Else, the “piped water for every household” vision could end up a pipe dream.
The first sign that the new government would treat equitable access to water and sustainable harnessing of ground and surface water resources in India as a priority was the creation of the new Jal Shakti ministry. Now, the prime minister has outlined a vision of giving every Indian household access to piped drinking water by 2024—christened a catchy Nal se Jal. With the country having just 4% of the world’s potable water resources, ensuring equitable access for such a large population seems virtually unachievable. At the moment, 75% of the country’s households don’t have access to drinking water in their premises, and close to 90% of rural households have no access to piped water. Nevertheless, the goal is an important one, given how the health of the nation rests on universal access to clean drinking water. Nearly 40 million Indians suffer from waterborne diseases annually, 200,000 die, while 73 million working days are lost due to these diseases, leading to an economic loss of $600 million a year. Nal se Jal, if it fructifies, will build on the impressive toilet coverage under Swacch Bharat Mission, in improving sanitation in the country. But, getting to universalisation of piped access water may be harder than it seems because it means the pressure on scant resources, already-high, will shoot up.
India, thanks largely to poor agricultural strategy, today is the largest groundwater extractor in the world, pumping out nearly 25% of the global groundwater used annually. As a result, over half of India’s groundwater wells are running dry, and NITI Aayog estimates, by as early as next year, 21 Indian cities, including some of the biggest ones, would have entirely run out of groundwater. The 600 million in the country facing high to extreme water stress will, thus, become a larger tribe soon. At the same time, with monsoon held to ransom by climate change effects, and its nature, thus, being drastically altered, India’s problem will become one of simultaneous inundation and spreading desertification—according to government data, nearly 30% of India is degraded or facing desertification, with 26 of 29 states reporting an increase in area threatened by desertification in the past decade. Water wars are now erupting within the boundaries of some states, let alone the water wars between states. Against such a backdrop, how much of Nal se Jal will be realised remains to be seen. Water is a state issue, and the government has already prefaced the Nal se Jal vision with the caveat that “the scope of the Centre’s intervention is limited”. Even so, if the Centre were to concentrate on key points that leave India so water-stressed, there is hope yet. For a start, the Union government must look at creating more capacity to store a larger volume of the precipitation India receives—while the usage demand is less than half of the annual precipitation India receives, after discounting for evaporation losses, the reservoir capacity is less than a quarter of the usage demand volume. At the same time, government policies on pricing and procurement for agriculture have ensured unsustainable use of water in agriculture—from Maharashtra’s water-guzzling sugarcane farming to Punjab’s and Tamil Nadu’s water-intensive rice cultivation. Adding to the agriculture-burden on water resources are subsidies on power and fertilisers that, respectively, have allowed draining of groundwater and affect soil’s water-demand by changing soil chemistry. In urban areas, water is still vastly subsidised for the well-off by the states, while the poorer sections in a city like Delhi/Bengaluru have to fork out large sums for illegal supply by the tanker mafia. The Centre and states must together identify both wasteful usage and inadequate storage before the pipeline network is laid out.