Water crisis in India: Changing cropping patterns, recharging ground reserves imperative to avert disaster

Of 91 major water reservoirs in the country, 11 have zero percent storage. Further, almost two-thirds of the country's reservoirs have below normal levels

Ankita Virmani July 01, 2019 20:07:46 IST
Water crisis in India: Changing cropping patterns, recharging ground reserves imperative to avert disaster
  • Narendra Modi urged citizens to use water resources judiciously in Sunday's 'Mann ki Baat'.

  • The NITI Aayog’s 2018 composite water management index reveals that India is facing its worst water crisis in history.

  • A year on, parts of south India face an acute shortage of water.

On Sunday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned with his monthly radio broadcast, "Mann ki Baat," he urged citizens to use water resources judiciously. He said, “There can be no one formula to solve the water crisis in the entire country. For this, diverse efforts are being made in different parts of the country. However, they all have a common goal — to save water.”

This is not the first time that the prime minister urged the nation to prioritise water conservation and make appropriate interventions in this regard. Recently, when Modi was replying to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address, he emphasised the need to deal with the water crises in the country. He said, “We have to save water. The water crisis impacts the poor and women the most. We have created a Ministry of Jal Shakti.”

Noting that 80 percent of rural people are yet to get piped water supply, Modi has already announced a target of ensuring piped water for all rural homes in the countryside by 2024.

Yogesh Paithankar, chief engineer at the National Water Academy, said, “The government will soon launch a nationwide ‘Jal Kranti Abhiyan’. More than 200 senior government officials have been identified from across the country to run the awareness programme. There is a need to create awareness about the importance of saving every single drop of water. The focus will be on groundwater recharge and storage.”

Water crisis in India Changing cropping patterns recharging ground reserves imperative to avert disaster

A boy rides a bicycle behind a water tanker to cool himself at a road construction site in Agra. File image. Reuters

The ‘Jal Kranti Abhiyan’ will start from 1 July. Officers of the level of director/deputy secretary have been appointed as block nodal officers, and "prabhari officers" will work with them. Further, groundwater scientists and engineers will also be roped in. These teams will visit several blocks to implement water harvesting and conservation measures.

NITI Aayog sounds warning bell

The NITI Aayog’s 2018 composite water management index reveals that India is facing its worst water crisis in history. About 200,000 Indians die every year due to inadequate access to safe water and 600 million face high to extreme water stress, the index states, citing data by independent agencies.

The report warns that twenty-one cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people. If the present situation continues, there will be a 6 percent loss to the country’s GDP by 2050. The combination of rapidly declining groundwater levels and limited policy action is likely to be a significant food security risk for the country, says the report.

A year on, parts of south India face an acute shortage of water. In Chennai, whose metropolitan area is home to almost 9 million people- the four main reservoirs that supply water to the city are currently at less than one percent of their storage level. The successive failure of the Northeast monsoon in the past three years has dried up wells and water bodies. Schools, hospitals, offices, restaurants are struggling in Chennai, despite rainwater harvesting being mandatory in Tamil Nadu.

GP Sharma, president of metrology at Skymet Weather said that the present crisis is a severe one. He said, "The prime reason for this is the deficit monsoon last year. The post-monsoon, which we also know as Northeast monsoon, saw a deficit of 44 percent. Although winter ended on an overall positive note, rainfall during the pre-monsoon period, from April to May, had a 25 percent deficit."

However, Chennai is not the only city which is struggling with the crisis. Of 91 major reservoirs in the country, 11 have zero percent storage. Further, almost two-thirds of the country's reservoirs have below normal levels, a report by the Central Water Commission’s report revealed in June.

Amid the crises, the Karnataka government is planning to ban the construction of new multi-storeyed residential buildings for the next five years.

Just last year, an acute shortage of water had hit Shimla, and massive tourist footfalls at the same time had made the situation worse. Shimla has a population of 0.17 million and during the peak tourist season in summer, approximately 10,000 tourists visit the city every day.

Water crisis in India Changing cropping patterns recharging ground reserves imperative to avert disaster

Man-made crisis

Speaking on the crisis, water conservationist and environmentalist Rajendra Singh said, “This is the most severe crisis in the history of the country. Earlier, there used to be a crisis of food and other things, but today, we are struggling for water. As many as 256 districts in 17 states are in the red zone."

He added, “We humans are so focused towards development that we have not even given rivers a right to flow. Water bodies such as lakes, ponds and tanks have never been on the radar of policymakers. These water bodies had a role in recharging groundwater and in preventing floods by absorbing excess rainwater. Earlier, there were 30 lakh such water bodies across the country, while today, there are just 10 lakh of them. In Delhi alone, 800 such bodies existed, and today, the number is 380 and that too, just on paper. We have encroached on them to construct buildings, bus stops, etc. Floods and droughts are inevitable if this continues.”

Encroachment of such water bodies has been identified as one of the prime reasons for the 2013 flash floods of Uttarakhand, and floods in Chennai (2015) and Mumbai (2005).

Speaking on the human causes behind the water crisis, Sharma said, “The utilisation of a resource as important as water has to be judicious. Where water is available, we are consuming it carelessly. The importance of water and the need to save it has to sink in. A small example is an RO water purifier, which is commonly used. Two-third of water is wasted through such machines.

Water crisis in India Changing cropping patterns recharging ground reserves imperative to avert disaster

File image of water conservationist Rajendra Singh. Ajay Singh/Firstpost

Cropping Patterns

As per a 2018 study by NABARD and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, shifting a major chunk of the rice production to India’s central and eastern states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, while encouraging wheat cultivation through sustainable irrigation in the rice-growing regions of Punjab and Haryana, could help India prevent an impending water crisis by 2030.

Speaking on how sowing patterns have worsened matters, Rajendra Singh said, "Earlier, farmers would sow crops when it rained. But now, with the uncertain monsoons, everything from the sowing of crops to irrigating the land, is done with groundwater. Producing food with groundwater will hit the country in the long run.”

As per the Central Water Commission, 85.3 percent of the total water consumed in India was for agriculture in 2000, and the figure is likely to decrease to 83.3 percent by 2025. Singh said, “One of the prime reasons for this unregulated use of groundwater is the commercialisation of crops. The government pays the highest subsidies and rate for three of the most water-intensive crops — sugarcane, rice and wheat. It is high time for the government to educate farmers about employing cropping patterns as per the availability of water.”

Rice and wheat, two of India’s most important food crops, are the most water-intensive. Producing a kilogram of rice requires an average of 2,800 liters of water, while a kilogram of wheat requires 1,654 liters of water, as per a recent report by WaterAid India.

A report on groundwater resources of Punjab by the Central Ground Water Board and the state’s Water Resources and Environment Directorate has found that there is over-exploitation of groundwater to meet the agricultural requirements in the state. Out of 138 blocks, 109 blocks are "over-exploited", two blocks are "critical", five are "semi-critical" and only 22 fall in the safe category.

Water harvesting: A priority

Groundwater makes up 40 percent of the country’s water supply. The erratic monsoon and successive droughts have led to excessive depletion of groundwater, which resulted in the decline of groundwater by 61 percent between 2007 and 2017. A 2018 report by WaterAid has already put India at the top of a list of countries with the worst access to clean water close to homes.

Failure to recharge groundwater at the same pace at which it is withdrawn will only aggravate the crisis.

Speaking on the need to harvest water, Singh said, “There is this simple formula for this. Where water is 'running', we must make it 'walk', and when it 'walks', we must make it 'crawl.' Where water 'crawls', we need to make it rest on the ground. That way, it will not evaporate, and it can be used when needed."

Right to Water

Madhya Pradesh is mulling a law granting "right to water" — which would guarantee a certain amount of water per person per day. The law may also have stringent provisions against wastage of water.

Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer and founder of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, said, “We certainly need this law to ensure basic quantum of water to every citizen on a daily basis, whether in urban or rural areas. The maximum use of water is in agriculture, after which comes domestic, industrial and commercial consumption. Pricing mechanisms for these are important and have to be clarified through this law.”

In fact, the time is ripe for stringent laws to ensure the saving of water across the country, not just in Madhya Pradesh.

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