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The great Indian water challenge, in four charts

While ranking India 13th in a list of the most water-stressed countries, the World Resources Institute said water stress is not destiny, and can be solved through proper management.Premium
While ranking India 13th in a list of the most water-stressed countries, the World Resources Institute said water stress is not destiny, and can be solved through proper management.

  • This year, the UN theme for World Water Day (22 March) is ‘valuing water’. There’s a renewed push towards that front by the centre, but fast-growing urbanization makes the scale of the problem huge

In August 2019, India set off on the ambitious goal to provide tap water connections to all rural families within five years. Less than two-fifths of that goal has been met so far, but the government is about to add a new layer to the mission next fiscal: urban India, through the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban). A closer look shows the challenge to replicate the goal in cities could be much greater, and time-taking.

For one, cities and villages face vastly different water crises. Cities have better infrastructure and have less of agriculture, the sector that uses most of India’s water. Yet, a burgeoning urban population means none of this advantage can keep up forever, and it’s cities that face growing threats of “Day Zero"—the day they will dry up. Several Indian metros already face a glimpse of this reality every summer.

Start with disparity. Even the poorest families in urban India are more likely (44%) to have a piped connection for their drinking water than the richest in rural India (33%), shows a 2018 National Sample Survey (NSS). Even in urban India, four in ten urban households lack access to piped water, with the share of those having such access varying widely across states: from 96% in Goa to 18% in Bihar. Around 15% of these families do not get enough of the water through the year. This is the gap the new JJM-U, announced in the 2021-22 Budget, aims to bridge with its 2.9-trillion budget for five years.


But installing piped water connections is only a cosmetic step when compared to conserving the groundwater table. Groundwater is used for around 64% of India’s irrigation needs, 85% of the rural drinking needs, and over 50% of the urban water needs, according to a joint NABARD-ICRIER report in 2019. This means that rising population density in cities and heavy irrigation use in villages is drying up groundwater resources.

Agrarian Punjab and most of Rajasthan have to dig deeper than any other state in India to reach groundwater. The heavy water use pattern is gradually moving towards cities: according to the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development, the share of irrigation in India’s total water use could dip to 73% by 2025, from 83% in 1997-98. This reflects in how cities have managed their groundwater: Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Delhi have seen a decline of over 80% in their groundwater level between 1998 and 2018.


This means India’s per capita water availability is also depleting fast. During the 2013-2017 period, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated Indians to have around 1,428 kilolitres of water per capita per year. This was the fourth worst among the Group of 20 (G-20) nations, after Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and South Korea.

Worryingly, the rate at which this per capita availability has declined since 1990 has been the third fastest for India—an annual depletion of 1.5%, the data shows. This rate is comparable to Australia and South Africa, two countries which have garnered greater global attention because of water scarcities than India.


In cities, this problem of per capita availability may be growing faster than it can be solved. This puts the onus on local governments to build infrastructure for better water recycling, treatment and reduce wastage. For the next five years, the 15th Finance Commission has recommended that 30% of the state financing to rural and urban local bodies be tied to their performance on water supply and management. For cities with million-plus populations, two-thirds of a new “Challenge Fund"— 26,057 crore—will be made available based on performance in meeting “service-level benchmarks" on drinking water supply, rainwater harvesting and water recycling, among other priorities. The Centre has accepted the recommendations, paving the way for a more determined fight than before.

How far the fight goes will depend on the will of local administrations. In that process, the safety of drinking water will be yet another challenge. Almost half of the urban Indians do not treat drinking water at all before consumption, the NSS data shows. But this could be a severe health risk. A 2019 study of piped drinking water samples conducted by the Bureau of Indian Standards found disturbing results. None of the collected samples passed the quality test in 13 state capitals, including Patna, Bhopal, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Chennai, and Kolkata.


While ranking India 13th in a list of the most water-stressed countries, the World Resources Institute said water stress is not destiny, and can be solved through proper management. Several water-scarce countries, such as Australia and Saudi Arabia, have shown that pushing away Day Zero is possible. With the policy needle finally moving for urban areas, India has the chance to set an example for the world.

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