India News

India Now Faces a Scary Water Crisis

India grapples with a dire water crisis as glaciers melt, rivers dry and groundwater depletes. Urgent action, including government initiatives and increased public awareness, is imperative to address this crisis.
water tanker

MAHARASHTRA/INDIA – MAY 15, 2016 : Residents climb a municipal water tanker to filling water in their containers in Bhiwandi © Manoej Paateel /

March 08, 2024 05:20 EDT

On March 5, social media buzzed with a viral screenshot. A notice by a posh housing society in Bengaluru informed residents that the government had commandeered their private water tankers. As a result, this luxurious gated society now faces a water crisis. Note that this crisis has begun even before the onset of the famously parched Indian summers.

Bengaluru is not the only Indian city facing a water crisis. Chennai, the southernmost Indian metropolis, faced a dire crisis in 2019 when all its water sources completely dried up. Not only India but also other countries face such crises. South African metropolis Johannesburg has faced a recurring shortage of water and so have other cities in Africa and the Middle East.

At the heart of India’s crisis is criminal water mismanagement. Groundwater tables have been falling over decades thanks to overexploitation. According to a Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) study, Punjab’s groundwater fell by over a meter every year in 18 of its 22 districts from 1998 to 2018. In two decades, groundwater went from being available at three to 10 meters to below 30 meters. Tubewells in Punjab have been pumping out water thanks to subsidized electricity to grow crops India no longer needs and the government procures these crops at guaranteed prices. Such distorted incentives are putting future generations at risk.

India is running dangerously short of water

India’s struggle with water scarcity is a complex issue. Central to this challenge is the severe mismatch between the country’s limited water supplies and its rapidly expanding population. Despite housing 18% of the global population, India has access to only 4% of the world’s water resources. Historically, the country has relied heavily on the monsoon rains. Just one bad rainy season sometimes led to drought and famines. Over the years, climate change has made the monsoons more erratic, exacerbating India’s water crisis. 

Groundwater extraction has reached dangerously high levels. Rapid urbanization has increased demand and the rampant exploitation of both surface and groundwater. Bengaluru, once renowned for its numerous lakes, has become a concrete jungle where residents are running short of water. India’s NITI Aayog, the apex think tank of the government, has a composite water management index as per which 21 major Indian cities are on the verge of depleting their groundwater. These include cities such as Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai.

Needless to say, water scarcity profoundly affects daily life. Lack of water means many people cannot cook or clean properly. Sanitation suffers. Inevitably, the risk of diseases rises. Indian cities, where millions are packed together in tiny spaces, face great peril during any water crisis.

The author remembers a three-day water cut in a major Indian city. To meet basic needs, he resorted to buying expensive bottled water, costing about $2.00 (165 rupees) per five liters. Note that most Indians cannot afford to buy such water. The author also has memories of watching people squabble for clean water in slums and a 2020 report found that 78% of toilets in Mumbai lacked reliable water supply. 

Wasteful water usage and terrible policy cause water crisis

On a national scale, India grapples with a fascinating paradox. Despite an acute national water crisis, farmers in Punjab and Maharashtra persist in cultivating water-intensive crops. In Punjab, rice cultivation continues unabated, despite each kilogram of paddy requiring a staggering 15,000 liters of water. Experts point out that efficient water management could slash this figure to a mere 600 liters. If farmers transitioned to millets, that would save water further. It takes just 250 liters of water to produce one kilogram of millets. Yet farmers in Punjab are sticking to rice. The government subsidizes electricity, which allows farmers to use tube wells wantonly. They pump out free water using cheap electricity to grow rice, which the government buys at a fixed price. Ironically, Punjab was traditionally a wheat and millet growing state but misguided government policies have distorted incentives, which is leading to a dangerous depletion of groundwater.

Not only Punjab but also Maharashtra is wasting water. On the leeward side of the Western Ghats where rainfall is low, farmers are growing sugarcane, a water-intensive crop. As a result, a small fraction of cultivable land guzzles a disproportionate share of the state’s irrigation. Reforms have proved impossible because a powerful sugar lobby is addicted to easy money through sugarcane cultivation. Like diabetes, Maharashtra’s sugar addiction is a disease with disastrous consequences for the state.

At the heart of the water crisis lies a failure of governance. Water is a finite resource but neither politicians nor Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers who form policy acknowledge that fact. They pay lip service to water conservation without overhauling agricultural practices. Truth be told, politicians and IAS officers are not entirely to blame. The nation needs a collective shift to crop diversification. Growing millets and pulses as well as building ponds, tanks and bunds to capture monsoon rains and replenish groundwater is the need of the hour. Many farmers are dead set against reforms though. They prize the immediate over the important. In fact, farmers only recently blocked one of the major highways to demand higher government support prices for wheat and rice.. 

Farmers are behaving in a short-term manner in part because of human nature. Our cognitive limitations foster a sense of complacency towards long-term changes. We are wired to respond swiftly to imminent threats. This leaves us ill-prepared for the creeping menace of environmental change that unfolds over decades and centuries. 

This challenge is compounded by hyperbolic discounting, a tendency to prioritize the present over the future. While we may acknowledge the theoretical threats of climate change and water scarcity, practical action often falls short. A water crisis needs collective, not individual, action and coordination costs in a stratified populous society are high. Hence, India suffers from societal inertia in the face of a dire crisis. 

India’s problems are exacerbated by the lack of institutions focused on long-term planning. Third World countries like Egypt, Nigeria and India lack planning, in part because of a colonial past during which they developed a sense of learned helplessness. The people focus on day-to-day survival while the matters of the state are the realm of the leaders. In India, social media handles and YouTube videos are proof of how society looks up to IAS officers in particular to act as oracles for every problem. Tragically, IAS officers have no domain expertise and few even care about water management. 

These days, IAS officers turn to consultants with fancy degrees for policy formation. These consultants have little domain expertise themselves. They prize Microsoft PowerPoint slides over substantive knowledge or practical action. As a result, India lacks an institutional framework to come up with a sane water policy and the criminal mismanagement of water resources continues.

What citizens and governments need to do

Both India’s central government in New Delhi and state governments around the country have been making noises and taking action on water. Indeed, they have focused on supply-side policies and actions to solve the water crisis. Initiatives like the prime minister’s Jal Jeevan Mission, which seeks to provide every rural household with tap water connection by 2024, and the Vrishabhavathi Lift Irrigation project, which seeks to fill up 70 lakes near Bengaluru in the first phase, are coming up with supply-side infrastructure solutions. 

Schemes such as the Atal Bhujal Yojana and Paani Bachao, Paisa Kamao incentivize community efforts to conserve water. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a vocal advocate for water conservation. He has repeatedly called for a shift in mindset during his radio addresses through Mann ki Baat and promoted 60,000 Amrit Sarovars as community-driven models for water conservation.

These policies primarily focus on improving infrastructure to ensure a nationwide water supply. However, India’s water crisis is acute and worsening. Our glaciers are melting, rivers are drying up and groundwater levels are falling. The author is from Agra and recalls witnessing the drying of the river Yamuna in his hometown. Other rivers in different regions of the country are drying too. There is the added problem of ever-increasing plastic pollution in the Himalayas and riverbeds in our mountains are inevitably full of plastic, a fact that Satya Prakash Negi, one of the nation’s finest Indian Forest Service officers has pointed out clearly

Given the scale of the crisis, India needs an almost wartime-like mobilization. The complacent chalta hai (anything goes) national attitude of colonial learned helplessness no longer suffices. We have to blend traditional wisdom with modern innovations. We need to combine both demand and supply-side solutions. Traditional models of water conservation, as pioneered by Rajendra Singh, the Water Man of India, are good models as are reforms to failed policies that are causing India’s groundwater to disappear. Importantly, it is time for India to implement a water consumption tax. Even as the underprivileged queue for hours to secure a few liters of water, golf courses run sprinklers even in water-stressed Bengaluru. India can no longer afford rice in Punjab, sugarcane in western Maharashtra and golf courses in Bengaluru making demands on a scarce natural resource.

As per the World Bank, India’s per capita income was $2,410.90 (about 200,000 rupees) in 2022. So, advanced technological solutions such as waterless and odorless toilets, as well as smart taps and showers, will not see mass adoption. Yet people can use water more frugally. This modification of demand would require communication and messaging, which the author’s professor at IIM Bangalore advocates. Training minds to conserve water is doable. India’s political and civic leaders have to work together to increase public awareness, change policies and foster behavioral changes. Water is the essence of life and we as a nation must treat it as a finite valuable resource.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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