A video of women from Phulambri, Aurangabad in Maharashtra running behind a water tanker sprinkling water over a newly constructed road, to fill their buckets went viral on social media on June 2.

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With 80% of districts in Karnataka and 72% in Maharashtra hit by drought and crop failure, 8.2 million farmers in these two states are struggling to survive. More than 6,000 tankers supply water to 4,920 villages and 10,506 hamlets or settlements in drought-hit Maharashtra daily, as conflict brews between the two states over common water resources.

Districts in Karnataka have shut schools for an extra week due to water scarcity. Short duration summer crops in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are taking a hit.

Further south, the Tamil Nadu government sanctioned Rs 233 crore for several emergency water projects. This came soon after the water supply in four reservoirs supplying water to Chennai dropped below 1% of their capacity, causing an acute water crisis, which shut down Chennai’s metro system. With piped water cut by 40%, people line up in queues for water tankers. They also complain of foul-smelling water, as if it were mixed with sewage.

The situation is similar across India as the country experiences an acute water crisis. There is no respite in sight anytime soon as the southwest monsoon this year, responsible for 80% of India’s rainfall, is projected to be delayed and below normal in both North India and South India.

Deficient rainfall

As of May 30, more than 43.4% of the country was reeling under drought, according to the Drought Early Warning System, a real-time drought monitoring platform. Failed monsoon rains are the primary reason for the current situation. India has been experiencing widespread drought every year since 2015, with the exception of 2017, IndiaSpend reported on April 3.

The north-east monsoon, also known as “post-monsoon rainfall” (October-December) that provides 10%-20% of India’s rainfall, was deficient by 44% in 2018 from the long-term normal of 127.2 mm, as per data from the India Meteorological Department. This compounded the rainfall deficit in the southwest monsoon (June-September), which fell short by 9.4% in 2018 – close to the 10% deficit range when the meterological department declares a drought, said the IndiaSpend report.

The pre-monsoon rainfall (March 1-May 31) in 2019, was the lowest in 65 years.

Monsoon rainfall is of special significance as India’s surface and groundwater resources continue to dwindle.

Water levels in India’s 91 major reservoirs plummeted to 20% of their capacity on May 30. This is lower than the levels last year and is also less than the average levels in the past decade.

To deal with the water crisis in the country – where 600 million people, half the population, face “high-to-extreme” water stress every year – the Narendra Modi government in its second term, on May 31, promised the provision of piped drinking water to every household by 2024 under a “Nal Se Jal” scheme. The mission will be undertaken by a newly formed Jal Shakti ministry, which amalgamates the ministries of water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.

The first challenge of the scheme will be the availability of water.

The Jal Shakti Ministry headed by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has their work cut out for them. Credit: PTI
The Jal Shakti Ministry headed by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has their work cut out for them. Credit: PTI

Dwindling water resources

The total water resource base for India, including surface and groundwater, is 2,518 billion cubic meters. In India, only 690 billion cubic meters of 1,869 billion cubic meters (37%) surface water resources can actually be utilised because of contamination. Only 230 billion cubic meters of the 400 billion cubic meters (58%) groundwater is accessible, Niti Aayog, the government’s policy think tank, said in a 2018 report.

Groundwater, the source of 40% of India’s water needs, is depleting at an unsustainable rate, Niti Aayog said. India is the world’s largest groundwater extractor – accounting for 12% of global extraction. As a result, 21 Indian cities – including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad – will run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, the report said.

If mitigation measures are not implemented, India faces a 6% loss in its gross domestic product by 2050, when the demand for water will exceed the supply, the Niti Aayog’s report said calling for “immediate action” from states. This scarcity of water will also increase the country’s health burden. Currently, 200,000 Indians die every year due to inadequate access to safe water.

India holds about 4% of global freshwater and 16% of its population. With nearly 70% of water contaminated, India ranks 120th of 122 countries in a global water quality index, noted the Niti Aayog report.

The report also analysed and ranked 24 states on nine broad sectors and 28 indicators, including groundwater, irrigation, farm practices and drinking water.

On groundwater augmentation, 10 of the 24 states scored below 50%, highlighting a worsening situation – 54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining.

In 2015-’16, as many as 14 of the 24 states analysed scored below 50% on water management and were classified as “low performers”. These states are concentrated across the populous agricultural belts of north and east India and the northeastern and Himalayan states.

Gujarat performed best with a score of 76%, followed by Madhya Pradesh (69%) and Andhra Pradesh (68%).

Seven states – Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura – scored between 50% to 65% and have been classified as “medium performers”.

“Water Index scores vary widely across states, but most states have achieved a score below 50% and could significantly improve their water resource management practices,” the report said.

How things got here

While the southwest monsoon failed in 2018, a year preceded by consecutive droughts since 2015, the pre-monsoon rains in 2019 (March 1 to May 31) were also low. The 92 days of the pre-monsoon period recorded 23% less rainfall than the 50-year average – lowest in 65 years – according to rainfall data from the Indian Metereological Department.

The southern peninsula – including the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana – recorded the lowest rainfall across river basins in the pre-monsoon period, IMD data show.

The rainfall in the basins of the southern peninsula and central India have been declared “deficient” (ranging from -59% rainfall to -20% rainfall) and “large deficient” (ranging from -99% rainfall to -60% rainfall).

The lack of rains forced these regions to use up their reservoirs. On May 30, when average water levels in 91 reservoirs were at 20% of their total capacity, as we said above, the 31 reservoirs of the southern peninsula – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – were left with only 11% of their full water capacity.

In 27 major reservoirs in the western region – which includes Gujarat and Maharashtra–water levels were at 11% of storage capacity.

This lack of water was compounded by the heatwave that has gripped most states of India with temperatures crossing 50 degrees Celsius mark. In western Rajasthan, Churu experienced the highest temperature nationwide at 50.8 degrees Celcius on June 2, followed by Sri Ganganagar at 49.6 degrees Celcius. Both towns were among the eight hottest places from India, which made it to the list of 15 hottest places in the world, that day.

India has faced a severe drought every eight or nine years, rainfall data from the past century indicates. Yet, three in five districts are not prepared for drought, said a September 2018 paper published jointly by the Indian Institute of Technology, Indore and Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

At least 133 of the 634 districts that the paper studied face drought almost every year. Most of these districts are in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Possible solutions

Usage of efficient irrigation methods, implementation of an urban water policy to harvest rainwater in Indian cities, regulation of groundwater usage and the increasing of water recycling capacity are the immediate steps that India should undertake going ahead, experts told IndiaSpend.

Agriculture uses up to 80% of all water resources in the country, said Niti Aayog’s report, making it critical to rationalise water use in this sector. Drinking water accounts for only 4% of the water consumption in India.

India has the potential to bring nearly half of its net cultivated area, 140 million hectares, under micro-irrigation. But so far, only 7.73 million hectares – 3.37 million hectares of drip irrigation and 4.36 million hectares of sprinkler irrigation – as against the estimated potential of 69.5 million hectares have been covered under micro-irrigation, said Samrat Basak, an expert on water-related issues from World Resource Institute, IndiaSpend reported on June 25, 2018.

Research shows that sprinkler irrigation can use 30% to 40% less water, while drip irrigation can use about 40% less water to 60% less water compared to flood irrigation methods, Basak added.

Drip irrigation can use about 40% to 60% less water compared to flood irrigation methods. Credit: PTI
Drip irrigation can use about 40% to 60% less water compared to flood irrigation methods. Credit: PTI

Performance around groundwater augmentation can also be significantly improved with the strengthening of groundwater regulations and strict implementation. Steps such as improvement of monitoring networks, continuous tabs on groundwater level and groundwater quality and strict implementation, maintenance and operation of rainwater harvesting of the same will also help states manage their groundwater better, Basak said.

As of June 2018, the Central Ground Water Board, a central authority to monitor and manage water groundwater resources in the country, has a network of 22,339 groundwater observation wells in India, which means one monitoring point for approximately 147 sq km – about the size of Mysuru.

India also needs a “National Urban Water Policy which will define amongst other things what is a water smart city and provide guidelines: to harvest rainwater to its full potential, recharge the groundwater and regulate groundwater usage”, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told IndiaSpend. “Protection of groundwater and local water bodies is a must.”

Instead of spending thousands of crores on cleaning rivers, the government should propose a river law that prevents industries and people from contaminating the water of the rivers, Manoj Mishra, executive director of the PEACE Institute Charitable Trust and head of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, told IndiaSpend. “Instead of cleaning water entering the rivers, Sewage Treatment Plants should be used to clean out waste so that the water can be recycled for non-drinking water needs,” he added.

Currently, 63%of sewage wastewater goes untreated in India.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend.