India Prepares for an Imminent Water Crisis

It was not only Cape Town that was at the brink of “Day Zero”, with the countdown now postponed until 2019 after dams began to fill up in the nick of time, Shimla – Himachal Pradesh’s capital and one of India’s most sought-after tourist destinations – also faced the worst water crisis ever recently. A NITI Ayog (National Institution for Transforming India, a policy think tank of the Government of India) study has revealed the dire extent of water crisis in the country.

The warning signals portend the risks posed by water stress and scarcity in many countries, irrespective of the stage of development they are in. If one takes India’s example, whether it is a dispute over river water sharing between states or over water supply between the rich and poor, the country is now witnessing more and more flare-ups. In this context, in addition to national and local policies, there is a need to introduce extensive community-level programmes in order to bring in collective responsibility for water governance.

The Looming Water Crisis in India

The impending water crisis in India has long been in the making and the fact that the water tables of cities have shrunk enormously in the past couple of decades is a testimony to this reality. According to the NITI Ayog report, “Nearly 600 million Indians faced high to extreme water stress and about 200,000 people died every year due to inadequate access to safe water.”

The NITI Ayog report goes on to say that “there will be a 6% loss in the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050.” What is even more worrying is that 70% of the water supply is contaminated, which means that the existing resources are unfit for consumption. For instance, arsenic contamination in the Ganga-Brahmaputra belt has been touted as the reason for the spike in cancerous effects among the population of the region. In any case, no Indian city is in a position to provide access to full-time consumable tap water. The reasons for the water stress range from unplanned development, pollution to climate change. For instance, the crisis in Shimla is said to have been triggered by adverse climatic variations, low rainfall, diminishing green cover, haphazard urbanisation, and unrestricted tourism. In a business-as-usual scenario, the water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 2030.

Fissures Created by Water Crisis

Of late the number of disputes and legal wrangling between various states have been on the rise. In 2016, Punjab unilaterally decided to abrogate river water sharing (Ravi and Beas rivers) pacts with Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi and Chandigarh, which the Supreme Court finally struck down. Tempers are also running high between Karnataka and Goa over the sharing of Mahadayi River (also shared by Maharashtra), with farmers of Karnataka demanding enhanced share of the water through diversion, while Goa resisting any move to construct dams on the river. A hostile dispute has been simmering between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over Mahanadi River, owing to construction of barrages by both parties as well as “planned utilisation” estimation. The majority of these disputes are being handled by river dispute tribunals, with short-term resolution goals rather than strategic planning.

Many parts of the country have witnessed protests and demonstrations, including violence, as a result of acute water crisis.  Reports suggest that although disputes among communities and families are common, there is a noticeable escalation in their frequency and intensity in recent years, more so in drought-stricken central and northern parts. Violence unleashed in Bengaluru in the aftermath of the Supreme Court order on the sharing of Cauvery River between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in 2016, is still fresh in everyone’s memory. In Shimla too, people took to the streets, heckled officials and created roadblocks, albeit no violence has been reported. After residents of Shimla complained that water was being supplied to VIP (Very Important Person) areas through tankers, the High Court (of the state) had to step in to ban it.

Network of Water Management Programmes   

When it comes to water, the onus generally tends to entirely lie on the government in India, and the people rarely indulge in responsible water use. However, community engagement holds the key to effective water governance as well as dispute resolution. In the case of Cauvery River dispute, the two states’ farmers were successful in initiating a dialogue and share grievances through “Cauvery Family”. While this collective is not recognised by the governments (central and state) or the judiciary, its efforts have been acknowledged internationally, with experts from the East African countries visiting them to explore possibilities of applying their formula in the Nile River Basin. Collective responsibility also minimises the risk of conflict between the concerned stakeholders.

India is also keen to team up with foreign partners to brainstorm and implement best water policies in the country. Germany, the Netherlands, Israel etc. are collaborating with India to revive the latter’s rivers and implement projects that could stimulate efficient water management. Furthermore, since the majority of northern India’s rivers are transboundary, it could use climate diplomacy as a tool for promoting adaptive action in transboundary basins in the South Asian region. It is imperative that India establishes an integrative network that links the local, national, regional and international programmes. As more and more countries worldwide grapple with water stress and scarcity, there is a need for urgent and meaningful transnational cooperation on “clean water”, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.