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Five reasons why water shortage will come to haunt us in a few months’ time, again

A man uses a hand-pump to fill up a container with drinking water as others wait in a queue on a street in Chennai, India, June 17, 2019. Picture taken June 17, 2019. REUTERS/ P. Ravikumar

With the crippling floods that we see around us now, it’s hard to believe that a few months into the non-rainy season we’ll be plagued by water shortage once again.

As per the Central Water Commission, India receives around 4000 billion cubic meters of rain annually. Against this, we need roughly around 3000 billion cubic meters of water annually. Basic math suggests India should have a water surplus year-round.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Rampant misuse and misallocation of water is fast depleting our precious groundwater. As a result, India has become as much prone to water crisis due to a short spell of drought as the deserted middle eastern and sub-Saharan African nations. This was recently revealed by a US-based think tank called World Resources Institute.

The institute’s survey showed India is one of the 17 most water-stressed nations in the world (it calculated the “water-stress levels” by dividing the total available water by the volume withdrawn). All the 17 nations, unlike India, are covered in vast swathes of deserts that hardly see any rainfall!

And this is not a first-of-its-kind revelation. Niti Aayog, India’s own think tank, has already sounded a strong warning by stating that groundwater levels in 21 major Indian cities such as Bangalore, Delhi and Hyderabad will completely dry up by next year. A 100 million will be affected by it, as per it.

The word “alarming” doesn’t even begin to cover this crisis which is of our own making and its dire consequences that we are already facing!

Let’s unravel the top five reasons behind it:

Outsize proportion of groundwater allocated to farming sector

Successive governments’ thrust on supporting agriculture, a source of livelihood for the rural poor, has meant that of the 80 percent ground water withdrawn, almost 70 percent is allocated to agriculture. What’s more, much of agricultural water is pumped out of the soil with heavily subsidized, coal-fired electricity!

Just in case you are wondering what’s wrong in allocating water for agriculture, which helps to produce another crucial commodity, food, here’s a quick fact check for you: Most of the water pumped from the ground is used to irrigate water-intensive crops such as rice, sugar and cotton. The crops not just need thousands of liters of water to produce every kilogram, but also currently have a high global stockpile resulting in their tanking prices.

Cotton prices have fallen by almost 20 percent in the past 12 months with a global stockpile equal to 60 percent of consumption.

Under the given circumstance, channeling groundwater for rice, sugar and cotton cultivation is a criminal wastage. It’s not helping anyone and is simply adding to the global glut at the expense of our precious groundwater reserves.

The green revolution

The green revolution that happened in the 1970s when the northwestern states became India’s breadbasket with canals and tube wells drawing groundwater is also to be blamed in large part for the water crisis staring at us. The northwestern states get far less rainfall than the south eastern and south western states. Notwithstanding this, they have been growing water-intensive crops which has proved to be unsustainable and affected the groundwater levels. This is corroborated by the report, which states that Haryana, Chandigarh and Punjab are states in India that have extremely high water stress.

Lack of rainwater-harvesting and groundwater replenishment mechanisms

At present, India preserves a dismal 8 percent of its annual rainfall thanks to very little emphasis being placed on water-harvesting and replenishment of groundwater. This figure is among the lowest in the world.

Snuffing out wetlands and lakes to build and expand cities has left very little scope for groundwater recharging. In fact, this is one of the main reasons, why Chennai saw a scary water shortage this summer. As four of the lakes that supplied it with water completely dried up (just about 1 percent of water was left in them), its waterbodies – had they been intact – could have come to the rescue. It could have also averted the major floods the city saw not too long ago by absorbing excess rainwater.

Untreated wastewater

Untreated industrial wastewater alongside household wastewater are major contributors to India’s water crisis. It is said that around 80 percent of the water supplied to households leaves as waste and pollutes waterbodies. With hardly any proper mechanisms to treat and recycle them, it is affecting the potable water availability even more.

River water sharing

River water sharing has been a political hot potato in India and has led to many a disputes between states. Waters of the Cauvery river, for example, has been a constant source of tussle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka with the former complaining that it doesn’t receive its fair share of the waters from the river. Similar narratives play out when it comes to sharing waters of Godavari, Krishna and Narmada rivers. This has often led to water shortage in many cities and areas.