Water resource inadequacy is a challenge India must take head on

Poor water quality and lack of adequate access to sanitation are significant causes of disease and poor health.
Poor water quality and lack of adequate access to sanitation are significant causes of disease and poor health.

Summary

  • India’s mitigation plan for climate change should accord high priority to a basic scarcity that may impede economic growth.

The notion of a ‘triple planetary’ crisis encompassing climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss has become outdated in the face of complexities captured by the relatively new term ‘polycrisis.’ This modern challenge involves the intertwining of climate change, environmental disruptions, widening social inequalities, pandemic effects and geopolitical polarization. In the context of India’s ambitious pursuit of rapid economic growth amid multiple crises, addressing the climate-development nexus is imperative. The impact of climate change and the depletion of resources holds profound implications for the country’s growth trajectory, particularly with a burgeoning population and its escalating demands. Amid these considerations, preserving limited natural resources, especially precious water resources, is a critical priority.

At the recently concluded CoP-28 summit held in Dubai under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, countries agreed on the need to “drive water up the climate agenda," focusing on freshwater ecosystems, urban water resilience and water-resilient food systems.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, data from the World Bank underscores the fact that water scarcity could depress growth in gross domestic product (GDP) by 6-14% across significant regions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This shows the link between climate solutions, development initiatives and water-related challenges. For India, integrating water solutions with its climate and development strategies is of paramount importance in navigating the multifaceted challenges posed by the current polycrisis.

India constitutes 18% of the world’s population but has access to only 4% of its water resources. This in itself points to an imbalanced demand-supply structure, which has only grown weaker. In the 1960s, the country’s bountiful groundwater resources were critical in driving the ‘green revolution,’ making it a self-reliant food producer. Today, the country’s water table is rapidly falling and its aquifers are drying up faster than the rate at which they are being recharged. Declining water tables inevitably lead to a higher cost of pumping and irrigation water turning salty, resulting in over-abstraction and crop-and-revenue losses for farmers, apart from long-term consequences for water availability. Poor water quality and lack of adequate access to sanitation are also significant causes of disease and poor health.

None of this is news anymore for India. In 2019, the central government, with the support of the World Bank, launched Atal Bhujal Yojana, a central scheme worth 6,000 crore that aims to tackle India’s growing groundwater crisis. While this is a significant achievement, it still needs to be improved for the country to achieve water security. India can tap the climate-development nexus by conserving and using its water resources smartly, while proactively addressing climate change. With the country’s Indo-Gangetic plains getting drier, experts predict that by 2025, north-west India will be subject to severe water stress. Highlighting this crisis’s economic ramifications, the World Bank projects that certain regions may witness a staggering 11.5% reduction in GDP growth due to water scarcity by 2050.

Additionally, it needs no further elaboration that water insecurity will inevitably impact food and livelihood security across the country. Beyond agriculture, water scarcity will significantly affect India’s quest for sustainable development by having an adverse impact on energy, health and infrastructure. For instance, under the current structure of India’s power sector, water is a critical component, and a growing economy and industrial boom will intensify water management challenges. Tried-and-tested development pathways are not only carbon-intensive but also resource-intensive. India is, therefore, confronted with a significant developmental challenge. How do we overcome this to achieve resilient growth and sustainable prosperity?

The policy ecosystem should adapt to accommodate shifts in the Earth’s ecosystems. It is time for the country to eliminate perverse subsidies, improve water use efficiency, strengthen water governance and ensure sustainable financing for water infrastructure through appropriate cost recovery. Financing for efficient infrastructure is critical since, currently, large sums are being diverted towards drought relief, both honest and rigged. In 2023 alone, the Centre released 7,532 crore to states affected by heavy rains and associated natural disasters.

Better planning and sustainable use of limited water resources should become integral to climate adaptation at all levels. In 2023, Kerala set an example by being the first state in the country to pass a water budget to analyse its distribution and bridge gaps between demand and supply. While localized planning and community solutions are necessary, more is needed to address issues in the long-term; comprehensive planning is vital at the level of the river basin and possible interconnections between different basins. Top-down planning and bottom-up implementation are the way forward. In the context of policy tools, driving water up the priority order of India’s National Adaptation Plan is critical.

In the backdrop of extreme weather events, depleting natural resources and drying up of fertile land, India is already in the grip of a severe water crisis that could spiral into a social, political and economic crisis over the years. We are perhaps only a short time away from adding water stress to the list of multiple crises facing the world today. We must rise quickly to meet the challenges that worsening water security throws up.

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