Over two billions of the world’s population live in areas facing water scarcity; and the situation is even worse in India as millions of people lack access to clean drinking water. The demand for water here is growing at an alarming rate. “The total amount of usable water in India is estimated to be between 700 and 1,200 billion cubic meters (bcm), while the per capita availability of water is only 1,000 cubic meters,” says Dr Kirit Parikh, Chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe). As per McKinsey & Company, India would need to double its water-generation capacity by 2030 to meet the demands of its surging population.
Competition for water
It has been said that the next wars will be fought over water. “Water is a big concern these days and the problem is increasing day by day due to rapid urbanization and industrialization. If we do not get the arithmetic of water waste right, we will have to face serious consequences," says Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
The industry experts believe that water crisis is not just the disturbance in the demand and supply but also about mismanagement of the resources. Highlighting the root causes of water crisis, Sudhirendar Sharma, an independent environmental services professional, says, water is a state subject and it is failing to fulfill its obligation of serving the masses with life-saving fluid. “The failure is multi-faceted: it has not been able to protect natural sources of water; has not been effective in controlling point pollution of surface and groundwater; and has consequently not been able to manage rising multi-sectoral demand for water,” adds Sharma.
A fast growing economy and a large agricultural sector have stretched India’s supply of water even thinner. “In the regions where population densities and agricultural proceedings are high and industrialization is happening in a big way, the water tables have fallen very sharply to about one and a half to two meters every year," says Nitya Jacob, Head of Policy at WaterAid India.
“India is using its groundwater faster than nature can replenish it. We should respect water and should not treat it as a commodity or something to be merely consumed,” adds Jacob.
Time to get water wise
The experts suggest some recommendations that would help address the most crucial issues in India’s water crisis. Parikh suggests the central and state governments empower local groups with knowledge, understanding, and real-time information on the status of groundwater so as to manage extraction in a well coordinated way. Since groundwater is an open resource, farmers do extract it as much as they can and this problem can be addressed by a cooperative agreement among the users and educating them about how much to extract without drastically depleting the resource. Echoing similar view, Jacob states, “About 80 percent of the water available is used for farming and half of it comes from the ground. Hence, farming community should be educated about the groundwater emergency and the need to change their cropping pattern.”
Sharma says that the problem of water quality affects a larger section of the society, especially rural India, and the current response has been in favour of installing water wasting reverse osmosis systems in the form of water ATMs. However, this short-term solution has serious long-term impact, it wastes as much water as it generates and the concentrated waste gets dumped without care.
Talking about the solution, he says, “Reviving natural ponds is the answer as is being demonstrated in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and even in Rajasthan. Traditional surface storage structures and systems exist in all parts of the country, which need to be acknowledged and refurbished by the state.”
Besides, the country should promote watershed development. The Guajarat model has shown that the approach is effective and profitable. Moreover, it can be undertaken at the local level all over the country and can be accomplished in a relatively short time. It is clear that ‘one size fits all’ has not worked in a country with diverse ecological zones. Decentralized water management solutions involving local communities would improve water crises in rural India.
Saving for ‘dry’ days
Although as per industry estimates, water demand will exceed supply by 2020, but we are not without hope. Water scarcity is usually a manmade problem; therefore if the country makes significant changes in the way it manages its resources, it could avoid the looming crisis. In a bid to avoid this dark future, people should start taking measures including conserving water; begin to harvest rainwater; treat human, agricultural, and industrial waste effectively; and regulate how much groundwater can be extracted.
Jacob highlights that water management is as much a social-cultural issue as it is an environmental and technical one. But it has never been treated as one. As far as possible, social structures and mechanisms that governed water resource use have to be mapped with modern technical solutions and obsolete technology that does not fit social needs to go . For too long we have tried the reverse approach; it’s time to change that, concludes Jacob.
Lessons from Singapore’s water management experience
Singapore has successfully revived its water bodies with the help of technology. India can learn a lot on water recycling from this country and better combat its own worsening water crisis. The country, with no natural water resources, has overcome water shortages in just four decades. To overcome the water crisis, it has turned to rain water and even retreating water. The country has created a system to ensure sustainable water supply from four different sources including local catchment areas, imported water, reclaimed water known as NEWater and desalinated water.
Besides, the country collects every drop of rain and utilizes it for water supply. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to harvest urban storm-water on a large-scale for its water supply. This, however, was not possible without the help of technology. It used the reverse osmosis membrane technology to produce high quality water. Also, it purifies sea water through reverse osmosis plants, which helps meet about 10 percent of its water demand.
Bisleri maps its water footprints
India is blessed with the highest amount of rainfall in the world. However, 95 percent of this rain water is lost through run off. Leading packaged water firm Bisleri has taken up the cause of conserving every drop of water. Bisleri facilities are equipped with rain water harvesting systems and the company harvests almost 10 billion litres of water in a year. Besides, instead of using water for rinsing bottles; it uses ozone, which saves a lot of water.