Saving India’s water: Centre and states must jointly address the crisis

What is needed is a political compact between the Centre and the states to jointly address the challenges of saving India’s water, while actively involving local governments and engaging with the communities of water users. It is a tall order, but there is no alternative than to begin.

water crisis, water crisis in chennai
Illustration: Rohnit Phore

Chennai has been much in the news recently for its water crisis. Scuffles and suffering have been reported from different parts of the city. Water crimes in Ranchi have also hit the headlines. Cities in Madhya Pradesh have seen stabbings and killings over water, and the police have been called upon to guard water tankers and water sources. Cape Town in South Africa was the first major city in the modern era to face the threat of running out of drinking water, as reported by the BBC in February 2018. The BBC listed another 11 cities most likely to run out of water. This list included Bengaluru.

The 2030 Water Resources Group on Charting Our Water Future, set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2009, had projected that if the current demand pattern for water continues, by 2030 the available water will meet only about half of India’s demand for water. Ten years later, in 2019, the water crisis is here and it is taking its toll on rural as well as urban areas of India. We are staring at a train wreck in slow motion and we need to act fast and act boldly to avoid the crash.

Water scarcity in India has come about not so much from insufficient supply of water as from the way in which we manage the water we have. Agriculture uses 78% of India’s water, and uses it very inefficiently (agricultural water-use efficiency is 30% for surface water and 55% for groundwater in India, compared with 77% in Israel). Notwithstanding the large investments in irrigation networks, about two-thirds of water used for irrigation comes from groundwater. Two factors—the huge electricity subsidies for farmers to pump groundwater and the fact that groundwater is largely unregulated—have led to a steady explosion in its use through tube wells for irrigation over the past several decades. About 80% of rural demand for drinking water is also met by groundwater.

Urban India’s inefficiency in water use arises from inadequate, old and dilapidated distribution networks, inefficient operations, inadequate metering, incomplete billing and collection, and a general state of poor governance. Another source of inefficiency comes from not treating wastewater and using the recycled water for specialised uses such as horticulture and also for flushing toilets. Underpricing of urban water also contributes to wasteful use of water. If something is underpriced, users will use more of it.

Most of us living in cities expect to have access to drinking water from taps in our homes. This requires a distribution network of pipes that can bring water from the basic source of bulk supply to our homes. However, access to treated tap water is available to only 62% of urban households (Census 2011). Those who are unconnected to the piped network, and include mostly but not only the poor, have to rely on buying water from tankers at exorbitant rates. This leads to increasing but unaccounted use of groundwater by extensive digging of borewells to meet the demand deficit of water.

There is clearly a need to expand coverage to the “unconnected” population. This will call for expansion and renovation of the infrastructure of the distribution network. It will also call for additional supplies of water, especially because the groundwater that is currently being used to supply this population is expected to dry up. The NITI Aayog has projected that ground water for 21 cities will run out by 2020 (i.e. next year), and the cities include Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Financing the expansion in urban water supply will be a problem. Even if the capital cost of the infrastructure is made available either through national missions or public-private partnership, the operation and maintenance cost of running the system (and in the case of PPP, a large part of the capital cost) will have to be recovered through user charges. Pricing water is important both for demand management and for economic viability of water-delivery systems.
We also need to mobilise more supply of water from basic natural sources. Only then can greater connectivity result in piped water delivery to all in urban areas. The mobilisation of additional supplies of water poses a major challenge, since the natural recharge zones are increasingly eroded because of unplanned urbanisation.

In addition, we need to deal with the supply constraints arising from the neglect of rivers, lakes, ponds and other waterbodies in and around our cities, which feed the reservoirs that are the bulk sources of water. These waterbodies need to be protected from encroachment so that our catchment area for water storage and rainwater harvesting is not reduced. This requires strict vigilance on land-use planning and building permissions in our cities. It may even warrant removal of existing encroachments. An important role has to be played by the concerned state governments including ensuring compliance with environmental guidelines laid down by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, and also the National Green Tribunal. Above all, increased water-use efficiency in agriculture is critical to release water supply from agriculture for other uses.

The quality of water issue is also very significant because of its serious implications for public health. Only about 30% of the municipal wastewater or sewage is treated, and the rest is released untreated into rivers and/or the ground. Because of density and concentration in urban areas, contamination from wastewater happens much faster. It is also important to ensure that untreated sewage is not dumped into open storm water drains through which it is carried and discharged into waterbodies. Surveys of groundwater in recent years show higher and higher levels of microbiological contamination. It is essential to ensure that the wastewater is treated before it finds its way back into our basic source of water and contaminates it.

Water is even more important than food for survival. No wonder, water governance is intimately linked to politics. It reminds me of the Pakistani play Kala Mainda Bhes (Black is My Attire), which I saw in Delhi some 20 years ago. In the play, the owner of the only well in the village, Khooay Shah (literally meaning the Lord of the Well), reigned supreme and his rule was called “Khooay Shah di Sarkar” which was subordinate only to what was called Vaddi Sarkar, i.e. the Almighty. Cities in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh certainly have no Khooay Shah yet, but the crisis of water supply seems just as acute.

It is clear that management of water requires a holistic approach taking account of the multiple aspects that have been spelt out above. In a way, setting up of the ministry of jal shakti is recognition of this, except that jal shakti deals with rural water needs only. We cannot split urban water from rural. Water will flow from rural to urban and vice versa, and has always done so. Besides, reshaping water governance will require state governments and local governments to take coordinated action in a federal system. What is needed is a political compact between the Centre and the states to jointly address the challenges of saving India’s water, while actively involving local governments and engaging with the communities of water users. It is a tall order, but there is no alternative than to begin.

The author is chairperson, ICRIER, Delhi, and former chairperson of the High-Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure and Services.

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First published on: 27-06-2019 at 00:28 IST