Last month, thieves made off with thousands of litres of rainwater stored at an athletic field in Brisbane, Australia. The rustlers jumped a fence, put a hose into the tank and siphoned the water into a truck. Scarcity of water, the elixir of life, is at the heart of such criminal acts in an exceptionally dry Australia that is taking drastic measures to cope with.
The shortages will sound familiar to Indians, though not the urgency on tackling them. Siphoning water from neighbours’ overhead tanks is something Delhi’s citizens are not even ashamed of admitting to. India is no stranger to water wars—between individuals, groups and between various states of the country. And this is bound to increase, as demand, both for direct consumption and economic activity—is rising fast, while the supply base is being eroded because of its mismanagement. The manifestations of the problem, nay crisis, are falling water tables, wastage in water use, salinity and pollution, and grossly inadequate access to sanitation.
Sadly, the problems have been compounding over the years, and unless policy and institutional bottlenecks are treated seriously, mere investment in physical expansion of water supply infrastructure won’t be enough.
There are two fundamental issues: First, the overexploitation of ground water, and second, poor prioritization of government spending—over 60% of its resources goes into budgeting for large dam and canal projects, without making sure that gains from these are optimized. Meanwhile, existing infrastructure gathers silt deposits and can’t store to its full potential. Else it is old and leakages lead to a lot of wastage. Each merits separate comment—we focus on groundwater here.
Groundwater is, in fact, India’s lifeline—it feeds an estimated two-thirds of all irrigated foodgrain-producing farmland, provides most of the rural drinking water and half of all urban and industrial use. But groundwater is often overexploited—which means more water is drawn on average than is replenished by rain—or is critically close to that status.
Importantly, the overexploitation is far more in agriculturally vital states such as Punjab and Haryana, and also in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, which have limited groundwater resources. Evidently, overexploitation tends to happen in more densely populated regions, driven by spiralling demand, in the absence of the right policy signals.
The Planning Commission has expressed its concerns on this and called for appropriate pricing where use of water for non-drinking and commercial purposes would charged more. Water, however, is a state-regulated subject and also highly prone to political influences. Compounding the overuse is the free power provided to farmers, so there’s no running costs to electrical water pumps on this count. This is another politicized hurdle to rationalizing groundwater use, and the odds don’t seem to favour a correction soon.
A central groundwater authority exists, which notifies overexploited areas, and bans additional extraction, but has no means to monitor this. A model act was framed by the Centre and sent to the states, but is yet to be implemented.
Ironically, while populist pressures stunt all attempts at corrections, according to the International Water Management Institute, 25% of India’s harvest is threatened by unsustainable ground water use.
Local community-level responsibility in managing groundwater resources is one pragmatic solution. And pricing signals, to start with, can be used to curb urban use. Unfortunately, provisions under the 73rd amendment to the Constitution to hand water management to panchayats, have not even been implemented, leave alone made effective. But we can’t afford not to take up the challenging task of dealing with the water constraint any longer.
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