A Scarcity-Pollution Tango In India

A Scarcity-Pollution Tango In India

Inefficiency and inequity in supply are two major reasons for the continuing stress.

Photograph by Shekhar Ghosh Photograph by Shekhar Ghosh

Another two billion people, or one-quarter of the current global population, are expected to move to cities just three decades from now. They will all need water - to drink, bathe, wash clothes and dishes, and for electricity - even as weather patterns become increasingly uncertain. Forecasts say urban water consumption might increase 80 per cent by 2050. Growing abuse will leave this seemingly infinite resource polluted and contaminated.

Water will be the deciding factor on whether India will prosper or not. Research by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in its State of India's Environment Report Excreta Matters shows there is no information available on how much water is actually needed, supplied or even reaches users. There is no real-time information about water use in different sectors - agriculture, domestic or industry - and how such use is changing.

Water is what Indian cities are fighting for today. From Chennai in the south to Shimla in the north, from Rajkot in the west to Cherrapunji in the north-east, all are facing the crippling effects of acute water scarcity. There is hardly any city that can boast of 24-hour water supply. Groundwater levels are falling rapidly, centuries-old water bodies have disappeared or are severely polluted, and urban floods are becoming a regular phenomenon during monsoons. In addition, most rivers have become carriers of urban filth. This scarcity-pollution tango is giving rise to a scenario in which urban poor are at the receiving end.

At the start of summer, news on water stress, municipal water supply cuts and water rationing has already started pouring in. In November last year, Mumbai, Jaipur, Lucknow, Nagpur and Chennai were facing acute shortage of water and many had started water rationing. In the current Lok Sabha elections, many areas have decided to exercise voting rights only if they get water.

There are two key problems. First is the huge inefficiency in water supply. A city might say it has enough water, but if it ends up losing large volumes, it remains thirsty. The 2013/14 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report states that half the Cauvery water supplied to Bengaluru between 2009 and 2013 was wasted either due to pilferage or leakage because of antiquated plumbing. Second, there is huge inequity in water supply. Even if a city says it is supplying water to all, there is little information about how much it actually supplies across different classes. A 2018 report by NITI Aayog said water levels in 54 per cent of India's groundwater wells were declining, and 21 major cities were expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting almost 100 million people. Bridging the demand-supply gap by relying solely on groundwater is not a feasible solution.

High Dependency

Dearth of water is not always the reason for water stress. In several cities, people suffer due to lack of access to clean or potable water. Water demand will grow and competition for this resource will lead to greater tension and conflict between states. Delhi, for instance, depends on Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for its water; over 60 per cent of its water comes from Haryana alone. Conflicts will become common as water demand in more than 27 per cent cities across the world exceeds surface water availability, says a study by Nature Sustainability published in January 2018. The study analysed 482 largest cities globally. Almost 19 per cent of cities, dependent on surface water transfers, have a high potential for conflict between urban and agricultural sectors, since both cannot obtain their estimated future water demands. Such conflicts would be just the tip of the iceberg in a changing climate.

Rural India, too, faces the heat of drinking water scarcity. According to a 2018 CAG report, piped water connections are available in just 35 per cent of rural households. The report, which analysed the state of rural water supply between 2012 and 2017, said 4,76,000 habitations had slipped from fully-covered to partially-covered state. The slip-back was high in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. One reason for this could be over-dependence of piped water supply on groundwater supply - piped water supply from groundwater is almost seven times more than surface water supply. CAG reports excessive extraction of groundwater, inadequacy of efforts to address quality related aspects, lack of sustainability of water sources, and inadequate or non-maintenance of water supply schemes for this reduction.

India will soon be achieving an Open Defecation Free status according to government records, but to make this sustainable there should be piped water supply in rural households.

It has been seen again and again that people do not prefer using toilets in areas where there is no supply of water - villagers concentrate on collecting drinking water and not water for toilets.

We cannot ignore the rising demand from industry for water. But industry does little to augment water resources; it does even less to conserve and minimise use. Worse, because of the abysmal lack of waste treatment facilities, it degrades scarce water even further.

In a new India, the water imperative is that every citizen must begin to value rainfall. This means implementing rainwater harvesting in each house and colony. But it also means re-learning about hundreds of tanks and ponds. Today, these water bodies are a shame - encroached, full of sewage, garbage or just filled up and built over. There is a need to focus on management of water by building a relationship between society and its water, so that we can understand the value of each raindrop and understand that unless we are prudent, indeed frugal, with our use of this precious resource, there will never be enough water for all.

The writer is Programme Manager, Rural Water and Sanitation at Centre for Science and Environment