Ticking Water Bomb

As India's water table falls, it's important to opt for conservation measures.

Illustration by Ajay Thakuri Illustration by Ajay Thakuri

Parched soil, dead cattle, young girls walking miles for a litre of muddy water and villagers digging up dried wells hoping to find a few more drops are a common sight in the eight districts of Maharashtra's Marathwada region. The region was declared drought-hit in November 2018. Things have worsened since then. Residents of nearly 2,000 villages get water supply for half an hour once in six days. There are close to 2,050 water tankers but their arrival in villages leads to quarrels about who will get water first.

In Tamil Nadu, the state government has declared 24 districts, including Chennai, drought-hit, apart from 38 other blocks in seven districts. Groundwater levels in some districts have dropped by an average of one metre from January.

Dying cattle, and fights over water are scenes that repeat themselves in various districts of Gujarat, Kerala, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In a country of 1.3 billion people that is able to use only one-fourth of the 4,000 billion cubic metres - water from rainfall - this is not a surprise.

Syamal Kumar Sarkar, Senior Director, Natural Resource and Climate at TERI, says the main reason for India's water stress is over-dependence on monsoon. "We all depend on monsoon rains and they are erratic - from 1,000 cm in some places to 10 cm in others," he says. Of that, the utilisable water is 1,123 BCM per annum, comprising 690 BCM surface water and 433 BCM replenishable ground water. The rest is lost. "We should plug evaporation loss and regulate flow of monsoon water, allowing it to seep underground for future use," says water activist and Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh.

With annual availability per person at below 1,700 cubic metres, India is water-stressed, inching towards water-scarce status, according to the government. Scarcity means availability below 1,000 cubic metres.

Groundwater - Vanishing Act

Most farmers and industries have taken to groundwater extraction as the easiest option. It provides around 60 per cent of water for irrigation and 80 per cent for rural and urban domestic water needs, making India the world's largest user of groundwater, according to the World Bank.

Farmers and households, are not the only users of groundwater. "There are around 6,050 licensed packaged drinking water plants in India and majority of them depend on deep-bore water. They extract 5,000 to 20,000 litres per hour depending upon their purification and packaging capacities," says Tushar Trivedi, founder of, a portal that provides information about the industry.

The World Bank says if current trends persist, 60 per cent of India's districts are likely to reach critical level of groundwater depletion within two decades, which will put at least 25 per cent of agriculture production at risk.

But how can we ensure conservation and reduce groundwater usage when there is no agreement on the approach required? The Central Ground Water Authority had issued a notification last December announcing a conservation fee for groundwater use, to be implemented from June 1 this year. The National Green Tribunal instead sought the constitution of an expert committee to frame a policy for groundwater conservation.

While India debates ways to use water more efficiently, the water table is declining at 0.3 metres per year. Between 2002 and 2008, the country consumed more than 109 cubic kilometres groundwater, double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, as per the Economic Survey 2015/16.

Low Charges, High Wastage

While the groundwater cess is on hold, there is no charge on water wastage either - be it by bottling companies, industries or domestic users. Trivedi says the reverse osmosis-based technology which bottling plants use leads to considerable wastage. "It recovers 65-80 per cent water. The rest goes down the drain. There are new technologies but bottlers avoid them due to high capital expenditure," he adds.

Kolkata and Bengaluru waste the most water, about 50 per cent of the supply. Sarkar of TERI blames water subsidy to a large extent, saying the low cost of water discourages conservation. "The governments should give targeted subsidy for poor rather than concession for all," he says.

The subsidy is humongous. Only capital and working expenses for major, medium and minor irrigation projects were Rs 59,634 crore in 2011 (the latest government data available). But gross receipts from these projects on account of water charges and other economic activities were just 5-12 per cent of the capital expenditure.

On the domestic front, things are worse. Water tariff for households has three components. One is a fixed connection charge or service charge (Rs 146.41 per month in Delhi for up to 20,000 litres per month). Two is a volumetric depending upon usage, beginning at Rs 5.27 for up to 20 kilolitres. For 20,000-30,000 litres per month, the service charge is Rs 219.62 and volumetric charge is Rs 26.36. Then, there is sewerage maintenance charge of 60 per cent of consumption. These extremely low rates are hardly an incentive for water conservation, unlike electricity, where consumers are careful about usage due to higher tariffs.

Sarkar says the entire chain of making available potable water involves huge costs. "The idea was to gradually increase tariffs to recover some part of fixed costs and operating expenses but authorities are nowhere close to that," he says. In fact, only the operating and maintenance cost (excluding capital cost) is around Rs 10 per 1,000 litres, making it impossible to recover any costs given that in Delhi up to 20,000 litres of water is priced at Rs 5.27 per month.

Water is a universal solvent, coolant and cleaning agent for industries and any water crisis will severely impact businesses as well. Power is one of the biggest users of water followed by paper and pulp, textiles and automobiles.

"Fourteen of India's 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortages between 2013-2016, costing companies $1.4 billion," according to a 2018 report by the World Resources Institute. There have been instances where NTPC had to curtail production due to insufficient water supply. Huge quantities of water are required by the automotive industry for shower testing of cars at the end of the production line. Continued water crisis may force companies to shift production to more favourable locations, creating job loss and leading to migration from water scarce regions.

Waterman's Way

Singh, also known as the Waterman of India and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize 2015 is opposed to putting a price tag on water. "Water is one of the five elements of nature. There cannot be a commercial value to it. Water is not only for humans. Animals and plants have equal rights over it," he says.

He supports use of traditional knowledge and expertise for conservation of surface water. "Electricity production in India is more than the requirement. Still, dams are being constructed for electricity production, while no effective measures are being taken for rain water conservation. Ponds that are thousands of years old and community water tanks are being allowed to fall into ruin for want of maintenance," he rues. The solution, he says, is to revive the culture of ponds. "An independent agency must be formed for protection, restoration and conservation of ponds. And citizens must take stewardship of traditional ponds and water tanks," he says.

Singh's approach of decentralised water conservation through local water bodies is something the World Bank too agrees with. A series of World Bank supported watershed projects in India have used remote sensing images, soil profiles and hydrological information to help communities build check dams, farm ponds and other water retention structures to make water available for many more months a year.

Upping Water Efficiency

While these efforts will save water for non-rainy days, its demand is rising rapidly. "If demand is more than supply, we need to reduce wastage," says Sarkar. About 80 per cent of water available is used in irrigation, 12 per cent in industry and 8-9 per cent for drinking. "Irrigation efficiency is only 38 per cent. The rest of the 62 per cent is getting dissipated," he says.

In the 2016 Budget, the government committed Rs 86,500 crore for 99 irrigation projects in water-stressed districts. This, however, will not help much because irrigation canals are wasteful. "They draw four times water from the rivers than what they deliver to the fields," as per a report by the Observer Research Foundation.

Almost 30-40 per cent water is lost due to leakage in pipes. Most industries don't conserve water, says Sarkar. "India needs to learn from Australia, where water demand is decreasing even as population is rising," he adds. Australia survived the Millennium Drought (1997-2009) through community involvement that lowered household water demand to 37 US gallons (140 litres) per person per day. The government introduced the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standard Scheme in July 2006 to promote products that save water and money.

While desalination is being used increasingly, it is expensive. As per the Desalination Association of India, the country has over 1,000 membrane-based desalination plants of various capacities - from 20 cubic metre per day (20,000 litres) to 10,000 cubic metre per day (10 million litre). But desalination plants use about 15,000 kilowatt hours of power for every million gallons of fresh water produced, according to a report from Pacific Institute. This leaves India with a few options - minimise waste, improve water efficiency. As Singh says: "Repair and restore water bodies to improve catchment area of tank commands, increase storage capacity and ground water recharge to promote conjunctive use of surface and ground water."

Unless this is done, India may go the way of Sudan and Jordan, where citizens are forced to leave the country due to lack of water. People in some areas of Rajasthan have been leaving the state due to water shortage. Drought conditions in 43 per cent of India's land area (as per the South Asia Drought Monitor) are playing havoc with millions of lives. "It is high time we give equal respect to water and human kind. That is the only way we can have water for all and ensure that future generations don't desert India," says Singh.