Water and time running out: How to deal with India’s imminent crisis?

Published: April 17, 2019 12:05:35 AM

The reason for this imminent crisis is an over-reliance on groundwater extraction, for most Indian cities are simply unable to meet their water demand with existing supply.

Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has projected that more than 60 large and small cities in India are on the verge of water scarcity. (Representational image)Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has projected that more than 60 large and small cities in India are on the verge of water scarcity. (Representational image)

By Rajan Aiyer

For many Indian cities, a crippling water supply crisis is expected to hit home sooner than we imagined. A NITI Aayog report published last year predicted that Delhi and 20 other large cities are going to run out of water by 2020. When this happens, local municipalities may have to stop supplying water. Meanwhile, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has projected that more than 60 large and small cities in India are on the verge of water scarcity. The reason for this imminent crisis is an over-reliance on groundwater extraction, for most Indian cities are simply unable to meet their water demand with existing supply. This rampant extraction will likely lead to zero groundwater levels in Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad by 2020, says the NITI Aayog report, affecting water supply for no less than 10 crore people.

Excess groundwater extraction has already led to a 61% decline in groundwater level in wells in India between 2007 and 2017. The depth of this crisis this time is unprecedented and will only grow severe, if we do not take immediate action. Even today, nearly three-fourths of Indian households do not have access to drinking water supply at home. Nearly 70% of water is contaminated and, as a result, India is placed 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.

Poor agriculture practices can be blamed for the most part for depleting groundwater reserves. As of today, use of water for irrigation accounts for 80% of the total available water. Water-intensive crops like rice and sugar cane are widely grown in many northern states, often in blatant disregard to the available water supply.

To avert or postpone this crisis, we need to act. The government must disincentivise paddy and sugar cane cultivation in areas where soil and water supply conditions are not conducive for these crops. States with sinking groundwater need to appropriate those cropping patterns that suit their agro-climatic zones. The dominance of paddy-wheat crop rotation in Punjab is a case in point—it led to a rapid decline of water table. Switching to less water-intensive crops will enhance their irrigation water efficiency. Also, policymakers at both the Centre and states must encourage adoption of precision farming technologies, such as laser-guided land levelling, which can cut water use by as much as 30%.

At the same time, drip or micro irrigation ought to be incentivised amongst farmers in severely water-deficient states, like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Drip irrigation has higher efficiency of 90% vis-à-vis flood irrigation techniques, which is 60-70% effective. Another key focus point can be command area development (CAD). Now a part of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, the CAD initiative centres on “more crop per drop” to increase water-use efficiency in irrigation.

Free or cheap electricity is another culprit. As per a recent study, on average, a 10% reduction in electricity subsidy generated a 6.7% decrease in groundwater extraction. In order to make this move go down well with farmers who are used to free electricity, governments can incentivise power saving per unit with cash compensation for farmers.

Lastly, we must conduct a systematic analysis of groundwater conservation methods. While Maharashtra got presidential approval on its recent groundwater draft, there’s a long way to go for other states. In regions that get heavy rainfall, state water boards ought to run mass campaigns promoting rainwater harvesting. Cities like Bangalore have mandated the construction of rainwater harvesting facilities at homes, which can help replenish ground water supplies. If executed correctly, this policy alone could give the city 2,740 million litres of water a day, as per an expert.

How difficult are these policies to implement? To a large extent, the question boils down to political will, for the immediate repercussions will no doubt inconvenience or anger our farmers, who are already aggrieved for a variety of reasons. But equally moot is the question as to how long can our policymakers turn a blind eye to what will arguably become the most crippling crisis to affect an even larger population, affecting public health and food security. Along with the water, our time is running out.

The author is MD, Trimble, India & SAARC

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