How India’s Waterless Doom Can Be Defeated

How India’s Waterless Doom Can Be Defeated India was the cradle of civilization, a riverine world that had its proud foundation in the Indus Valley. Indian culture is thus interwoven with water. The holy Ganges, the early dip, the bathing ritual---all early Hindu practices are water-shot.

Yet the paradox is that the most fertile nation is today one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, “from its deepest aquifers to its largest rivers”.

How much is too much?

A report by the World Resources Institute shows that more than 100 million people in India live in severely polluted areas. Out of 632 districts examined, only 59 districts had water safe enough to drink. The area that is the most severely polluted is Bagalkot, Karnataka.

The statistics mock the country. While 54% of India’s total area faces the threat of water scarcity, almost 600 million people are not able to get enough. In a total population of 1.2 billion according to the 2011 census, India has just 1,000 cubic meters of water per person today, as against the US supply of nearly 8,000 cubic metres per person. Any country with less than 1,700 cubic meters per person per year is considered water-stressed.


Even the most fertile region, which is the source of not only food but also her civilization and the Vedic culture, is the excessively high-stressed Northwest India, which produces 50 per cent of the national rice supply and 85 per cent of its wheat. This area is also called India’s “breadbasket.” But the 550 wells in Northwestern India face the danger of declining groundwater levels by 58 per cent.
But why exactly, has this all happened?

Why the water crisis?
The reasons are obvious. Even as the population is expanding, water supply is reducing, with farmers over-extracting the resource. Especially after the Green Revolution, groundwater, rather than surface water, is being overused to irrigate crops.

There is not enough investment in technology and infrastructure at all federal, state, and local levels. Due to lack of efficient planning, shooting corporate privatization, industrial and human pollution and finally corruption, the lifeline of a healthy community has been threatened, according to The Water Project.

South, West and Central India, on the other hand, have a significantly lower water table than other regions.

In Eastern India, the strange paradox of abundant groundwater, but lack of electricity, has made water inaccessible for irrigation. All over the country, faulty distribution of electricity has stressed out agricultural practices.

When examined at a national level, it is clear that the groundwater levels come down continuously, as its 4,000 wells show a reduction of 54% of the water supply in the past seven years. Almost 16% of the water reduces by over 1 meter (3.2 feet) annually.

Moreover, the groundwater is extremely polluted as chlorine, fluoride, iron, arsenic, nitrate, and/or electrical conductivity exceed the national standards. Most of the water in India is not even fit for drinking, and sometimes not even for bathing. The Clean Ganga campaign never proceeded beyond a launch in 1984, due to lack of maintenance of the facilities.

Improving water supply?
How do we increase water creation and storage, then? In the cities, a poor and leaky distribution network has led to large-scale leakage as well as “unaccounted water.” But with adequate pricing, and the use of private firms to streamline distribution, reliable water supply can be improved and pricing can be reduced, as in Dharwad.

In rural areas, while recharging and harvesting water is important, such techniques have limited advantages. It is important to utilize water for local storage. In the long run, dams can be used, apart from full groundwater recharge, water harvesting, and recycling, in order to prevent it from getting lost in the oceans.

However, two opposing viewpoints lock horns over the issue of dams. One section says that a worrying aspect of storage dams is its record of disturbing biodiversity and the environment, submerging and displacing people and disrupting their lifestyles, cultures, social support systems and emotional attachment to certain areas. Hence, instead of big dams, they advocate watershed development, involving leveling land and tapping rainwater in small ponds and check dams in streams, which can increase soil moisture, recharge groundwater, and facilitate a second crop.

On the other hand, many heavy technology-oriented nation builders feel that storage dams cannot be neglected, considering the swelling population and the need to overcome the national crisis. They point out that while the population is expected to grow astronomically, the target increase of agriculture by 4% every year is essential to expand 140 million hectares (mh) of net cultivated area in India, even though only about 60 mh of land is irrigated today.

Some new steps
One optimistic feature of India’s water development is that certain issues have been addressed, at least. In India’s eleventh five-year plan (2007–12), according to The National Bureau of Asian Research some 15 mh through watershed development, as well as NGO-led efforts have paved the way to the program’s success.

For example, Anna Hazare transformed Ralegan Siddhi village in Maharashtra through water harvesting and cooperation.
Another NGO called Tarun Bharat Sangh brought about community-based development through water harvesting and management in Rajasthan. Even Gujarat built over 100,000 check dams, which are said to be the main reason for Gujarat’s 8%-plus growth rate of agricultural GDP.

With a lot of focus on water management in the 12th Five-Year plan, there seems to be some attention being given to aquifer mapping, watershed development, reduction of pollution and treatment, and efficient management of irrigation.

With sound partnership between the centre, state, municipal and private bodies, the water crisis can be blown over, point out the optimists.
Can we then rise to the occasion and reach for the sodden skies and a fertile earth?