Monday, May 10, 2010

Tackling India’s Water Crisis

Broadly speaking, there are more than two billion people worldwide who are currently living in regions afflicted with water scarcity and in India in particular, the water crisis is assuming added dimensions in view of rapid shrinking of Himalayan glaciers, brisk depletion of surface and underground water resources as well as pollution of major and small rivers.

Presently, millions of people in India do not have access to clean drinking water and the situation is likely to get worsened, keeping in view growing demand for water in India. Having second largest population in the world, India is expected to overtake China by 2050 in terms of population, which would mean increasing strain on water resources as the number of people grows, rapidly growing economy and a vast agricultural sector dependent on scarce water resources.

Demand for Water
According to broad estimates, India’s average usage of water between the domestic, agricultural and industrial sectors is about 850 billion cubic metres of water annually, which is expected to double by 2050 thereby exceeding the 1.4 trillion cubic metres of supply.1

Currently the demand for drinking water between the urban and rural populations in India is about 4-6% of the total water demand. The urban population now representing 30% of India’s total population is expected to reach 50% of the total population by 2025, thereby increasing strain on water resources.2

Presently about 30% of the rural population in India lack access to drinking water and of the 35 states and Union Territories in India, only seven have availability of drinking water for the rural population.3

The rural economy sustains two-thirds of India's total population and the agricultural sector alone uses about 90% per cent of total water resources. Due to water pollution in rivers, agriculture sector draws 80% per cent of its irrigation water from groundwater. As the large farming lobby has got accustomed to cheap electricity, which facilitates fast pumping of groundwater, the groundwater level is fast shrinking.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, industrial water use in India stands at about 50 billion cubic meters or nearly 6 per cent of total freshwater abstraction. This demand was expected to increase to 9% in 2007 and is likely to increase dramatically in the coming years.4

Supply Side
Surface water and groundwater are the main sources of India’s water supply. Other sources, such as desalination, are negligible because they are not cost effective.

Surface Water
The main rivers, the Ganga, Bramhaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Indus, Narmada, and Tapti, flow into the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. They can be classified into four groups: Himalayan, coastal, peninsular, and inland drainage basins. The Himalayan rivers, such as the Ganges, are formed by melting snow and glaciers and therefore have a continuous flow throughout the year. The Himalayas contain the largest store of fresh water outside the polar ice caps, and feed seven great Asian rivers. This region receives very heavy rainfall during the monsoon period, causing the rivers to swell and flood. The coastal rivers, the Bramhaputra and the Krishna, especially on the west coast, are short in length with small catchment areas. The peninsular rivers, which include the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri, flow inland and also greatly increase in volume during the monsoon season. Finally, the rivers of the inland drainage basin, such as the Mahanadi and the Godavari, dry out as they drain towards the silt lakes such as the Sambhar, or are lost in the sands.

The Himalayan region has 33 000 km2 of glaciers which are shrinking at a fast rate. According to broad calculations, 915 km2 of Himalayan glaciers in the Spiti/Lahaul (Himachal Pradesh) thinned by an annual average of 0.85 m between 1999 and 2004.5 According to the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI), glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high. This could spell dangerous implications for the rivers originating from the Himalayan region.6

India receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic meters of rainfall every year. Unfortunately, only 48% of rainfall ends up in India’s rivers. Due to lack of storage and crumbling infrastructure, only 18% can be utilized.7 Rainfall is confined to the monsoon season, June through September, when India gets, on average, 75% of its total annual precipitation. However, due to storage crunch and the government’s inability to store surplus water for the dry season, such uneven seasonal distribution of rainfall has not stimulated the development of better capturing and storing infrastructure. Even the rainwater-harvesting measures undertaken so far are half-hearted.

India possesses about 432 bcm of groundwater replenished yearly from rain and river drainage, but only 395 bcm are utilizable. Of that 395 bcm, 82% goes to irrigation and agricultural purposes, while only 18% is divided between domestic and industrial. Total static groundwater available is approximately 10,812 bcm.8

Groundwater is increasingly being pumped from lower and lower levels and much faster than rainfall is able to replenish it. The average groundwater recharge rates of India’s river basins is 260 m3/day.9 In addition, the human, agricultural, and industrial waste that pollute India’s rivers seep into the ground, thus contaminating the groundwater. Groundwater crisis is not the result of natural factors; it has been caused by human actions. During the past two decades, the water level in several parts of the country has been falling rapidly due to an increase in extraction. The number of wells drilled for irrigation of both food and cash crops have rapidly and indiscriminately increased.

Lack of Water Governance
The mechanism of water governance in India is distinctly characterized by lack of attention to water legislation, water conservation, efficiency in water use, water recycling, and infrastructure. Historically water has been viewed as an unlimited resource that did not need to be managed as a scarce commodity or provided as a basic human right. However, these attitudes are undergoing gradual transformation with a growing desire for decentralized management developing.

Until recently, there was virtually no legislation on groundwater. Anyone could extract water: homeowner, farmer or industry as long as the water lies underneath their plot of land. There are approximately 20 million individual wells in India that are contributing to groundwater depletion. The owners of these wells do not have to pay for this water, so there is no incentive to conserve or recycle it; in fact they are incentivized to overdraw resources. Generally, the more water they use, the more they can produce. Industry applies the same logic, and rather than reusing the water used for cooling machines, they dump it back into rivers and canals, along with the pollution it has accumulated.

Local officials won’t take any action, such as raising electricity tariffs, that would upset the huge farm lobbies. Designing of measures to keep boosting agricultural production should be done so without jeopardizing the amount of water available and the farmers must be persuaded to switch to less water intensive crops.

There is lack of facilities to store and deliver potable water to the people, especially as supply shrinks. The means for storage, such as temple tanks and steep wells, have fallen apart. The government’s claim that 9 out of 10 people have access to water disregards the fact that almost of all of that water is too contaminated to use. None of the 35 Indian cities with a population of more than one million distribute water for more than a few hours per day.

Water Pollution
There is lack of mechanism to regulate water usage in India as well as there is also little regulation on pollution and even less enforcement of what regulations do exist. Billions of rupees have been spent on pollution clean-up, especially on Ganga and Yamuna rivers, but no one knows where it went. On the contrary, the levels of pollution in these rivers have increased. A combination of sewage disposal, industrial effluents, chemicals from farm runoffs, arsenic and fluoride has rendered India’s rivers unfit for drinking, irrigation, and even industrial purposes.

Every river in India is polluted to some degree. The water quality in underground wells violates the desired levels of dissolved oxygen and coliform. The polluted water then seeps into the groundwater and contaminates agricultural products when used for irrigation. Over 21% of transmissible diseases in India are related to unsafe water.10

Viewed in a broad perspective, India’s water crisis is predominantly a manmade problem. India’s climate is not particularly dry, nor is it lacking in rivers and groundwater. Extremely poor management, unclear laws, corruption in water sector, and industrial and human waste have caused this water supply crunch and rendered what water is available practically useless due to the huge quantity of pollution. In managing water resources, the government must balance competing demands between urban and rural, rich and poor, the economy and the environment.

While dealing with the water-related problems in India, the role of Union Government and the State Governments, district authorities and village Panchayat institutions assume added significance because the framework for policy-making and policy implementation is primarily in the hands of the government bodies. In other words, government is a key factor in water governance.

Although, the Central Ministry of Water Resources is entrusted with the task of overlooking the water related affairs, but the other ministries and departments of Government of India, like Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) etc., are also concerned with water-related issues in one way or the other. Besides, the state governments are equally empowered to deal with water-related issues.

Under the prevailing circumstances, the need for convergence and coordination between these ministries is not only a dire necessity but the need of the hour as well. Water governance entails water finance, water mapping, village level water-related activities etc. Each ministry having something to do with water-related activities is supposed to earmark some funds and devise certain plans for water governance. In this manner, there is replication of activities and expenses thus incurred also get doubled. If there is convergence and coordination of the resources and required activities, then both resources and efforts can be conserved for other activities. In this regard, some suggestions are explained briefly to optimize the convergence and coordination between different ministries with regard to water governance.

Institutional Capacity Building
Developing the capacities of institutions dealing with water-related issues is a sine qua non for good governance. Facilitating institutions at the village level and developing their capacities on various aspects should be the key implementation strategy. Right from the inception of the project implementation, proper emphasis is needed to be paid to develop the capacities of the partner community.

Development of Finance and Information Resources
Availability of adequate financial resources is imperative for carrying out any activity. Undoubtedly, each Ministry allocates a particular amount for water-related activities as per plan period in order to achieve the target within a stipulated period. In the absence of proper information about the nature of project in the same region being undertaken by some other ministry or department or the state government, there is possibility of replication of work as well as extra-expenditure to be incurred on a similar or identical project. Thus, coordination in pooling financial resources is called for.

Monitoring Progress
Planning and execution of a project involve a stage where monitoring of the progress made thus far becomes crucial for assessing whether the implementation of the project is in accordance with the guidelines or not. Besides, monitoring also enables to ascertain the pitfalls like shortage of funds, adequacy of the technology applied and the nature of outcome as well, apart from the pace of development. The monitored information with regard to water-related projects needs to be shared between the concerned ministries in order to evaluate the implementation and to remove the bottlenecks if any.

This process is already underway in the Ministry of Rural Development, particularly with regard to NREGA programmes and the ministry has many feathers to its cap in the form of success stories in many states. Concomitantly, it is desirable that the information gathered on the basis of monitoring is shared by the concerned ministry with other ministries to keep them apprised of the developments in that regard.

Priority Allocations
It is generally observed that project allocations are seldom done on need-based requirements or on the basis of any other rationale basis. Political interference in project allocations is more prominent in many cases related to water projects. Influential political leaders impress upon the authorities to allocate projects in their respective constituencies irrespective of the fact that whether such projects are required or not.

This lacuna can be rectified with the help of social auditing. The civil societies can keep a tab on politicians as well as political parties to oversee that they do not influence decision-making process in either of the ministries concerned with water-related issues and also to see that allocation of projects is done by a particular ministry/department on non-partisan basis.

There is also the need for exercising vigilance, particularly by the civil societies with regard to allocation of projects on water related issues, against political interference in allocation of the schemes, to see that such projects are not politically-motivated but people-friendly.

Availability of Technology
The role of technology in tackling water-related problems cannot be over-emphasized. The availability of technical know-how is desirable for the successful completion of water-related problems. Technology is called for treating waster water to make it re-usable. Besides, even making water worth drinking, technology is required. Water-related technology is a bit costly and its use in Indian context is thus far is not so common.

Under these circumstances, the principle of public-private partnership (PPP) in water sector can be invoked. Undoubtedly, the principle of PPP is working in some selected areas successfully and these success stories can be repeated in other areas and regions as well. The private sector has already shown willingness to participate in the water sector and as such more details can be worked out to identify areas of PPP cooperation. The private sector can invest in technology in return for reasonable compensation or incentives in other sectors. This will help in tiding over the problem of technology availability and reduce the monetary burden on the state exchequer as well.

Article by:
Dr Arvind Kumar
*President, India Water Foundation, New Delhi (India).

Somini Sengupta, “In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge”, New York Times, 29 September 2006.
“India’s Population to Reach 1.5 Billion by 2025”, available at .
“India: Water Supply and Sanitation”, UNICEF Study (2002), p. 31.
In this regard see CSE, “It Isn’t Agriculture”, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, available at . Also see, “India Economy to Grow at 9% This Year”, CNBC News, 16 July 2007, available at .
“Himalayan Glaciers Melting Observed From Space”, Science Daily, 28 March 2007, available at .
“Himalayan glaciers? alarm grows”, available at .
UNICEF Study 2002, n. 3, p. 29.
For more details about groundwater in India, see Sakthivadivel Ramaswamy, “The Groundwater Recharge Movement in India”, in Mark Giordano and Karen G. Villholth (eds.), The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats, CAB International: 2007, pp. 195-210.
“India’s Water Crisis”, Water Partners International, available at .