By Dr Moin Qazi
Water is a crucial part of all societies as it has a myriad of uses. However, in India, it is of much more importance as over 600 million people make a living off the land. They rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable. Even today, the country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the south-west monsoon is delayed
India is home to nearly a sixth of the world’s population but gets only 4 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. More than half of the country faces high water scarcity. Out of the 1.2 billion people living in the country, about 742 million live and farm in agricultural heartlands. According to data from the World Bank, Indian farmers use nearly 70 percent of the total groundwater drawn in the country each year. The water extracted from India’s wells constitutes more than one-quarter of the world’s total.
The country is in an alarming situation with about 76 million people living without access to safe water, the highest in the world. Over 68,000 children under the age of five die every year in India due to diarrhoeal diseases caused due to unsafe water and poor sanitation. At 63 million, India has the highest number of rural people living without access to clean water. The country also has the largest number of people waiting for access to safe sanitation at a staggering number of 774 million.
The world’s water woes
According to the Water Resources Group, by 2030, the demand for water is expected to outstrip supply by about 50 percent. The 2016 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report ‘Water and Jobs’, emphasised on the need for improving water resources management system and realising the importance of water in job creation. The report noted that water scarcity manifests itself through a combination of hydrological variability and unsustainable human use. In terms of per capita availability of renewable water, the statistics reveal that South Asian and African countries are facing greater water stress.
Presently, India uses more groundwater every year than China and the United States combined. Due to this serious overuse, groundwater levels are falling nationally by an average of 0.3 metres a year. In some areas, the levels are falling by as much as 4 metres a year.
Indian utilities exacerbate the problem by routinely losing an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the water produced. In contrast, Tokyo, Singapore, and Phnom Penh lose only 3.7 percent, 4.9 percent, and 6.5 percent respectively.
The causes of water scarcity in India
India’s water crisis stems from a complex mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. While climate change has caused rain to become more erratic, many parts of the country receive a more than adequate amount of rainfall. Water harvesting and management, though required, remain little more than a fad. Many of the areas that are prone to flooding are the same ones that face drought months later.
Water harvesting techniques have been employed for thousands of years. This is the primary traditional use of rainwater harvesting. India is currently using only 35 percent of the rainwater it receives. If rainwater harvesting projects are effectively implemented, 65 percent of the rainwater which is wasted can be used. Watershed development is not a new concept in India. History is proof that people either adapted to living along river banks or started harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff, and stream flows.
Steps to be taken in the future
India needs to revive its traditional water harvesting practices. If people cut fewer trees, increased plant cover on the land, and built a well-planned series of dams and earthen terraces to divert and slow the downhill flow of rainwater, the soil has more time to absorb moisture.
Ancient Indians understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals must be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state, the king, and the management role of local communities. Homes did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British changed all this by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.
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