Here's how India’s water governance has failed its citizens

At present, around 330 million people in India are suffering a severe drought, which has caused an acute drinking water shortage crisis, especially in the states of Maharashtra and Telangana. The government of Maharashtra has recently declared 29,000 villages as drought-ridden. In fact, India has long been a water-stressed country. It has two percent of the world’s land, 16 percent
of its population, but only four percent of its renewable water resources.

Groundwater, constituting about 38.5 percent of available water resources, meets nearly 55 percent of irrigation, 85 percent of rural and 50 percent of urban and industrial needs.

Water stress is not unique to India.

There is a direct, positive relationship between economic growth and water stress. Rapidly growing countries of Asia and South America are facing a growing water crisis that threatens to derail their ambitious growth plans. For example, Brazil has more freshwater than any other country in the world, and yet its largest city, Sao Paulo, faced a drought in 2014. Nearly 40 percent of Brazil’s population faces some degree of water stress. In the 1950s China had 50,000 rivers. Today, the number has reduced to 23,000.

Small countries like Malaysia and Singapore have been facing droughts in recent years. Groundwater in Thailand is highly contaminated due to pollution caused by industries and over-extraction of groundwater.

A recent World Bank report says that countries can lose up to six percent of their GDP due to water scarcity that is caused by climate change.

Representational image. Getty Images

Representational image. Getty Images

By 2030, the world is projected to face a 40 percent deficit in its demand for water. India, with its growth ambitions, and a billion hopes, is clearly vulnerable. China has faced water problems similar to India in scale. China and India are both facing a water crisis because of over-consumption, pollution and inefficient use. Severe pollution is another common problem for both countries.

For instance, in China, water from one of its major rivers — the Yellow River Basin — has been badly polluted by more than 4,000 petrochemical firms. Water quality is so bad that it is no longer fit even for agriculture. The Ganges River is one of the most polluted in the world. The lack of sanitation in much of India has severely polluted its groundwater as 80 percent of all sewage flows directly into Indian rivers untreated.

Inefficient water use is a common problem as well.

In India, non-revenue water is 41 percent on a national average, compared to 21 percent in China. Agriculture consumes 90 percent of India’s fresh water, aggravated by a policy of subsidising fuel for irrigation pumps, which is rapidly depleting India’s groundwater. In China, industries consume about 23 percent of all fresh water supply.

However, while fast-growing countries face similar stresses on their natural resources, the way they respond to these stresses can be remarkably different. Countries that put in place robust water governance systems to cope with rapidly increasing water needs and the unpredictability of water supply caused by climate change will be able to meet their ambitious growth targets and promise of a good quality of life.

Tiny Singapore, a city-state long dependent on neighboring Malaysia for its basic drinking water needs has fine-tuned the technology for treating waste water and then reintroducing the treated water into its water system (the technology is dubbed ‘NEWater’). Singapore has also built an effective drainage system to be able to capture as much rainwater as possible in order to maintain its reservoirs. The city-state has recently weathered a drought, but its unsuspecting citizens would not realise it, as the availability and purity of their drinking water remains unaffected.

Even under conditions of water stress, countries like Thailand and Malaysia are able to provide tap water 24/7 to their citizens in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. China provides 24/7 tap water to its citizens. The water tariffs in these countries are not subsidised, thereby reducing the burden on government budgets. In contrast, urban India’s reliance on water tankers is unrelenting.

When they can, urban India is joining rural India in digging their own personal tubewells.

China’s main approach to solving its water (and energy) crisis is to build more large dams and diversion canals. Some 22,000 medium to large-sized dams (at least 15-metres-tall) have been built since the 1950s. This is roughly half the world’s current total dams. The world’s largest dams are found in China. In addition, some 130 large dams are in various phases of development — from planning to construction — along the Yangtze and its tributaries, the Mekong and Brahmaputra, all flowing from the Tibetan Plateau.

China has the world’s largest dam — the Three Gorges Dam with a capacity 10 times that of the Hoover Dam — and the world’s largest water transfer project — the 2,700 mile North-South Water Transfer Project. The main driver of this dam-building frenzy is to reach the goal of generating 15 percent of China’s energy needs from renewable sources such as dams (from the current level of
nine percent) as well as to supply water to agriculture and rapidly expanding cities.

In India, dam-building has been a much more difficult undertaking for a variety of reasons.

Water is a state subject and not a Central subject. State governments do not have the same capacity — engineering, financial, administrative and the political will — to undertake massive dam-building projects. In addition, inter-state conflicts in a federal system discourage cooperation.

In China, the state owns all water resources, surface (such as rivers) as well as groundwater. In India, groundwater is owned by the landholder. The state is therefore unable to regulate groundwater exploitation. It can only introduce policies to influence usage.

Water tariffs for domestic and industrial use are set by state governments and municipalities in India. State governments usually have less capacity and limited skill sets when compared with the Central government. Under the circumstances, the Central government should invest in capacity-building for state and city governments so that these sub-national governments can regulate and collect sustainable tariffs.

Clearly, effective water governance is the key to coping with water stress.

Research has shown that there may be existence of a water Kuznet’s curve ie certain water governance indicators vary positively with a country’s level of economic development. For example,
richer countries tend to pursue cost recovery compared to lower income countries where raising water tariff remains a politically sensitive subject. This is not surprising. Consumers in high and middle income countries are able to afford their water bills compared to poorer countries. Such a relationship has been found with respect to China. As China has increased its per capita income, its water governance indicators have strengthened, especially with reference to India.

For India, a water governance framework should include an overhaul of the legal regulation of water, efficient use of water for agriculture use, increasing green belts to raise the groundwater table and public-private partnerships for urban water supply and sewage treatment.

The present government has earmarked $3 billion for Ganga rejuvenation for the next five years, with plans to manage waste effluents, industrial pollution and revival of aqua life. The government should encourage growth of crops that are less water-intensive so that groundwater over-exploitation can be arrested. In this year’s Budget, the government has provided subsidies for drip-irrigation in the hope of reducing dependence on groundwater. This year, the government is planning to pump in $6 billion to increase the country’s forest cover.

However, it remains to be seen whether the present government is able to deliver on promises that have not been implemented in the past 40 years. If India is to grow rapidly in the next 30 years, it has to decisively address its water problems now. For a start, India’s politicians should put water on top of their agenda.

Good water economics is good politics.

Dr Eduardo Araral is the vice-dean, Research and associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is also director at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Shivani Ratra, is a researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Sun Xi is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore and an alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Published Date: May 24, 2016 01:32 pm | Updated Date: May 24, 2016 01:32 pm