The curse of water crisis in urban India

There is scarcely any city where Indians are not confronted by water shortage and the tyranny of the tanker mafia.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only. (Photo | Express)

You could call it a short-lived episode of schadenfreude. Last week P Rajeeve, Kerala’s minister for industries and law, wooed IT companies in Bengaluru, which is reeling under water shortage, to shift to Kerala. He pointed out that Kerala has “44 rivers, big and small” and that “water is no issue at all”. Predictably, the serenade grabbed headlines.

The audacity fizzled out soon enough as reality—the gap between the demand and supply of water in Kerala—came knocking and surfaced in news reports. In fact, within three days of the minister’s claim, headlines screaming ‘Bangalore days in Kochi’ appeared and residents in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram  agitated about dry taps.

There is scarcely any city where Indians are not confronted by water shortage and the tyranny of the tanker mafia. Google ‘water cut’ and check the list of cities that have ongoing water cuts or are announcing them. In Mumbai, residents have normalised declared and undeclared water cuts. Pune, a rising hub for start-ups, is facing a baffling phenomenon—the expansion of construction amid neglect of water availability. Add Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Jaipur and Lucknow. It makes you wonder if the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act needs to be amended to include a guarantee for provision of water.  

Mind you, these cities are powering the India Story. At a political level, nearly 100 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies are urban in character, yet the water crisis is not audible in political rhetoric. In my 2012 book Accidental India, I described water as a silent crisis awaiting resolution. Indeed the Niti Aayog in its 2018 report observed “21 major cities are expected to reach zero ground water levels affecting access for over 100 million people”. My 2020 book, The Gated Republic, documented the extent of the crisis, the interplay of public failures and private solutions and chronicled the migration away from government provision to pay-to-use services. Ironically, even gated communities are now haunted.

Vignettes of the unattended crisis are visible across cities. Early morning traffic in most towns includes water tankers hurtling down residential localities with that peculiar horn blaring away. In Mumbai, one can encounter the unique phenomenon on V S Marg of tanker suppliers offering RO-treated or filtered water. Across urban habitats, packaged water companies have leveraged the opportunity—dial a 1800 number to have drinking water delivered home.

The bitter reality is that India’s urbanisation is unplanned and amoebic in nature—infrastructure follows construction rather than the other way around. Every city in India depends on rural reservoirs often located between 50 km and 100 km away. Bengaluru gets its water from dying aquifers and from Cauvery over 100 km away. Chennai draws water from Cholavaram and Veeranam lakes well out of the city. Delhi depends on ground water and Sonia Vihar, which is fed by the waters of Ganga and Yamuna. Mumbai must rely on seven lakes, including upper Vaitarna over 150 km away.

The persistence of the water woes is a combination of poor availability and patchy management. India has around 16 percent of the global population and 4 percent of water resources. Its population is as large as that of China, but per capita availability of internal freshwater resources, as per World Bank data, is half of what China has. India receives an annual precipitation of 3,880 billion cubic metres, but is able to harness only 1,999 bcm. Ground water extraction is around 249 bcm, of which 89 percent is used for agriculture.

It is evident that India’s policy makers must address the inadequacies in availability and management. There is no dearth of studies or solutions. The primary focus must be on improving the efficiency of usage for food production. Beyond the ‘more crop per drop’ theme, the need for redrawing the crop map is critical—to end, for instance, the growing of paddy or cane in water-scarce areas. This will redress the skewed and excessive use of water by farming.

There is also a need to configure usage and design recycling of water. Two global examples merit attention. In 2019, Singapore set a target of recycling 70 percent of its water by 2030. Waste water from sewers is pumped through 48 km of tunnels and treated by a high-tech system and released at the other end as NEWater. The island state is also targeting water savings of around 9 million gallons per day. Sure, Singapore is a small nation, but its efforts to recycle water can be a template for urban India.

A second case study worth looking at is Israel, which is located in a water-scarce geography. The bulk of its crops—well over 70 percent by some estimates—are drip irrigated. Its desalination plants annually produce 700 million cubic metres of water, of which it exports roughly 200 cubic metres to Jordan. Israel is targeting desalination of 1.2 bcm of water per year by 2030. India currently has four desalination plants; with a coastline of over 7,500 km India can surely leverage the solution.

It is true that measures to improve availability and rejig the management require retrofitting and resources. It is equally true that sustaining the aspiration of a $10-trillion GDP demands these structural changes. And it is useful to remember that investment in sustainability will propel job creation, incomes and growth.

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