India: Water Conservation Policy Needed

With one of the fastest growing populations in the world and democratic governance, which takes its own time to move on any issue, India urgently faces a policy for water conservation, if it wishes to avoid a water crisis in near future. Groundwater situation continues to worsen. With the uncertainties of climate change becoming more and more apparent, it is time something gets done.
India: Water Conservation Policy Needed
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Rising Water Needs of India

With over 1.1 billion people, India is a thirsty nation today. A nation where about two third of people still depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and where two third of cropped area still lacks irrigation facilities, water is a very precious resource. During the last fifty years, the population has more than doubled, with corresponding rise in water requirements that have been largely taken care of by the increased exploitation of ground water.

Now, this underground resource seems on the verge of extinction!

A world bank study by John Briscoe, Senior Water Advisor has assessed that 70

percent of India’s irrigation needs and 80 percent of its domestic water supplies come from groundwater, and warned, "... although this ubiquitous practice has been remarkably successful in helping people to cope in the past, it has led to rapidly declining water tables and critically depleted aquifers, and is no longer sustainable".

Water Situation in India: An Overview

India as a nation uses 500 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water every year for various purposes, most important of which are irrigation and domestic use. This equates with a per capita use of around 470 cu meters per year, which is far short of the amount used in a developed country like United Stated where per capita water use is around 1600 cu meters. But then, United States has a larger territory, and a far smaller population. The lower per capita use also denotes a scarcity that is likely to become much worse by year 2025 due to population growth and increasing urbanisation.

India receives a rainfall of around 4000 BCM every year, actually enough to take care of India's water needs, but most of this water is received within 4 months of 'monsoon' season between June and September, or be more precise, during less than 100 hours of precipitation spread over these four months. Most of this water is lost. A small part of it goes into soil and recharges ground water, but most of it evaporates and is lost.

Traditionally, till the middle of twentieth century, India largely managed its water needs by its major rivers, and rainfall, supplemented by traditional water bodies called by different names like 'johad', 'talab', bavdi, or 'jheel' - most of which were nothing but natural or man-made ponds that collected water during rainfall that was used by surrounding villagers for various purposes. After the great demographic divide of 1919, after which the population of India started exploding, these sources were unable to satisfy the needs. As a result more and more people resorted to drilling for groundwater.

Today, the groundwater levels are falling everywhere throughout the country. In some cities they are falling at an alarming rate of almost 10 meters every year, indicating a crisis. The realisation that ground water will not last forever has resulted in a strong demand for finding solutions to water scarcity that threatens the country. Though there is a realisation for water conservation policy, a comprehensive policy in this regard is yet to emerge.

Water Conservation Policy as a Solution to Water Scarcity

With a

rainfall that is adequate to take care of its needs, there is a realisation that water conservation is the only answer to India's problems. Some cities have made rules making it compulsory to have water harvesting systems in all new buildings. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have taken up projects related to water conservation in rural and semi-arid areas with excellent results. One such NGO, 'Tarun Bharat Sangh' has been involved with people and by way of self-help, it has created 3000 water conservation structures in 650 villages. However, a lot more needs to be done in this regard.

Different experts and stakeholders have suggested different methods, but there are some that everyone agrees as a solution.

(i)   Local Water Bodies - This used to be one of the main local sources of water earlier, but gradual filling of those bodies and their pollution by people and industries have made most of them dysfunctional. Now their renovation is looked upon as one of the means to store and conserve rain water.

(ii)  Urban Water Harvesting - As India gradually shifts from rural to urban areas, the role of water conservation in urban areas is increasingly recognised and accepted as a solution to water problem.

(iii) Afforestation - Planting of trees has been accepted as a single biggest means of holding water in a territory, and is increasingly resorted to as a means especially in the semi-arid regions. However most of the efforts are not well coordinated till now in this regard.

(iv) Improving Technology & Water Use Methods - Most Indian farmers are still not fully acquainted with efficient water usage methods for irrigation. Methods like drip irrigation are still unknown in most parts even where water is scarce. Awareness in this regard needs to grow to allow efficient use of water.

(v) Water Pricing As Means To Minimize Wastage - So far, the governments have generally desisted from pricing water at its real cost. The unrealistically low prices tend to encourage overuse and wastage. The World Bank has been advocating pricing as a means to avoid wastage, but the democratic governments have so far not been inclined to accept this advice.

Need to Plan for the Impending Crisis

India stands today at a point where it faces a real danger of a water crisis if it is unable to plan for the solutions and start implementing them very soon. The most feasible solution is to conserve water by all the different means possible, and a comprehensive water conservation policy with necessary legal sanction for enforcement, and enough propaganda to create public awareness is  an acute need of the hour.

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