India must prioritize the needs of its thirsty cities before the rest

Southern India lacks the huge reserves provided by the Himalayan snowpack in the north, making water shortages a fact of life.
Southern India lacks the huge reserves provided by the Himalayan snowpack in the north, making water shortages a fact of life.

Summary

  • Water scarcity afflicts many Indian cities other than Bengaluru. Farms and power plants consume too much and our cities too little. Institutional failure must not turn clean water into a privilege.

At the time Egypt’s pyramids were being constructed, one of the cradles of global civilization emerged the Indus Valley around the borders of Pakistan and India. Its grid-planned cities produced sewerage networks, delicate artworks and an undeciphered writing system. Then, a 900-year drought [is thought to have] emptied its urban areas and sent its population back to a simpler, poorer village life on the plains of the River Ganga.

Something grimly similar is happening right now. Tech professionals are leaving India’s IT hub of Bengaluru amid an intensifying drought that has gripped the city as it sweats through another torrid pre-monsoon season, The Deccan Herald reported this month. More than half of the wells the city depends on for groundwater have dried up after failed rains last year, leaving businesses and citizens dependent on trucked-in water tankers.

In neighbouring Kerala—which catches much of the monsoon rainfall before it reaches inland stretches of Karnataka—a minister has written to Bengaluru’s companies, suggesting they relocate because “water is not an issue at all" in his state, The Times of India reported.

That seems in poor taste in southern India, where fights over the distribution of river flows between parched states have gone on for decades. These pressures are only going to grow as populations rise and climate change makes the cycles of drought and monsoon more pronounced.

That’s not just a regional problem, but an issue for the country as a whole and the world at large. The southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu account for just about 15% of India’s population but they generate about a quarter of GDP thanks to the strong performance of their technology and manufacturing sectors. The global economy is counting on that engine of growth to take over in the years ahead, as China slows toward stagnation.

Southern India lacks the huge reserves provided by the Himalayan snowpack in the north, making water shortages a fact of life. Chennai went through a comparable emergency in 2019, while the current drought is also biting in Hyderabad.

Existing policies are not helping fix a problem will require making hard compromises with two of India’s most politically sensitive industries: agriculture and power generation.

The households struggling with water restrictions right now only consume about 7% of India’s water. The overwhelming majority, 85% or so, goes to farming.

While rainfall cannot simply be transferred from a paddy farm to a tech worker’s kitchen tap, the groundwater that’s running out in Bengaluru ultimately shares its aquifers with rural water tables. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are two of the most important growing states for sugarcane, a notoriously thirsty crop. Far from seeking to rein in this trade, the government is encouraging planting with mandated prices and export subsidies that have landed New Delhi in years of disputes at the World Trade Organization.

India now produces enough sugar to meet its population’s needs twice over and production will remain higher than demand well into the 2040s, according to a recent report from government thinktank Niti Aayog. Meanwhile, the increased cane production required by the central government’s ethanol-blending policy could consume an additional 348 billion cubic metres of water, according to a 2020 study—around twice what is used by every city in the country.

Coal-fired electricity is another water hog. Thermal generators need to suck giga-litres from rivers to cool their turbine circuits. The power sector may account for more than a quarter of Karnataka’s urban water consumption by 2030, according to a 2014 study. Much of that electricity goes back into agriculture. As well as sucking up groundwater, India’s millions of grid-connected electric pumps put further stress on the power system, accounting for about a fifth of electricity consumption.

It’s unlikely that, with general elections just weeks away, these persistent problems will be tackled any time soon. But they can’t be ignored. Bengaluru and Hyderabad have prospered by earning a reputation as some of India’s best cities for upwardly-mobile professionals, blessed with relatively clean air and a milder climate. Should institutional failures turn urban clean water into a privilege rather than a right, their attractions will diminish, dissipating the development benefits of urban growth and agglomeration.

India is determined to escape the fate of its Indus Valley forebears, and prosper through this coming era of climate change. To do so, it will need to put the needs of its thirsty cities first. ©bloomberg

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