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How best to tackle India's water crisis

By Sunita Narain
July 13, 2018 19:28 IST
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The tragedy is not the inevitable drought or the inevitable flood. It is our inevitable lack of ability to push and get done what needs to be done, says Sunita Narain.

By the time you read this, the crisis will be over. It will be business as usual. Instead of acute and crippling water shortage, the worry will be floods.

But the fact is that this relief is temporary. The fact is also that this season of plenty is when we need to prepare for the longer season of scarcity. But we don’t.


This summer the Himalayan town of Shimla literally ran out of water. But this is not the only town to confront this crisis.

According to the 2018 Composite Water Index of the NITI Aayog, 600 million people - roughly half of Indians - face high to extreme water crisis; worse, 70 per cent of the available water is contaminated.

And by 2020, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater and by 2030, as much as 40 per cent of India will have no drinking water.

But this is one future we can change.

Water is a replenishable resource - it snows and rains each year. More importantly, other than in the case of agriculture, we don’t consume water. We use and discharge.

Therefore, it can be treated and then re-used and recycled.

The agenda is also clear: First to augment the available water by capturing every drop and doing this everywhere.

In a climate-risked India, when rainfall is extreme and variable, it means doing more to capture rain and recharge groundwater.

The second and most important agenda is to combine water augmentation with efficiency.

Each drop must bring more crop and more of everything. This means designing deliberately to reduce water usage.

In agriculture it means changing cropping patterns so that we stop growing water-guzzling crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane in areas where water is scarce.

It means re-designing policies to incentivise farmers to diversify crops and promoting diets that value water-prudent crops.

If water efficiency is the agenda for agriculture, then water-recycling has to be the agenda for cities and industries.

Remember, we have no data on how much water is used today in urban/industrial India.

The last estimate, done in the mid-1990s, said that agriculture used 75-80 per cent of available water. This is completely out of date.

As cities grow, they will require water. This water will be brought from longer and longer distances, which increases cost and losses in transmission.

Whatever water cities have is, therefore, expensive and is supplied inequitably to residents.

Where people get little or no water, they dig the ground, which in turn depletes groundwater.

Worse and criminally, cities do not discharge clean water back into the environment - 80 per cent is discharged as waste.

The question is: How much of it is cleaned and made available for reuse?

We can do this. But we don’t. Instead we flush, forget, use and abuse. Whatever is there is contaminated. Policy has understood this. Practice has not.

The NITI Aayog’s 2018 Water Index is fascinating, not because of which state has made it to the top or not.

This index is about the practice of policies that would make India water-secure.

For instance, it measures if states are investing and improving water potential through rejuvenating waterbodies - lakes and ponds.

It then measures investment in improving efficiency in agriculture and recycling wastewater in urban areas. It asks the right questions.

What it finds is that we are not measuring the right outcomes and not practising the right policy.

For instance, the report finds that state governments do not have the data on the number of waterbodies restored or the corresponding increase in the area irrigated.

The only data that exists is what states have done to build or restore waterbodies against their target. But this performance does not explain if the waterbody built improved recharge.

Or was it only a hole in the ground?

This reflects in the questions on legislation to protect waterbodies or to make rainwater harvesting mandatory.

A high proportion of the states says that they have done both.

But what is missing is the data on the outcomes of this practice - has it improved groundwater recharge?

The report finds that many states have the capacity to treat 50-100 per cent of the wastewater generated.

These numbers do not tell the real story.

The fact is that states are grossly underestimating the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated.

Then they have no data on the quality of the treated wastewater and where it has been re-used. This is the missing link.

The good news is that we are asking the right questions.

We know what needs to be done, but we can’t get ourselves to do it. So, the tragedy is not the inevitable drought or the inevitable flood. It is our inevitable lack of ability to push and get done what needs to be done.

Photograph: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Sunita Narain is at the Centre for Science and Environment

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