Large parts of India experienced severe drought early this summer, followed by a delayed monsoon that arrived in a full deluge. The rain filled lakes and reservoirs, flooded plains and swelled rivers, resulting in displacement, destruction and loss of life. This pattern is not unusual. With a shifting monsoon pattern, increasing demand for water, relentless urbanization and depletion of groundwater, severe droughts and floods have become an annual feature in India. Yet old attitudes remain. Indians continue to think they will have enough water to see them through the coming year, especially when the monsoons fill the lakes and water bodies.
There is enough data to raise alarms: More than 600 million Indians face a high to extreme water stress situation, according to a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, the government's policymaking and research body. Twenty-one Indian cities are expected to run out of groundwater supplies by next year, the report says, affecting more than 100 million people. India ranks 13th out of the 17 countries facing extremely high water stress on the 2019 Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by the World Resources Institute. The demand for water in India is expected to double over the next decade, resulting in severe scarcity for hundreds of millions of people. The country has experienced snapshots of this future over the past few years.
A Worsening Problem
India's water crisis isn't so much because of an absolute shortage of water, but largely because of misallocation, poor and outdated management, and the lack of proper conservation of existing resources. India is still primarily an agrarian society so farmer distress and agricultural losses during times of drought are often the focus of water discourse in India. But water stress in urban areas is also now receiving its fair share of scrutiny and action. While data from India's Central Water Commission show that, on average, over 80 percent of the available groundwater has been withdrawn across the country, a huge gap in information remains. The policy paralysis, the mismanagement of both water and the waste that is dumped into rivers and into the ground, the dearth of sufficient and reliable data and the lack of responsibility from citizens have brought India to its current situation.
Earlier this year, drought pushed the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu's famed information technology corridor, located in the state capital of Chennai, to the brink. The corridor has more than 150 megastructures holding 650 companies that employ close to a half-million people. The lack of strategic planning for the management of water resources and waste both along the IT corridor and in the city resulted in the near depletion of surrounding lakes, reservoirs and groundwater. Companies were asking employees to work from home, tweaking working hours or paying 30 percent more for private water supplies sourced from outside Chennai and delivered by water tankers.
Around the same time in May, the Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that most industries had suffered from production disruptions and higher operating costs, leading to a reluctance to invest further and expand. Many businesses don't want to or can't afford to pay more to private tankers for water, but the options are limited.
While reports of industry coming to a near standstill, with losses running into the millions, was news around the world, the drought's effect on India's health care sector received much less attention. Smaller hospitals were forced to close and private hospitals were often accused of passing on the exorbitant price of trucking in water to patients. This forced residents to turn to struggling government hospitals in a country that spends only around 1 percent of gross domestic product on health care. The cost of a 12,000-liter water tanker soared over eight times in Chennai, a city that earns major revenue as a medical tourism hub.
Relentless urbanization and industrial growth divert water from rural areas, skewing India's water allocation. Pollution and the lack of waste management in urban areas play a major role, too. Rivers that were once lifelines of cities in important economic, industrial and political hubs like Delhi, Mumbai, Surat and Chennai have either dried up or are clogged with waste. Mumbai has seen nine major flood events since 2000; flooding is almost an annual phenomenon, with water levels rising to alarming levels every few years. This flooding is exacerbated by the pollution of the Mithi River that runs through the city, the pouring of concrete in important marshlands, clogged sewage lines and unchecked development. Mumbai has lost over 25 percent of its water sources because of urbanization, while Bangalore, Kolkata, Surat and Guwahati have lost 79, 45, 95 and 60 percent, respectively.
Bridging the Gap Between Supply and Demand
Water is also about infrastructure — pipelines, drainage lines, sewage lines and treatment plants. Increasingly, cities are opting to focus on providing more and more water to aid growth and attract investment, forcing them to look for water resources farther and farther away or by overpumping already stressed groundwater, a task often carried out by private actors with local municipalities turning a blind eye. The competing demand and unequal distribution are leading to pilferage and slowly turning water into a basis for conflict. For example, Delhi depends on neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for its water, where over 60 percent comes from Haryana, a state that is already water-stressed.
Water is often treated as if it is an unlimited resource and is supplied at a low cost to the end-user who does not always recognize its economic value or link to other aspects of life and society. Water and waste, for example, are intrinsically related and could also provide a massive business opportunity for investments in sewage treatment plants, the use of technology for better management and other avenues. Two of India's largest steelmakers, JSW Steel and Tata Steel, have flagged water as a high risk in production, with JSW building its own reservoir in Karnataka and Tata investing in sewage treatment plants. Auto manufacturer Hyundai, part of another important industry that features prominently in the government's "Make in India" campaign, has begun investing in rainwater harvesting and other conservation methods. However, such efforts will only be fully realized once barriers to decision-making are removed, a proper regulatory framework is created to ensure there is no exploitation and government control is lifted to enable public-private partnerships.
Water is treated as if it is an unlimited resource and is supplied at a low cost to the end-user who does not always recognize its economic value.
To date, conservation efforts and measures to attain sustainability of existing resources have not been addressed, though the catastrophic situations in Bangalore, Chennai and other cities have raised alarms and awareness levels. The present government used "jal se nal" in its election campaign — a catchy tagline promising piped water to every household by 2024. Upon winning reelection, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reorganized and merged various water ministries and departments to constitute the new Jal Shakti Ministry, aimed at conservation, providing clean water and rejuvenating the iconic Ganges River, but most important, streamlining the bureaucracy and policy planning methodology. The new ministry is proposed to be decentralized, inclusive and community-managed, with schemes for sustainable water management and supply. There is also a plan for a more comprehensive nationwide mapping exercise of existing water resources. These are all steps in the right direction, though it remains to be seen how many of these policies are likely to be realized or how effectively implemented.
Water will be a deciding factor in India's prosperity and growth. There is huge inefficiency in the country's water supply, unequal distribution and a lack of information on how much water is needed, especially because of unchecked extraction of groundwater, leaks and theft. There is no major Indian city that can claim to provide all of its residents with an uninterrupted supply of water, but bridging the gap between supply and demand cannot come solely from groundwater. Conservation, rainwater harvesting and the reuse of gray water could be explored, especially by industry, which has a rising demand for water but which does little to augment water resources. Without action, India will lose about 6 percent of GDP by 2050. Asian globalization, where India has been a favored child, has been driven by everything from cheap labor to inexpensive energy to skilled workers and a booming technology sector. In the not-so-distant future, water will likely become the most critical factor in shaping investment and growth.