Water Woes

As India gets ready for Holi, a reminder of our dire water problems

Almost 76 million people in India have no access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population.

It’s two days to Holi and the Delhi water minister, in festive and benevolent mood, has reassured the city’s revelers that they need not hold back in their celebrations for fear of running out of water. “People should play Holi with full heart, they should not think twice before using water," said the minister Kapil Misra to wire service IANS, adding that there was no water crisis in the city.

Delhi relies on water supply from outside the city-state. The disruption of water canals in Haryana during the Jat agitation last month underscored the city's vulnerability. Even if Delhi’s water supply is guaranteed for the moment, there’s little reason not to appeal for a Holi with as little wastage of water as possible when much of the rest of India is parched. Haryana, itself, just had its sixth drought in 11 years. Large parts of the country, from Bundelkhand to Marathwada to Mahbubnagar, have been reeling from back-to-back droughts and farmers reeling from consecutive crop failures.

India is currently the country with the greatest number of people living without access to safe water, according to a report released by international charity WaterAid on the occasion of World Water Day on Tuesday. There are close to 76 million people without access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population. The impact of this lack of access is seen in ill health effects, like the 140,000 annual child deaths from diarrhoea. Poor families that rely on buying water from tankers at the rate of Rs 1 per litre. To get the 50 litres of water recommended for a basic standard of health and hygiene, a person from low-income family in India will have to typically spend 17% of their income on buying water.

Infographic: WaterAid.
Infographic: WaterAid.

The WaterAid report contends that poor management of water resources has created India’s water problem. Most of our water, almost 85%, comes from our aquifers but over pumping water for agriculture and industry has sucked too much of this resource from the ground. With water being pumped out faster than it can be recharged by rain or surface water run off, water levels are falling in 56% of the country.

The parliamentary standing committee of water resources took note of this water crisis and mismanagement in a report to the Lok Sabha in December 2015. The committee noted that, while most rural households and industries tapped groundwater, 84% of irrigated farmland also relied on groundwater. The report estimates that there are 30 million structures to extract water from the ground across the country. Two hundred and forty five million cubic metres of groundwater is drawn up every year, which is 62% of the available groundwater.

Data from a 2011 assessment of groundwater resources by the Ministry of Water Resources shows in how many blocks in India the groundwater table has has been pushed too low. Blocks in which more than 100% of the groundwater table has been developed are called over exploited or "dark" blocks. Those in which more than 90% has been developed are deemed critical and those with more than 70% development are semi-critical.

The committee also noted that since the 2011 assessment “no serious and systematic efforts have been made by the government towards development, management, conservation and related issues such shortages, scarcity, depletion and pollution of ground water, in spite of the alarming trend towards ground water problems in both quantitative and qualitative terms”.

Our fast-depleting groundwater is also being polluted in cities and industrial clusters by municipal waste and industrial effluents. Geological process spurred in by over extraction of water has also caused arsenic contamination in places like Murshidabad and fluoride contamination in Birbhum, both in West Bengal.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the water scarcity is the general apathy to drought and the plight of a large number of invisible poor. In a column in The Indian Express in February, social worker and former IAS officer Harsh Mander wrote that governments are failing to respond to drought today and of the disinterest of people and the press in the crisis. Kapil Mishra’s encouragement not to hold back on Holi is another sign of that apathy.

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