India must act fast on water use

 | M. Srinivas

Opinion, Columnists

India is the world’s second most populated country with 1.25 billion people. It is the 10th largest economy and represents around 2.5 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product.

India is the world’s second most populated country with 1.25 billion people. It is the 10th largest economy and represents around 2.5 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product. Economic growth in India has steadily risen over time, resilient even to the global economic crisis; by 2014-15 growth was 7.3 per cent and is projected to accelerate in the years ahead.

India has more than 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only 4 per cent of the world’s renewable water resources and 2.4 per cent of world’s land area. There are limits on the utilisable quantities of water owing to uneven distribution over time and space. The bulk of inflows in the rivers, especially in the southern peninsula, takes place during the months of June to October under the influence of the Southwest Monsoon. This requires storage of water by construction of major and medium irrigation dams, anicuts and irrigation tanks.

Irrigation is a state subject as per the Indian Constitution. However, the Government of India has the responsibility of inter-state river planning and management issues. The Centre should play an ombudsman’s role in proper planning and management of river basins with minimum inter-state water disputes .

For the second year in a row, India had a deficient monsoon last year. The deficit as forecast by the Indian Meteorological Department was about 14 per cent. Although rainfall deficit was felt pan-India, the intensity was higher in the peninsular parts of the country.

In the five states of South India, the rainfall deficit has been greater than 20 per cent. As a consequence of the poor rainfall, water storage in key reservoirs is about 22 per cent lower than last year, which could have large impacts on agriculture.

Agriculture is the largest sector that uses water, and water scarcity mainly affects the agricultural sector. To tide over such situations a lot of research needs to happen in the agriculture sector to develop crop varieties, which require less water and are more drought resistant. People should be motivated to adopt climate proofing adaptation techniques.

India has extensive groundwater resources and is the largest user of groundwater globally. India extracts about 245 billion cubic metres of groundwater per year, which represents about 25 per cent of global groundwater extraction. Groundwater use spurred the Green Revolution and currently provides for 65 per cent of irrigation. Over 80 per cent of rural and urban domestic water requirement in India is met by groundwater. But India's groundwater resources are under threat from uncontrolled and over abstraction and contamination.

The present practice of groundwater development by the individual farmer has resulted in inequity as well as unsustainable management of resources. Since groundwater occurs in an aquifer and is not confined to the land holdings of the individual farmer, it is imperative that for sustainable use, groundwater resources are managed by the aquifer based community instead of an individual well owner. The primary task should be assessment of ground water availability and delineation of aquifers across the country for planning the recharge of aquifers.

At present there is no framework to enable the aquifer level community to manage the groundwater. It is necessary to develop a legal framework for enabling the community to assess the groundwater availability in the aquifer, prioritize the uses and allocate the groundwater resources available in the aquifer for various uses.

Climate change alone could increase demand for irrigation in several river basins, including the Brahmaputra, Brahmari, Chotanagpur, Eastern Ghats, Godavari, and Sahyada, while water stress is expected to increase in some of these river basins in future.

The water sector is faced with critical challenges. First, competition among different water using sectors (irrigation, urban/rural domestic water supplies, industry, etc.) and even within the same sector among various water users (for example, in irrigation sector among the head, middle and tail reaches of farmers) is increasing, giving rise to disputes and conflicts. Second, the poor quality of irrigation service delivery is undermining the performance of irrigated agriculture. Third, outdated irrigation/water management practices and low use of modern technologies are resulting in poor irrigation service deliveries and resulting in decrease in water use efficiency low productivity of water as well as irrigated agriculture.

Tank irrigation is well suited and developed in southern India, especially in Telangana state. Renovation restoration and rehabilitation on minor irrigation sources brings in food security in the villages and improves overall nutritional standards. Rehabilitation of the tanks will also improve groundwater levels, which will bring more area under cultivation. The restoration of tanks should be taken up on a watershed approach for sustainable irrigation. More emphasis should be given to improving water use efficiency by adopting water efficient technologies in cultivation and by crop diversification. Judicious use of irrigation water is required to get more crop per drop.

Conjunctive use of surface and ground water should be encouraged for optimum utilization of canal water and to more water productivity.

Although India has made some improvements over the past decades regarding both the availability and quality of drinking water systems, its large population, especially in rural areas, are left out the least mandated 40 litres per day.

Regardless of improvements in the drinking water system, many other water sources are contaminated with both bio and chemical pollutants, and over 21 per cent of the country's diseases are water-related.

One concern is that India may lack overall long-term availability of replenishable water resources. In addition, water scarcity in India is expected to worsen as the overall population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by the year 2050. The need of the hour is to provide clean and safe drinking water to the population.

Water is a finite resource and managing water in days of rapid socio-economic growth and change is challenging. Decentralised water harvesting by adopting watershed approach along with measures at domestic level like percolation tanks should be adopted for improving ground water level. Water saving techniques at the farm level should be followed by changing cropping patterns. Sprinkler and drip irrigation methods should be followed for judicious use of water. System deficiencies should be rectified to arrest leakages and seepages.

Watery grave A report by international charity Water Aid says India has the world’s highest number of people without access to clean water.

75.8 million Indians are forced to either buy water at high rates or use supplies that are contaminated with chemicals or sewage

This is 5 per cent of country's population

72 cents: The amount Indians spend to buy 50 litres of water a day

It is 20 per cent of their daily income.

10 cents: The amount Brits spend a day to buy 50 litres

3,15,000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases each year worldwide

1,40,000 of those deaths happened in India, mostly caused by contaminated water.

The report placed India on the top of 10 countries in the world with the largest numbers of people living without access to safe water, followed by China and Nigeria. Pakistan figures at the 10th place.

The writer is minister for irrigation Telangana state, and Member, National Water Resources Ministry Coordination Panel.