Save this resource, by drop

Water is a gift of nature but scarce in supply. The annual availability of water in India is 1,869 billion cubic metres (BCM). Of this, only 1,123 BCM is usable because of topographical constraints — the share of groundwater and surface water is 433 BCM and 690 BCM, respectively. The net groundwater availability is 398 BCM as natural discharge accounts for 35 BCM.

Groundwater is considered ever available, a regular source for agricultural, industrial and domestic needs. It is found in permeable rocks and the soil beneath the surface, known as aquifers. The depth from the surface at which groundwater is found is called the water table. This water table can be as shallow as a foot below the ground or a few 100 metres deep. Heavy rain causes the water table to rise and conversely continuous extraction can cause the level to fall. In some countries, the water level is so deep that either it is impossible to extract or it becomes so costly that it is not a viable proposition. That is why it is said that in certain Arab countries, water is even costlier than petrol.

The water store under the ground is filled by rainfall, which contributes 68 per cent, and the rest by other sources such as the seepage of water from rivers, canals, water conservation structures, ponds etc.

The real value of a commodity is realised when one is devoid of it. People in water-scarce areas know the significance of this gift of nature. While visiting Karachi and Hyderabad in Pakistan some time ago, I learnt that half of the population of the Sindh province was living in these two cities. The main reason was the easy availability of water as compared to other places. I came to know that the cost of purifying seawater to make it drinkable was much more than the price of milk, but even then the water lacked natural minerals (a few Arab countries are purifying water out of compulsion). I contrasted the situation with that in my home state, Punjab, where abundant water flowed in the rivers, canals and water channels and was pumped by tubewells and wells for various requirements.

Dwindling supply

In the 1960s, it sounded strange that water was being sold in bottles at railway stations. Now this natural resource has become a common item of trade and the drinking water industry is making rapid strides across the country. The installation of water purifiers in cities and villages is rising by leaps and bounds. 

When many countries were facing scarcity of water, India had enough for its agricultural, industrial and household requirements. There was a variation in respect of its availability in different states, but overall the situation was satisfactory. Amid the exponential growth of population, the supply of water sources has been limited, catering to just 4 per cent compared to 17.6 per cent of the world’s population. The scarcity of water has emerged as a big problem. The demand is four times more than the supply and it continues to grow.

In 1991, the per capita availability of water in India was 2,309 cubic metres, but it fell to 1,902 in 2001. It further dropped to 1,545 cubic metres in 2011, putting India on the list of water-stressed countries. At the current rate of population growth, the per capita availability of water would reduce to 1,401 cubic metres in 2025 and to 1,191 cubic metres by 2050, leading to enormous other problems and impediments to further development. According to experts, countries having per capita availability of less than 1,700 cubic metres are listed among the water-stressed nations. This trend would have a serious impact on the mainstay of Indian economy, agriculture, apart from the industry.

About 70 per cent of this water is used for agriculture, 22 per cent for industry and only 8 per cent for household requirements. In agricultural irrigation, 60 per cent is drawn from underground. As the pressure of production is rising, more and more groundwater is being pumped out. Though India was always an agricultural country, it was not self-sufficient for its food requirements. The big push to agriculture was provided by the Green Revolution. The mantra was to use more and more chemicals, including fertilisers, to obtain greater yield. But the application of chemicals had the prerequisite of adequate irrigation water. Apart from the flowing water, the major thrust was on extracting groundwater. More and more tubewells were installed. In most of the states, electricity was made free for farming, leading to the reckless use of power as well as water.

Staggering results were obtained on the yield front and India turned into a food-exporting country from a food-importing one. But a heavy price was paid in terms of depletion of the water level. It has dropped to such a low level that it has not remained drinkable .The chemicals are penetrating air, soil and water. The contamination of the soil is worsening because of the surge in the application of chemicals year after year.

According to Niti Ayog, 20 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2022 and 600 million people are facing high to extreme water stress. According to a WaterAid report, 163 million Indians have no access to clean water. As per a report of the World Bank, 27 per cent of the communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water. 

India has adequate water sources either on the surface or in the form of groundwater storage. The aquifers found in the Gangetic and Indus plains in northern India have significant storage capacity and are valuable sources of freshwater supply. However, due to excessive groundwater extraction and a low recharge rate, the aquifers are at risk of irreversible overexploitation. On the other hand, in the northwestern regions where groundwater has depleted to more than 10 metres deep in most of the districts, sophisticated equipment is required to extract water; this involves very high cost. 

India is primarily an agricultural country. Irrigation water is the most significant input to obtain higher yield in agriculture. Apart from the use of fertilisers and other chemicals and manures, adequate irrigation is imperative even for hoeing of crops. 

In the five-year plans and now under NITI Aayog, special focus was laid on enhancing the irrigated area. As a result, in the past four decades, 84 per cent of irrigation was added to the net irrigated area, where the main source of this irrigation was groundwater. The main reason for overexploitation of groundwater was its easy availability, resulting in the depletion of the water table, particularly in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. A higher percentage of water is extracted compared to the percentage of recharge. Even if water is extracted up to 100 per cent of its recharge, it would not cause any problem. In Punjab, it was 172 per cent; 137 per cent in Rajasthan and Delhi; and 133 per cent in Haryana. This perpetual imbalance is emerging as a big crisis. There are only 3 per cent districts in India where the extraction of water was more than 100 per cent in 2001. But by 2011, the percentage of such districts rose to 15 per cent.

Multi-pronged approach needed

Niti Aayog should accord priority to this problem and a policy to overcome scarcity must be formulated. Though there is no control on natural factors, there is much that is within the ambit of society with the patronage of the government. There are two main issues: first, how to enhance the groundwater level; and second, how to avail chemical-free water. The government, universities and experts have been recommending crop diversification. There is a big scope for replacing water-guzzling crops like paddy with high-value crops that need less irrigation. Already India is producing food items from natural and organic farming, which is yielding encouraging results by the application of organic inputs and manures. The government should dispel misconceptions regarding these farming methods.

A department of water conservation similar to the department of soil conservation must be established in all states. Rainwater harvesting should be adopted as a mission by the water conservation department. The instruments for harvesting rainwater should be installed in buildings. The department should collect water at low-lying places for recharging in the ground by installing borewells. 

Electricity should not be made free so that the person using power as well as water may realise that these are valuable resources which must not be wasted.

Initially, canals and bullock-operated wells were the main source of irrigation. Some of the southern states were using water for irrigation from ponds. But the surface water of rivers is extremely rich in nutrients required to enhance the fertility of the soil. Since 1960, the tubewells started replacing the wells and their number has been rising at a high rate in most of the Indian states. As electricity was subsidised in a number of states, this led to an explosion of tubewells which pumped out water day and night. In Punjab, there were only 9,000 tubewells before 1960; the number has swelled to over 14 lakh at present. The electricity subsidy led to a misuse of water and electricity. That is why because of this overextraction, the water in a number of blocks has not remained drinkable. Considering the gravity of the situation, the Union Ministry of Water Resources is working towards conservation and management of water in the country through a prudent policy. Various programmes are being implemented by its wings such as the Central Water Commission, Central Ground Water Board, Central Ground Water Authority and the Central Pollution Control Board. Even the district collector in every state has been entrusted with looking after water management.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi


Major institutions responsible for groundwater management

Central Water Commission

Role  Initiating and coordinating schemes for conservation and utilisation of water resources in the country in collaboration with state governments; monitoring water quality

Central Ground Water Board

Role  Developing and disseminating technology related to sustainable use of groundwater; monitoring and implementing policies for sustainable management of groundwater resources; estimating groundwater resources

Central Ground Water Authority

Role  Constituted under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, to regulate and control development and management of groundwater resources; can resort to penal action and issue necessary regulatory directives

Central Pollution Control Board

Role  Implementation of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, which seeks to restore water quality

Sources: Ministry of Water Resources; Lok Sabha; PRS