A well-integrated action plan is needed to solve India's water crisis

Ironically, for Bengaluru, scanty rainfall has resulted in its water bodies going dry.
Ironically, for Bengaluru, scanty rainfall has resulted in its water bodies going dry.


  • A people-centric, multi-pronged and science-based approach could ensure we don’t run short of this vital resource.

The headlines in recent days have been about severe and debilitating water shortages in several states of the country—particularly in the south. All eyes have been on Bengaluru—which is India’s Silicon Valley, the country’s most technically savvy, most innovative and third richest city. It is also a city that spotlights the disconnect between the corporate sector’s famed strategic management capabilities (unfortunately over-shadowed by its short-sightedness in not engaging with sustainability governance) and government orthodoxy.

That Bengaluru has been struggling to manage its water resources well is long-established. Images of the ‘frothing’ lakes of Bengaluru—with instances of toxic fumes catching fire—have horrified us earlier. While a large part of the blame goes to local authorities for allowing untreated sewage to flow into its water bodies, industry stood a silent witness to the resource degradation of the ‘garden city,’ resulting from the enormous population pressure created by prosperity.

Ironically, for Bengaluru, scanty rainfall has resulted in its water bodies going dry. If, on the other hand, the region had experienced heavy rainfall, then there could have been a repeat of the ‘frothing’ problem. The city urgently needs a comprehensive water and waste management strategy to address quantity and quality issues. It is already suffering from a reputational challenge that could scathe businesses along with the city.

A couple of days ago, a leading national newspaper headlined its story as “...a water crisis that software cannot resolve." But this statement gives an easy pass to the information technology (IT) sector and is grossly misleading. In 2019, the World Economic Forum identified an urgent need to deploy real-time sensor technology for high-resolution monitoring of the quantity and quality of water bodies (complete with automated geo-tags and time-stamps), along with machine learning models to predict impacts and outcomes of rainfall and waste-water flows, and then use this information for policy and strategy development in a holistic manner. India’s IT capital has a role to play.

In general, India is an inherently water-stressed country, hosting 18% of the world’s population with only 4% of its water resources. 70% of its surface water is unfit for consumption and over 40 million litres of waste-water flows into its rivers and water bodies daily. Our water resources and their quality must be addressed for adequacy and accessibility. The government’s own first census of water bodies, commendable as that is, documents the rather pitiful state of water bodies in India—in terms of location, state of fullness and beneficiary population. More than 97% of our water bodies are in rural areas, with reservoirs making up a mere 12%. According to a member of the Central Water Commission, we need to “acknowledge the fact that India’s water reservoirs are dying" (The Wire Science, 2 February 2021).

With regard to the role of IT mentioned above, India’s water-body census has not yet covered issues of available capacity (after accounting for siltation and ageing issues), adequacy, accessibility, vulnerability to rainfall patterns, or water quality. It merely seeks to assure communities on the groundwater situation they are likely to face, given that nearly 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater. A scarcity of necessary information, unfortunately, means that robust planning for this life-saving resource is impossible.

A 2013 World Bank report estimated the health costs relating to water pollution to be about 47,000-61,000 crore. These costs today are likely to be much higher. Compare this with the 2024-25 budget estimate of the ministry of jal shakti of 98,418.79 crore, of which only 21,028.11 crore goes to the department of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation. Also compare it with the estimated outlay of 278,000 crore for the ministry of road transport and highways, aimed at development activities that will only increase our resource challenge. Clearly, much needs to be done.

On the positive side, water interventions, unlike in energy, are largely focused on people’s participation and demand management. The government has several laudable schemes for stemming groundwater depletion and initiatives under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The questions that arise from some of these schemes relate to their outcome efficacy and issues of equity, fairness and justice: are common citizens engaged by such schemes being compensated adequately for their labour while alleviating governments of their responsibility?

India’s water vulnerability is only set to rise in the coming decades, given our still-rising population, rapidly growing economic activity and climate change. The water shortages we face today have been exacerbated by the El Niño conditions experienced last year. In the coming years, we will increasingly feel the harsh effects of climate change, amplified in some years by the cyclical El Niño effect that results in subcontinental dryness. The looming water crisis of 2024 is another wake-up call to adopt science-based approaches to natural resources management, to re-prioritize public investments, and to address sustainability challenges in an integrated manner.

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