- Falling water table
- Irrigation Requirements
- Rising water stress
- Heightened water demand
- Suboptimal use of water infrastructure
- Under-investment in water treatment
- Need of the hour
Let the Water Flow
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There is marked turbulence in India’s stressed water economy. A recent report by the ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) shows a ‘significant’ drop in rainfall in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal over the past three decades, and rising variability in the monsoons nationwide. Yet, policy circles seem to be missing its ripple effect.
Falling water table:
- India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest user of groundwater by far, even as the water table has been falling by an average of 0.4 m nationally.
- Reports from Bihar suggest that the water table there has fallen by several feet of late.
- Well, over half our districts are now known to be witnessing serious groundwater over-exploitation.
- The figures suggest that groundwater provides for over two-thirds of irrigation requirements.
- Worse, in the last four decades, about 85% of total addition to irrigation has come from groundwater. This is clearly unsustainable. No wonder the water table is falling steeply.
- There’s a large, growing gap between irrigation potential created and that actually utilized, simply due to lax maintenance.
- Policy neglect of user charges is endemic. In the past, states have often sought loans from multilateral bodies for water projects, only to follow it up with another package a few years later to provide for regular maintenance.
Rising water stress:
- Recent trends seem to suggest rising water stress across the country.
- Annual precipitation is estimated at about 4,000 billion cubic meter (BCM), but the natural run-off available is much less, an estimated 1,869 BCM, after evaporation.
- But because of geological and other factors, the actual water resources utilizable is still less, no more than 1,123 BCM, and comprising 690 BCM of surface water and 433 BCM of groundwater that can be replenished.
Heightened water demand:
- But water conditions vary widely across regions. While some are drought-prone, others witness recurring floods.
- Further, India is urbanizing rapidly. This implies heightened water demand from households, industry and agriculture.
- A recent expert committee pored over figures to arrive at an estimated water demand in 2025 to be just under 1,100 BCM, with the requirement for the farm sector at 910 BCM, 73 BCM for households and 23 BCM for industry, which may well be an underestimate.
- India faces depleting water resources, in a backdrop of gross mismanagement.
Suboptimal use of water infrastructure:
- The suboptimal use of water infrastructure is routine, given poor command area development and distribution of water in ill-maintained (and uncovered) canals, which, in turn, often results in heavy soil erosion and siltation.
- One recent report maintains that over 70% of surface irrigation water nationally is simply wasted, what with the practice of nominally charging water supplied on an area basis, not volumetric, and which remains unrevised for years.
- There are other reasons coming in the way of water-use efficiency in agriculture, including insufficient decentralized water management institutions.
- There is no reason why water use for main crops here needs to be 2-4 times the global norm. We need to extend the right extension services for agriculture.
- Rational pricing of water in the fields brooks no delay.
- Less water usage can reduce soil erosion and improve crop yields.
Under-investment in water treatment:
- Alongside, urban water supply needs to be reasonably priced to better allocate resources for distribution and storage.
- Further, we have grossly under-invested in water treatment and reuse. Barely 2% of our urban areas have both sewerage systems and sewage treatment plants.
- Our urban centres produce over 40,000 million liters of sewage daily, but only about a fifth of the muck undergoes treatment.
- Reuse and recycling of water holds much potential, provided there is rational pricing.
- Per-capita water availability has been falling by leaps and bounds for years.
- The estimation is not backed up the proper data.For instance, groundwater data continues to be based on an inadequate sample of only about 55,000 wells, given that there are estimated to be well over 20 million such facilities.
- Water data is often unreliable, and are collected using outdated techniques and methodologies.
- In most segments —industrial usage, households, etc. — the data is mostly available at only the aggregate level, implying diminished utility for policymaking.
Need of the hour:
- Resources to address the water crisis must be stepped up.
- Need for rational pricing of water.
- The National Water Framework Bill needs legislating; river rejuvenation ought to be a policy priority.
- Sustainable operations and maintenance of irrigation systems must be boosted.
- The dependence and over-extraction of ground water must be checked.
- Efforts must be made to encourage rain water harvesting.
- We also need to leverage IT to revamp water-related data systems, which seem to be sorely lacking in coverage, efficiency or robustness.
India is on the verge of a tipping point on water. We need a forward-looking policy design and follow-through action without further delay. The way forward is to frame policy and shore up follow-through action, both at the Centre and the states.