Newspaper headlines at various times during the year 2018 highlighted what may well be called the “worst water crisis” in the country’s history till date. Cities faced various issues such as flooding, deficit rainfall, poor drinking water supply, encroached water bodies and untreated sewage, and all these were considered in the preparation of the ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (CWMI) by the NITI Aayog (National Institute for Transforming India) released in June.
The report makes ominous predictions: By 2050, the demand for water in the country might exceed supply, and 21 cities might run out of every drop of groundwater by 2020. About 40 per cent of India’s 100 million may have no drinking water in another decade!
Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Water Resources, has however pointed out that availability is not so much a problem as the mismanagement and lack of conservation of water. This implies that the ownership and remedy of the problem both rest in human hands. And so, as we begin a new year, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the magnitude of the problem, as revealed by various studies and reports, and resolve to take steps to solve the issue.
1. Overused groundwater: 21 cities moving towards zero level
The groundwater crisis in the cities is worsening, due to gross urbanisation, unchecked boring, exploitation of groundwater and surface water and a failure by the government or private bodies to rejuvenate groundwater. For instance, Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, is so overpopulated that experts predict that it might face a severe problem, which would lead to evacuation by 2025. Uttar Pradesh, the worst-hit state, shows depleting groundwater levels in 660 blocks. Among these, 180 blocks in 45 districts are ‘stressed’ or over-exploited.
The ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India’, a report by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), has defined the stage of development of groundwater as the percentage of utilisation of groundwater with respect to recharge. It shows that Hyderabad is the worst in this respect, with stage of development exceeding 400%. Chennai stands at 185%. In Delhi, the stage of groundwater development is 127% at some places, but more than 250% in other areas. According to the Ground Water Resources Assessment, more than one-sixth of the country’s groundwater supply is overused.
2. Contamination: 200,000 die every year due to lack of clean water
About 85% of India’s cities have access to drinking water, though most cities do not have the infrastructure to supply piped water to all homes.. Only 20% of water meet health and safety standards, according to the Niti Aayog report. This is due to high levels of pollution, with India ranked 120 among 122 countries in the global water quality index. Almost all major rivers and 70 percent of water in India is contaminated, reveals the Central Pollution Control Board.
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the cities of Lucknow, Kanpur, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Agra, Noida, and Varanasi are all severely hit by water contamination. Water in these cities have high levels of salinity and heavy contaminants such as fluoride, iron, arsenic, chromium and manganese. As water becomes scarce, arsenic and fluoride become more concentrated in water. Nitrates seep in from fertilisers, pesticides and other industrial waste.
Deaths due to water-related diseases in India are in the range of nearly 80 per cent. The level of chemicals in the water is so high, says V.K. Madhavan, head of WaterAid India, that bacterial contamination – the source of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid – is only in the “second order of problems”!
3. Mismanaged Sewerage: Two-thirds of city houses lack sewage connection
To fight pollution, the solution is to build wastewater treatment plants in order to decontaminate water before it gets discharged into urban water bodies and rivers. However, as WaterAid’s 2018 report titled ‘State of Urban Water Supply in India‘ points out, just a fraction of the wastewater that gets generated and discharged into sewers reach the treatment facilities thanks to silted sewer lines, ill-maintained pumping stations and unreliable power supply. To top it all, only a third of urban houses are linked to the sewer system at all.
4. Climate change: Floods cost Kerala Rs 20,000 crore
With the ironic combination of deficit rainfall in some areas and flooding in others, India’s cities seem to be caught between the devil and the deep sea, as brought out by the WaterAid report.
With rising levels of temperature and lowered rainfall, cities, particularly in north and central India, remain water-strapped. Gurgaon lost 389 water bodies in the past 60 years, showed one study.
Then again, floods and heavy rains cost India Rs 18,279.63 crore through damage to crops, houses and public utilities in 2017, according to a 2018 study by the Central Water Commission. Although comprehensive 2018 data on floods and heavy damage is not yet available, the loss in Kerala alone amounted to Rs 20,000 crore, which was more than the national loss in 2017.
Due to lack of climate resilient water sector planning or investments in capacity development of urban communities, Indian cities are staring at a looming disaster.
5. Economic drag: GDP to plummet 6% due to water crunch
With lack of water leading inevitably to economic loss and food scarcity, India might face a 6% loss in its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, according to the NITI Aayog report. The low performers on the Water Index compiled by the NITI Aayog house 50% of the country’s population and account for 20-30% of agricultural output.
These populous northern states of UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana, and others, accounting for 600 million people are also a management risk. Food security is threatened as 80% of water, the precious resource, is used in agriculture.
Water scarcity is also expected to affect health, agriculture, income, industry, property and urban development. For instance, even in a selected smart city such as Solapur, many projects have been held up due to lack of water, as it has scared off a number of investors from exploring the possibilities, say officials in the ministry for water supply and sanitation.
In other instances, top-ranked IT companies such as Amazon and Novartis wanted to start building activities in Ranga Reddy district near Hyderabad, but the work got held up as the companies had to dig deep bore-wells to access water, which were not given the green signal by the groundwater department.
Niti Aayog has asked cities to pave the way for “urgent and improved” management of water resources through “competitive and cooperative federalism”. As always, plans are big even though execution takes years. The suggestions include reliable and affordable water services, reducing non-revenue water from leaks or meter problems, penalising polluting industries, and firm vigilance as well as regulations to control underground reservoirs.
Some steps have been initiated already to address issues. Water supply contracts for 494 projects worth Rs 19,428 crore for 500 cities in the AMRUT plan and water-related projects for 99 Smart City plans have been identified. Chennai has received appreciation for maintenance of its rainwater harvesting schemes. The Delhi Jal Board announced that it was planning to spend Rs 453 crore to cover more than 350 acres by water bodies. The plan is to revive 159 lakes and create two new mega lakes, helping to recharge groundwater.
In UP, there are plans to “revitalise” rivers that irrigate cities and 10,500 ponds in 49 districts. In Bhubaneshwar, the state has drawn up plans to provide free drinking water to urban households to develop the infrastructure for potable water. Patna’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar plans to allocate Rs 7,000 crore for every household to get 70 litres of water everyday for two years.
However, most solutions, including water imports, seem to be stopgap fixes. The problems need to be addressed not in silos, but holistically by departments of surface and groundwater, pollution, environment, climate change and irrigation.