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India’s water politics amidst mounting climatic stresses


By Moin Qazi*
Water is the driving force of all nature. – Leonardo Da Vinci
India has long undervalued one of its most precious resources — water. The country’s chronic mismanagement of water is staring at it now. Over 600 million Indians rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable. The country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the monsoon is delayed. Despite these alarming signals we continue to abuse and use water so profligately.
Complex and capricious, the South Asian monsoon which is regarded as the most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, impacting nearly half the world’s population — has always been hard to predict. With global warming skewing weather patterns, it’s not just the scientists who are confounded.Farmers, who have for generations used the Panchangam, the almanac that elaborates the movement of the Hindu constellations and helps in understanding the monsoon also lament that their system has lost its reliability.
We have ourselves witnessed in some cities water being rationed and residents lining up at communal water points to collect their daily allotment. What is happening is not an outlier. This dystopian situation could happen to any of us, too. India’s peculiar demographics make the water equation quite problematic. The country is home to nearly a sixth of the world’s population, but has only 2.4 percent of the world surface and gets only four percent of the Earth’s fresh water.
More than half of the country faces high water scarcity. Out of the 1.2 billion people living in the country, about 742 million live and farm in agricultural heartlands. Rainfall accounts for 68 percent recharge to groundwater, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32 percent.
The country’s outdated water management infrastructure is too rickety to cope with the burgeoning population. We have procrastinated on real reforms by using band-aids and never looked at the issue with a far-sighted vision. Water is in every sense a multi-dimensional resource requiring an understanding of many other disciplines for its sustainable management. So we have to take farmers and agronomists on board so that farmers can work out an approach to manage their water in an equitable and sustainable manner. Indian utilities compound the problem by callously losing an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the water produced. This is in contrast to cities like Tokyo which loses 3.7 percent, Singapore 4.9 percent and Phnom Penh 6.5 percent..
India is not a water-scarce country. Apart from the major rivers, it receives an average annual rainfall of 1170 millimeters. It boasts renewable water reserves of 1,608 billion cubic meters a year. Given this robust back-up and with the world’s ninth largest freshwater reserves, India’s water woes reflect inefficient management, and not scarcity. Most parts of the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall. Many of the areas that are prone to flooding are usually the same ones that face drought months later.
Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Despite constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters, a relatively small achievement when compared to Russia’s 6,103 cubic meters, Australia’s 4,733, and China’s 1,111.
Israel has been a role model for the world in matters of water management with its innovation of drip irrigation. The country has also set the template for reusing wastewater in irrigation. It treats 80 percent of its domestic wastewater, which is recycled and constitutes nearly 50 percent of the total water used for agriculture. Israel now saves as candlelight for countries like India.
The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50 per cent. The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the country’s current water requirements to be around 1100 billion cubic metres per year, which is estimated to be around 1200 billion cubic metres for the year 2025 and 1447 billion cubic metres for 2050. The average Indian had access to 5,200 cubic metres of water a year in 1951, when the population was 350 million. By 2010, that had dropped to 1,600 cubic metres, a level regarded as “water-stressed” by international organizations. Today it is at about 1,400 cubic metres and analysts say it is likely to fall below the 1,000 cubic metre “water scarcity” limit in the next two to three decades.
India’s rivers are drying and are symptomatic of the dire state of the water crisis. The per capita water availability in 1951 was 5177 cubic metres. By 2011, this had fallen to 1545 cubic metres. Further, according to the National Institute of Hydrology, most of this water is not suitable for human use. It estimates that the per capita availability of usable water was a mere 938 cubic metres. This is expected to decline further, reaching 814 cubic metres by 2025.
The Earth appears a blue planet form distant Space, but only 2.5 percent of its water is fresh. “Water is the primary principle of all things,” the philosopher Thales of Miletus wrote in the 6th century BC. More than two-and-a-half thousand years later, on July 28, 2010, the United Nations felt it was necessary to define access to water as a human right. The response demonstrated the world body’s desperation with the crisis.
Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citibank, summed up his industry’s assessment in a strategy document four years ago, writing: “Water as an asset class, in my view, will eventually become the single most important physical commodity; dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities, and precious metals.”
India ranks in the top 38 percent of countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world and the least ready to adapt, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Rural communities dependent on farming to make a living will struggle to grow food and feed livestock amid soaring temperatures, and women—typically responsible for collecting water—may have to walk even greater distances during prolonged dry seasons. The proliferation of power plants has further compounded the problem. Government policies that make water and land cheaper in particular area need reassessment.
Ancient Indians understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals must be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state, the king, and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British upset this traditional norm by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.
Most of India’s traditional water management has been at the community level; relying upon diverse, imaginative and effective methods for harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flow. These were abandoned when we introduced reforms which we attributed to so-called superior knowledge compared to traditional wisdom. These techniques now remain little more than a fad.
However, they continue to remain viable and cost-effective alternatives for replenishing depleted groundwater aquifers. With government support, they could be revived, upgraded and productively combined with modern techniques. India is currently using only 35 percent of the rainwater it receives. Effective implementation of rainwater harvesting can harness the rainfall water that goes waste.
The climatic stresses are mounting fast and India needs to start talking about the elephant in the room. For any planned interventions to be successful, hardcoded timelines are needed. The country’s impressive economic growth must translate to faster progress in this critical area. It will have to change course and shift away from the business-as-usual approach before water runs out.
*Development expert

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