India’s Water Crisis: Causes and Cures

India's Water Crisis
Causes and Cures

Interview with Kirit S. Parikh
August 12, 2013

Water touches every aspect of life, and in India uncertainty over access to and the availability of this basic resource may be reaching crisis levels. As India continues to undergo dramatic shifts caused by a growing economy and population, competing demands for this limited resource coming from households, industry, and agriculture have wide-ranging implications for the country’s future. Should no action be taken, there could be dire consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that 97 million Indians lack access to safe water today, second only to China. As a result, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. Without change, the problem may get worse as India is projected to grow significantly in the coming decades and overtake China by 2028 to become the world’s most populous country. For insights into what has led to India’s water crisis and what should be done to help alleviate it, NBR spoke with Kirit S. Parikh, chairman of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) and a former member of the Government of India’s Planning Commission in charge of water and energy issues. Dr. Parikh argues that the country’s water crisis has been caused by a combination of factors, including population growth, dwindling groundwater supplies from over-extraction by farmers, and insufficient investment in treatment facilities at the federal, state, and local levels. He highlights the roles of the central and state governments in addressing this issue and explains why tools like dams—although often opposed—are critical for ensuring the water storage and distribution needed to sustain India’s growth trajectory.

What are the root causes of India’s water crisis?

India’s water crisis is rooted in three causes. The first is insufficient water per person as a result of population growth. The total amount of usable water has been estimated to be between 700 to 1,200 billion cubic meters (bcm). With a population of 1.2 billion according to the 2011 census, India has only 1,000 cubic meters of water per person, even using the higher estimate. A country is considered water-stressed if it has less than 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. For comparison, India had between 3,000 and 4,000 cubic meters per person in 1951, whereas the United States has nearly 8,000 cubic meters per person today.

The second cause is poor water quality resulting from insufficient and delayed investment in urban water-treatment facilities. Water in most rivers in India is largely not fit for drinking, and in many stretches not even fit for bathing. Despite the Ganga Action Plan, which was launched in 1984 to clean up the Ganges River in 25 years, much of the river remains polluted with a high coliform count at many places. The facilities created are also not properly maintained because adequate fees are not charged for the service. Moreover, industrial effluent standards are not enforced because the state pollution control boards have inadequate technical and human resources.

The third problem is dwindling groundwater supplies due to over-extraction by farmers. This is because groundwater is an open-access resource and anyone can pump water from under his or her own land. Given how highly fragmented land ownership is in India, with millions of farmers and an average farm size of less than two hectares, the tragedy of the commons is inevitable. India extracted 251 bcm of groundwater in 2010, whereas the United States extracted only 112 bcm. Further, India’s rate of extraction has been steadily growing from a base of 90 bcm in 1980, while this rate in the United States has remained at more or less the same level since 1980.

What are the critical areas of concern stemming from India’s water shortages?

Of the many critical areas, the main concerns are the pressing need to increase irrigation and the difficulty of creating water-storage facilities. Of the 140 million hectares (mh) of net cultivated area in India, only around 60 mh are irrigated. In order for Indian agriculture to grow at its targeted rate of 4% per year, it needs to increase the area irrigated, introduce new high-yield technology, or expand cultivable land. There is no scope to expand the cultivated area, which has remained around 140 mh for the last two decades. Since rain is concentrated in a few months and unevenly distributed across the country, it is imperative for India to develop the capacity to store and transport water. Although water can be stored either above or below ground, there are limits to how much can be stored through groundwater recharge and water harvesting. The first step is to increase local storage and recharge through watershed development. However, in the long run, dams are inevitable. Even with full groundwater recharge, water harvesting, and recycling, there will still be a need to store water in reservoirs; otherwise, this water will drain into the sea during monsoon floods. The storage capacity in India was 258 cubic meters per person in 1997, compared with 2,043 cubic meters per person in the United States in 2002. Even on a per hectare of cultivable land basis, storage capacities were 1,474 and 3,287 cubic meters in India and the United States, respectively.

Many national and international environmentalists oppose dam construction. Storage dams, in particular, are controversial because they often submerge forests and reduce biodiversity by disturbing habitats. With India’s high population density, dams would also displace many people, often poor tribal communities. Even when these people are resettled and compensated properly, which frequently is not the case, their lifestyles, social support system, and culture are disrupted. Despite these objections, there remains a critical need for storage dams because climate change will increase the availability of water while greatly altering its distribution.

India’s future economic growth is also a concern. If the country cannot expand irrigation or increase agricultural productivity by other means, economic growth will be restricted. Given its size and humiliating experience of “ship to mouth” grain imports from the United States in the 1960s, India is likely to limit its dependence on imports. As stated earlier, agriculture needs to grow by at least 4% per year if India is to sustain its targeted economic growth rate (above 8%). With 8% growth, demand for agricultural products will increase. Limited land and restrictions on imports will limit the supply of agricultural products unless the expansion of irrigation makes it possible to double-crop more land or technical progress increases per-hectare output.

What steps are India’s central, state, and local governments taking to address these issues? Could you share examples of successful programs at the state or community level that can be replicated elsewhere?

There is emphasis throughout the country on watershed development. This involves leveling land and tapping rainwater in small ponds created by building small dams in the streams (called check dams). This water increases soil moisture, recharges groundwater, and permits a second crop to be planted. India’s eleventh five-year plan (2007–12) covered some 15 mh with watershed development, and many NGO-led efforts have shown the program’s success. For example, Anna Hazare has transformed the village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra into a model sustainable village through water harvesting and cooperation. Another example is Rajendra Singh, whose NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh has transformed the Alwar District of Rajasthan through community-based efforts in water harvesting and water management. Singh is known as the “waterman of India” and was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2001. Similarly, with the support of the government, NGOs, community groups, and other civil society organizations, the state of Gujarat has built over 100,000 check dams. Some economists have attributed Gujarat’s 8%-plus growth rate of agricultural GDP to these efforts.

The problem of urban water supply is due to poor and leaky distribution networks leading to large amounts of “unaccounted water.” Even though New Delhi’s per-capita availability of water is greater than that of Paris, the city does not provide reliable water. Inadequate pricing is one problem. Some cities have used private firms to help streamline distribution in order to provide reliable water and reduce waste. The city of Dharwad in Karnataka, for example, now has a constant water supply with the help of private consultants.

What are your recommendations to tackle the water crisis in India?

India’s twelfth five-year plan (2012–17) has focused attention on all of these issues discussed. The plan puts great emphasis on aquifer mapping, watershed development, involvement of NGOs, and efficiency in developing irrigation capacity. Because water is a state subject in the federal constitution, state governments are expected to play a large role in these efforts. At the same time, many active NGOs are now able to enforce compliance with environmental obligations through the right to information act, active and competitive media, and growing awareness on water issues.

The following recommendations address the most important issues in India’s water crisis. First, the central and state governments should empower local groups with knowledge, understanding, and real-time information on the status of groundwater so as to manage extraction in a cooperative way. Since groundwater is an open resource, farmers extract as much as they can. But when everyone does this, it leads to extraction above a sustainable level. This problem can only be managed by a cooperative agreement among the users of the aquifer, who should know how much can be extracted without depleting the resource. The state can monitor and provide this information. Mexico’s efforts at cooperative management of groundwater suggest that this practice can work.

Second, India needs to promote watershed development. The example of the state of Guajarat, as well as the efforts of Rajendra Singh and Anna Hazare, have shown that this 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.

Third, India must educate people about the need for dams to store water. The environmentalists and other groups who oppose dams should be engaged in a dialogue to work out alternatives and build a consensus.

Fourth, the government should strengthen state pollution control boards to enforce effluent standards. The technical and human resources currently available to the boards are inadequate to effectively monitor activities, enforce regulations, and convict violators. In addition, adequate sewage treatment facilities must be constructed. Many cities treat only a part, and some no more than half, of the effluent. Cities need to charge a proper price for water so that local sewage work operators have the income and resources to sufficiently maintain treatment plants. If necessary, India should work with private firms to modernize urban water-distribution systems.

Should India adopt these recommendations at all levels—federal, state, and local—it will be a great step toward addressing the most critical issues causing the country’s water crisis.

Kirit S. Parikh is Chairman of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe). He received a ScD in Civil Engineering and an SM in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been a Professor of Economics since 1967. Dr. Parikh is widely recognized as the architect of India’s Integrated Energy Policy Committee.

This interview was conducted by Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director for Outreach, and Amrita Kundu, a former Intern at NBR.