Water wisdom will help us cope with climate change

According to the Water Resources Group (WRG), by 2030, India will only have 50% of the water it needs.
According to the Water Resources Group (WRG), by 2030, India will only have 50% of the water it needs.


  • Innovative solutions exist that could be scaled up to help avert a crisis of acute water scarcity

We recently read news about July 2023 being the hottest month ever recorded globally, breaching the 1.5° Celsius limit above pre-industrial levels. Paradoxically, this was also the coolest July for north India after 2016.

Climate change comes with many layers of complexity, and not all of them may even yet be evident. However, one aspect of it is apparent: climate change is inextricably linked with water, manifesting itself in various forms ranging from droughts and floods to a rise in sea levels as polar ice-caps melt. Less obvious is the salinization of freshwater resources, including groundwater reserves.

New data published by WRI Aqueduct studies indicates that by 2050, an additional one billion people (more than 12% of the projected population) are expected to live with extremely high water stress even if the global temperature rise is capped at the Paris target of 1.3° Celsius. But what is ‘water stress’? Water demand can be measured as a proportion of renewable supply to indicate the competition over local water resources. A country faces ‘extreme water stress’ if it is using at least 80% of its available supply, while ‘high water stress’ is pegged at 40%. Figures like this weigh heavily on the global economy. The same study projects that as much as 31% of global GDP—a whopping $70 trillion—will be exposed to high water stress by then, with just four countries (India, Mexico, Egypt and Turkey) accounting for over half of this.

A status quo or laissez-faire approach cannot be adopted, especially in parts of the world where a rising population accompanies rapid development. Increasing water stress threatens economic growth as well as the world’s food security, with 60% of the world’s irrigated agriculture (mainly rice, wheat, maize and sugarcane) facing extremely high water stress. IPCC reports have identified South Asia as particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. This monsoon saw north India get excessive rains, while eastern parts were left deficient. Compound this with the delayed sowing of India’s kharif crops, which inevitably puts pressure on the rabi season later in the year—which, in any case, is more dependent on stored surface water and groundwater. And therein lies the rub.

Agriculture consumes 80% of India’s freshwater resources. According to the Water Resources Group (WRG), by 2030, India will only have 50% of the water it needs. This crisis will likely be the worst in India’s history and disproportionately impact agriculture.

Earlier this year, the first-ever census of water bodies, both public and in private hands, was published. This is a welcome data-backed step forward for any policy planning process to reliably account for and enhance water storage. Various government initiatives around water show that the problem is receiving top-level attention. As testament, consider the range of initiatives. We have all-India action schemes (like the National Water Mission and also Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and groundwater management programmes (Atal Bhujal Yojana) which address water supply, as well as schemes that promote optimal water use in agriculture, such as the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, which aims to deliver “more crop per drop."

There are three distinct ways in which Indian industry can contribute to this cause. First, companies working with farmers can encourage more efficient water measures, such as switching to water-efficient crops or using methods like sprinkler or drip irrigation instead of flooding fields. Second, practices have been developed across the globe whereby companies can set rational targets grounded in science. These can and should be shared in the public domain for broader adoption. And third, the power of industry as a collective to aid and impact policy should not be underestimated. Industry associations could place the issue centre-stage with policymakers and help shape the trajectory of coordinated thoughts and actions, blending, as appropriate, the efforts of research organizations, financial lenders and civil society.

Solutions are being found that can avert a water crisis even in areas of chronic water stress. What may seem expensive or difficult techniques today, like removing water-thirsty grass, desalination and wastewater treatment and re-use, will have to be innovatively scaled up at low cost. In India, some programmes have helped address—and in some cases pre-empt—water stress in different agroclimatic terrains. Hindustan Unilever Foundation has supported some of these initiatives and shared these learnings to help take the overall mission forward.

It is important for us to reflect on Sustainable Development Goal No. 6, which deals with securing this life-assuring fluid. Moreover, the water theme this year focuses on innovative ideas for a water-wise world. So we also need to think differently. Innovation is often seen as limited to developing new technology, but implementing it on scale is also key. The brilliance of the startup world, which thinks differently, could handsomely contribute to this.

The water mandate is global; we all have roles to play. This is a crisis that we may well be able to solve in our lifetimes, provided we commit ourselves. Let us all work together to ensure we never have to face the grim realities of acute water scarcity as we grapple with other aspects of climate change.

These are the author’s personal views.

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