It is evident that we must all work together to save ourselves from ruin. But what do we do? First, we need to understand both the availability and the patterns of our consumption. India has 18 per cent of the world’s population but has only 4 per cent of the global water resources. So, the water balance is severely adverse. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither domestic use nor industry that guzzles India’s water supply but agriculture which consumes over 85 per cent of our water. With only 40 per cent assured irrigation, our farmers depend heavily either on rains or on groundwater for their needs. Though the monsoon season in India extends over four months, we get barely 30 days of heavy rainfall in all. And our efforts to conserve rainwater remain woefully inadequate.
Yet, amidst all this water gloom, the momentum to find innovative solutions out of the crisis has picked up speed, as the India today team discovered while compiling this special issue. Take drinking water, for example. After providing toilets to every household and making India open defecation-free in his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Jal Jeevan Mission at the start of his second term. Launched in August 2019, the ambitious scheme aims to provide potable water through taps to the 191 million rural households by 2024, from the existing one out of six households that have tap water.
Given the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, there were doubts about the Jal Shakti ministry’s ability to meet its targets. Despite the odds, over 30 million new households have been provided with tap water during this period, equal to the number of households provided with taps since Independence. The Modi government achieved this by providing massive funding, Rs 3.6 lakh crore, and backing it with mission mode management and technology to monitor progress. What’s more, state governments are encouraging community participation in the operation and maintenance of water supply to their homes in the form of Pani Samitis. The Centre and states are also focusing on ensuring sustainability of water supply and quality rather than treating it as a one-shot affair. The most important outcome of these efforts is that women, who bore the brunt of the task of fetching water for households, wasting precious time, are being freed from that drudgery. This in itself will prove emancipating. Apart from ease of living, there is a clear link between socioeconomic development and water availability.
While experts appreciate the change in mindsets to provide drinking water supply, the real challenge, they say, is to bring a revolution in water use in farming. Hearteningly, this is being driven by a rare public private partnership between government and farmers, throwing up innovative cost-effective solutions. For instance, in Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh, water had become scarce for farmers, who were reduced to growing only one crop. An alert deputy commissioner helped the people get together to dig 10,000 farm ponds across villages that could store monsoon water. Farmers were given cheap bank loans to dig these ponds, the impact of which was felt almost immediately. In the next rainy season, farmers were able to grow high-yielding wheat varieties apart from diversifying to other crops. Most have repaid their loans and are on the road to prosperity.
There are scores of such examples of how farmers are turning around their fortunes by conserving water. The big message: alongside the transfer of water through high-cost large irrigation and drinking water projects, sustainable progress could be made by employing a billion low-cost aquifer recharging techniques suitable to local conditions.
While focusing on supply is good, the imperative is to tackle the demand side so that, as the government line goes, there is more crop per drop. Gujarat, once a perennially drought-prone state, has taken significant strides in inducing farmers to convert to drip irrigation. The state has done so by providing subsidies of 60-80 per cent of the cost of sprinklers apart from handholding farmers through the first cropping season. Already 20 per cent of the farmers have switched to micro-irrigation, saving as much as 40 per cent in water and labour costs, as an Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad study has revealed. They also earned an additional Rs 15,000 per hectare per crop.
In Punjab, where over-exploitation of water for paddy has seen a catastrophic drop in groundwater levels, there is an urgent need to diversify to other less water-intensive crops that can earn farmers the same income. Ditto for the sugarcane farmers of Maharashtra, where water use efficiency remains dismal. Haryana has shown the way by starting a scheme to give farmers a cash subsidy to stop growing paddy in groundwater-stressed areas and switch to other crops. Clearly, rather than issue fiats, states need to work as catalysts and persuade farmers to switch to crops that give them better remuneration while meeting the country’s food needs.
Another crisis area to tackle is the growing water shortage faced by our metros. NITI Aayog estimates that 21 major cities, including Delhi, would run out of groundwater by 2030. There are simple solutions like reviving water bodies as Bengaluru, once a city of lakes, can do. It is also perhaps time to rethink our waste disposal strategy and recycling of waste water. Currently, to transport faecal matter weighing 100 grams, we use six litres of water to flush it down. Can we develop technology to use less water as toilets in aircraft do? Our cities also employ centuries-old town-planning techniques of laying sewage pipes to carry solid waste to a common treatment plant on the outskirts. Can a more localised treatment plant be found and the treated water recycled either for industrial use or for parks in the vicinity? Delhi is working on an experiment to treat its sewage water to make it fit for industrial use. More such initiatives need to be taken up in addition to a total rethink on how we plan our water supply and wastewater disposal in cities.
Interlinking of rivers, while keeping environment considerations in mind, may be the answer to supplying water to dry regions, with the added benefit of harnessing water wasted in floods. But let’s not forget that it also makes economic sense to rejuvenate existing water bodies rather than just building more large dams to meet our needs. In the following pages, we have highlighted a host of such initiatives to conserve water from across the country that could be replicated with variations. Estimates are that if we continue with business as usual, India will have only half the water it needs by 2030. Day Zero for a catastrophe is not a century but just a decade away. We need to act, and post-haste