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A fluid situation

The solution to the country’s water woes lies in managing the uses of water rather than focusing only on enhancement of supply, writes R.K. Pachauri.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:04 IST

The current drought affecting several parts of India is merely a symptom of a growing problem that this country must address with forward vision. Lack of access to good quality and adequate quantity of water for the citizens of India renders meaningless progress in all other fields. There are varying estimates of total useable water resources in the country, but the consensus clearly points to a quantity below 1,000 billion cubic metres, which translates into water availability per capita far below the scarcity benchmark of 1,000 cubic metres. Demand in the future will grow rapidly with increase in irrigation, rapid industrialisation and greater household consumption, particularly with rapid urbanisation.

While the current drought represents a large-scale crisis, several local emergencies have been occurring in India for some years now. Often, costly measures and temporary solutions are implemented such as transporting water by train to parched areas, water tankers plying in both rural and urban areas, often with massive leakages en route. It is unfortunate that we only wake up when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration informs us about declining water tables, while numerous studies in India highlighting this problem have largely been ignored.

Problems of water supply would be exacerbated further with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) projected widespread loss of mass from glaciers and reduction in snow cover throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater, including the Hindu-Kush and Himalayan range. Available research also projects a significant increase in heavy rainfall events in many regions, including some in which the mean rainfall would decrease. As a result, increased risk of floods would pose challenges to society affecting physical infrastructure and water availability.

India’s record of managing water resources does not cover us with glory. In 1995, Teri undertook a detailed exercise to evaluate how India had managed its natural resources in the first 50 years of independence. This massive exercise, which apart from evaluating the damage and degradation in key natural resources like water, forests, soil, air and biodiversity concluded that India was losing over 10 per cent of its GDP annually from environmental costs. When these results were presented in a major public function to the then Prime Minister, I.K Gujral, he commented that these “should jolt us into action”.

However, over the years not enough has been done to deal with this growing malaise. Sadly, India’s major river systems are all dead, incapable of supporting any life, and actually lethal sources of disease. Despite several thousands of crores of expenditure our rivers remain sewers with depleted water flow.

Solutions lie in managing the uses of water rather than focusing only on enhancement of supply. In this regard, pricing of water for a range of uses including agriculture is of critical importance. Highly subsidised electricity tariffs not only promote inefficient pumpsets but also overexploitation of groundwater resources. TERI assessed groundwater resources several years ago and found that in districts like Mehsana in Gujarat and several in Karnataka the water table had dropped to a level that all drinking water wells had turned dry compelling villagers to look elsewhere for drinking water.

In towns and cities there is substantial wastage in transportation of water, and in the domestic, industrial and commercial sectors. Industrial recycling of water could be achieved through appropriate regulations as well as price incentives and disincentives. Research on new crops and practices should also be undertaken to make agriculture drought proof. There is also need for reviving indigenous water management practices and institutions. These institutions functioned effectively for several centuries prior to colonial times. Sadly, the country’s independence did not bring a turning point in this regard.

We have now reached a crisis, which can only be solved through focused attention at the macro level for the country as a whole, and going directly to the grassroots for workable solutions. It is essential for the government to adopt long-term measures, including water storage and transport structures and effect institutional changes by which such crises, which will become more serious in the future, do not lead to large-scale human suffering and social disruption.

R. K. Pachauri is Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director-General, The Energy & Resources Institute (Teri)

The views expressed by the author are personal