The new plan to solve India’s water crisis
July 4, 2019
As men streak past on bicycles and motorbikes en route to work every morning in the busy, narrow lanes of south Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, 45-year-old Poonam Kumar steps out, bucket in hand. Her day usually begins in a huddle of 20-odd people, all waiting for a Delhi Jal Board water tanker. “On most days, we get just two buckets of water (about 20-25 litres),” she says. In the blistering Delhi heat, that’s supposed to sustain a family of four. And this tanker comes only three times a week.
Delhi is ground zero for the country’s water policy architects. The brand new water ministry—Jal Shakti—is based in the city. The national capital also gets priority access to resources, with only 18% of the city’s households outside the piped water grid (among the best in the country)—still leaving out roughly 200 residential colonies, such as the one Kumar lives in. Despite the many advantages, the degree of water stress in Delhi is indicative of the magnitude of the challenge facing the country. Delhi goes into a tailspin each time canals carrying water from hundreds of kilometres away, in Haryana, go dry.
“Nothing much has changed,” says Avinash Mishra, adviser, water resources, at NITI Aayog, which put out a report in the summer of 2018 that contained a set of dire warnings about the future of the country’s water security. “In most parts of the country, it is business as usual.” With a stalled monsoon finally beginning to spread and even submerge parts of India, including Mumbai, K.J. Sohan, a former mayor of Kochi, says “rainwater harvesting is already being forgotten”.
However, there is one thing significantly different about the summer of 2019. The central government on Monday launched a water conservation drive that will last the entire period of monsoon, targeting over 250 of India’s most water-stressed districts (covering roughly a fourth of the country’s landmass). “The teams are going out now,” says Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, drinking water and sanitation. “They are going to make an assessment in consultation with local officials and set a baseline. The idea is to intensify and accelerate water conservation activity. We have a fluid list of about 1,200 officials. Pretty much one person from every ministry is going,” he adds.
The idea of rainwater harvesting has been discussed forever in Delhi’s policy corridors. It has been made mandatory for every building in the capital to install the rainwater harvesting system at least since 2001. Yet, a Mint Right to Information query last year revealed that a majority of government buildings in Delhi, including important ones like the Supreme Court and NITI Aayog, don’t have rainwater harvesting system. In his Mann Ki Baat radio address on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said only 8% of rainwater gets saved in the country.
The latest water conservation push may or may not result in lasting change. What is undeniable, however, is that India’s first major climate crisis is already at its doorstep. And it’s in the shape of water.
Perhaps the best indication of the dystopian reality that Chennai had entered this summer can be found in the hand pumps that have come up on the sands of Marina Beach, in the vicinity of the red-and-white lighthouse. Under pressure from residents of the nearby fishing village of Nochikuppam, the Chennai Metro Water Board dug the 15 feet deep borewells last month—without the approval of the state environment department. “The water tastes fine, so we drink it,” says B. Sunitha, who lives in Nochikuppam with her family of five.
The city also recently shut down air-conditioning on its swanky new metro rail trains to save water. Now, the plan is to bring in 10 million litres of water from Jolarpet, about 200km away. The first train load is supposed to come into the city on 7 July. The irony is that the villages which dot the source point of this water train, in many instances, get government water supply only once in 10 days. India’s water ecosystem is full of such ironies. Chennai gets most of its regular water supply from 30km away; Bengaluru relies on piped Cauvery water from 86km away; and Delhi gets its supply from 230km away. Parts of India remain in perpetual drought to keep the taps flowing in these major cities.
That is one of the reasons why the government’s marquee promise of providing piped water for every Indian by 2024 has caused a certain degree of alarm among water activists. Since water is not priced to contain demand, past experience shows that the reservoirs would only go dry quicker once piped water supply expands. “They will buy pipes and put them in every house, but what is the point of the pipe when there is no water,” asks Rajendra Singh, an environmentalist from Alwar who goes by the moniker “waterman of India”.
Restoring water bodies
That is why there is now a growing clamour about the second major common-sense reform—restoring waterbodies, which would stop the reliance on distant water sources. After having spent over ₹4 trillion on dams and other engineering-heavy solutions which haven’t shown results, Manoj Mishra, convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says: “The need is to focus on replenishing our natural dams—the aquifers and catchment areas. Let the rivers run free.”
The failure to preserve natural aquifers and catchments is most evident in the rate of groundwater depletion, which is the only fallback. “There has been an alarming decrease in the groundwater levels in the northern region in the last two decades,” says V.M. Tiwari, director of the Hyderabad-based National Geophysical Research Institute.
By 2009, the region was losing groundwater at a rate of 54 billion cubic metre per year, which is roughly equivalent to all the water stored in the Alaskan glaciers, Tiwari says, adding that it is probably the largest rate of groundwater loss in any comparable-sized region on Earth. “This has only gotten worse since then.” Evidence shows that India’s economic development, in fact, only accelerates water stress—with the percentage of districts with overexploited groundwater levels increasing from three in 1995 to 15 by 2011, according to the Standing Committee on Water Resources.
Since much of that water is guzzled by India’s farms (nearly 90% of freshwater withdrawal each year is by the agriculture sector), there may also have to be a serious reckoning on what India eats and how it is grown. “Agriculture is going to be the key part of the package to set right the mess we are in,” says Amarjit Singh, a former special secretary at the erstwhile ministry of water resources. “If you look at Maharashtra, 60% of the water is used for growing sugar cane when we are getting sugar much cheaper in the international market than in the domestic market. Even in Latur, they grow sugar cane. In the case of rice at least (takes about 3,000 litres to produce a kilogramme of rice), we get about $25 billion as export earnings,” he says.
Ultimately, the problem is that we really do not know what is happening to water, Singh says. “There has to be a proper (annual) audit on water… where is it coming from and where is it going. We should be measuring how many litres we spend growing crops as often as we measure the yield per acre,” he says. “The cropping pattern should be according to the availability of water (in the area),” he adds.
With renewed national attention, many of these pre-existing proposals and solutions may finally gain the attention they deserve, say experts. The Delhi government, for example, rolled out plans this week to create water catchment ponds on the Yamuna floodplains. “A plan for the (city’s) lakes is ready and should be rolled out in the next 12-18 months,” said a Delhi Jal Board official, requesting anonymity.
The key is yearly action prior to the monsoon, rather than the odd major initiative. In Chennai, for example, despite the city’s widely commended push toward making rainwater harvesting mandatory in every building, the absence of its main proponent, erstwhile chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, has led to significant slip back. A recent audit found that 40% of buildings had systems that weren’t really collecting water and most government buildings did not have any such systems, says Sekhar Raghavan of Rain Centre, a non-governmental organisation.
But Avinash Mishra of NITI Aayog insists the difference this time would be a “mission-mode” mindset. “Water will be to this government what toilets were to the previous government,” he says.
Meanwhile, the exodus of Delhi bureaucrats into water-stressed India will begin in a few days. Manish Thakur, a joint secretary in the Union government, is preparing to make his first visit to a district in Rajasthan. “We are hoping for a long-term change,” he says. “The initial focus will be on installing rainwater harvesting systems in group housing societies and every government building. We are building a central dashboard to track progress.”
It won’t be about theory but actionable points, he promises. “It’s not gas. The plan is to restore at least one defunct waterbody in every city and town,” Thakur says. By the end of September, as the southwest monsoon winds down, the tall promise of delivering piped water to every Indian would have met its first real test.