Analysts say India’s per capita water availability is set to slip below the critical 1,000 cubic metres mark by 2025, and the country is expected to join China in facing significant water stress.
The turnaround in India’s water situation has been dramatic. In 2005, the Global Water Initiative said India had ‘abundant’ water in 1975 but that by 2000, this happy state of affairs had turned into ‘stress’ even as demand has continued to grow.
‘Water–The India Story’, a widely quoted study by market research firm Grail Research, points out that India’s per capita domestic consumption of water is expected to grow to 167 litres a day by 2050, up from 88.9 in 2000. Factor in the growing population (expected to increase from 1.13 billion in 2005 to 1.66 billion by 2050) and the picture starts to look bleak.
At present, agriculture guzzles nearly 90 percent of India’s water consumption, even though it contributes only about 17 percent of the country’s GDP. This imbalance is, suggests Grail Research’s report, set to grow, with production of water-intensive crops expected to jump by 80 percent between 2000 and 2050, while the volume of water used for irrigation in India is likely to increase by 68.5 trillion litres between 2000 and 2025.
D.R. Sikka, former director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, says tough policy decisions need to be taken to ease agriculture’s dangerously insatiable appetite for water. Overall, India isn’t a naturally water-rich country, he explains, noting that it has several dry areas and only two main sources of fresh water—glacier melt, which is restricted to the months of April to June, and the three-month-long monsoon season that runs until September.
‘So 90 percent of our rainwater is available for only 3 to 4 months a year. If the monsoon fails, an entire season is lost,’ Sikka says. ‘But governments haven’t taken a long term view of our water policy. Over the last many decades, political systems have given farmers free electricity. This has enabled them to use electrical pumps at will to extract groundwater.’
India is generally seen as under-legislating its groundwater, with almost anybody being able to extract water with little or no permission. As things stand, the population density supported by India’s river basins is higher than most other developing countries. Yet Grail’s findings suggest that by 2050, groundwater levels in the Ganges basin will be depleted by between 50 and 70 percent; levels in the Krishna, Kaveri and Godavari basins, which provide water to the big southern states, could be depleted by as much as half.
‘Farmers have also been encouraged to produce bumper, water-intensive crops like rice, even in states like Punjab, Haryana and Western UP which aren’t really water-rich,’ adds Sikka, a member of several committees on climate change at the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Indian Space Research Organisation and Indian Meteorological Department. ‘Scientists can only express the dangers we see imminent. Keen political will is required for big changes. (But) the farmer lobby is so strong ‘.