India must not look at its water crisis in isolation
India’s water woes, though, stem largely from its over-dependence on groundwater, and here, the climate links are less pronounced because underground aquifers take much longer to react to changes in temperature and rainfall
This was a rough monsoon — a delayed start in many parts of India, and then a deluge — leading to both devastating droughts and floods, so much so that almost every other day, we read news about parched cities, and submerged villages. Those of us who work on water issues in India understand that droughts and floods are a manifestation of the same malaise — decades of mismanagement of our land, water and ecosystems due to outdated and misinformed policies. The effects of these are now being compounded due to climate change. As a scientist, I often get asked how much of our water woes are due to climate change.
Let’s take our glaciers. In the Himalayas, even under the optimistic scenario where the world limits global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as much as a third of the glaciers would have melted by 2100, and if business-as-usual carbon emission continues, then, three-fourths of the glaciers will be gone by the same time. The melting of glaciers is almost entirely due to human-induced climate change. Unless the entire world meets its Paris commitments and more, there is very little that individual countries can do to reverse the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Similarly, some of the extreme weather events, like extreme precipitation, or extreme heat waves are also largely climate change-induced.
India’s water woes, though, stem largely from its over-dependence on groundwater, and here, the climate links are less pronounced because underground aquifers take much longer to react to changes in temperature and rainfall. India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, extracting 250 cubic km of groundwater annually, and has 20 million wells and tube wells. Most of our cities depend on groundwater, and our irrigation is overwhelmingly groundwater dependent. The risk of linking our water crisis to climate change is that policymakers can throw their hands up and say that there is little that they can do. And that’s a dangerous road, because, so much of our water crisis originates from misplaced policies.
First, India’s cities. In almost all our cities, wetlands, lakes and ponds have been encroached upon, and this, when added to mostly concrete surfaces, drastically reduces groundwater recharge, causing the kind of water crisis we saw in Chennai this past summer, and also paradoxically, urban floods of the kind that Mumbai witnessed this year, and every other year. We need policies that incentivise urban municipalities to implement nature-based solutions such as rejuvenating water bodies, to demarcate areas where recharge happens as protected places, and provide incentives to urban residents and industries to undertake rainwater harvesting and reuse waste water.
The water crisis in rural India is in some ways harder (but not impossible) to tackle — mostly because it is a policy- induced crisis dating back to the days of the Green Revolution, when food security for millions was the policy priority. The Green Revolution needed three inputs — high yielding varieties of seeds, intensive use of chemical fertilisers and irrigation. Groundwater provided the much-needed intensive irrigation and energy subsidies (including free electricity) were provided for irrigation intensification. Another reason for these input subsidies was to keep food prices low for a largely poor urban population. These policies continue, even though the purchasing power of urban population has improved and our farmers grow more food than ever (food which often rots in godowns). Farmers get a procurement price that considers the cost of subsidised inputs — and asking them to pay, say, full price for electricity, without increasing the procurement prices of food grains that they grow, will see them further immersed in distress. Another perverse part of our entire water-energy-food nexus is that farmers are over-extracting groundwater to grow water-intensive, but nutritionally poorer, food crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane. This, while, low water consuming and nutritious crops such as sorghum, millets are being completely neglected. Policies for reducing water distress in agriculture have to focus on all fronts — ensuring that our food procurement policies are revised to incentivise low-water consuming crops, that our agricultural energy policies are tweaked to provide smarter incentives for lower groundwater extraction, and that our water policies encourage decentralised solutions like water harvesting and water-efficient agriculture.
Much of India will face a grim water future, and what we do now will have an enduring impact on us and our children. And most importantly, while encouraging that each of us be “water wise”, we need to nudge our governments to implement policies that takes into account the complexity of water issues and look for solutions beyond the water sector.
Aditi Mukherji is a principal researcher at International Water Management Institute, New Delhi, and is also a coordinating lead author of the water chapter for the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report.
The views expressed are personal