Almost two decades ago I asked Anupam Mishra, environmentalist, water conservationist and the author of ‘Aaj bhi Khade Hai Talaab’, what could be worse than the global water crisis? His reply was swift, and prophetic: “Ignorance and apathy…mostly apathy. By 2020, India and the world will pay for its apathy towards the looming water crisis.” This was in 1998, we were not talking about Climate Change as the worst planetary crisis yet.
Today, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries, while 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water at least one month per year. This number is expected to rise to more than five billion by 2050 according to World Meteorological Organisation.
In India, which has 18 percent of the world’s population but has only 4 percent of the global water resources, Climate Change and rising demand could mean about 40 percent of its citizens will live with water scarcity by 2050, as compared to 33 percent of the population now, according to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A 2019 NITI Aayog report said that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, and warned that “by 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual ~6% loss in the country’s GDP.” The report also clarifies that “when water is available, it is likely to be contaminated (up to 70 percent of our water supply), resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths each year. India is ranked 120 out of 122 countries in the global water quality index.
The truth is that India has a groundwater crisis. Nearly 80 percent of India’s fresh water is used in agriculture. Fifty-four percent of India’s 141.4 million hectares of cultivable land is under water-intensive crops — rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton. India’s farmers rely mainly on tube wells to extract groundwater for their crops. Groundwater accounts for 63 percent of water used for irrigation by farmers. About 256 of the 700 districts in India have reported ‘critical’ or ‘over-exploited’ groundwater levels according to the most recent Central Ground Water Board data (from 2017).
Groundwater accounts for 90 percent of the drinking water requirements in rural India, and nearly 50 percent in urban areas. The 2030 Water Resources Group estimates that if we continue to consume water as per the current rate, India will have only half the water it needs by 2030.
It’s 2022, and the Union government’s Jal Jeevan mission is halfway through an ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all the roughly 192 million households across its 600,000 villages. But for all its good intentions, the pipelines will soon run dry if the aquifers are emptied out or if monsoons play truant and glaciers first melt and then dry up.
This is why the late Mishra’s book, published almost 30 years ago, is still considered a gospel for development agencies and policy makers looking for the use of indigenous or traditional knowledge to solve water problem via preservation, maintenance, and regeneration of ponds, water management, and rainwater harvesting systems.
Nature-based solutions are a way of strengthening natural processes that aid water conservation, such as protecting lakes that store surface water, or flood plains that capture water runoff. Manmade interventions can be used in conjunction with these natural processes to conserve water for use over time. This is not a new idea: in fact, India has been doing this for centuries.
Almost two decades later, there have been multiple efforts across India to revive the traditional water harvesting and preserving techniques. In Chennai, the City of 1000 Tanks project is repairing existing tanks, and building new ones along with treatments stations. In Maharashtra, efforts are on to bringing back to life 52 puratan kundas – ancient water reservoirs – in Alandi. In rural Rajasthan, a thirty-year project has helped local people build 10,000 johads – earthen dams – that have rejuvenated underground water storage and enabled the long-dry rivers to flow once more.
“150 years ago, no government system anywhere in the world was responsible for water supply. The community owned, managed, maintained, and controlled the water everywhere.” Mishra liked to remind everyone.
Shailendra Yashwant is a senior advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). Twitter: @shaibaba.Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.