides, targeted irrigation techniques, like drip irrigation, can reduce wastage. In terms of rainwater harvesting, India conserves a mere 8% of rainfall—the lowest in the world. The key intervention has to be on reusing and recycling wastewater. India must step up its water security, else it faces a future of “zero days”.