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India's water future: Dry days ahead

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

In just 50 years a water-rich nation has been reduced to a water-insecure one. By 2025, the per capita availability of water is likely to slip below the critical mark of 1,000 cubic metres. And with 82% of our villages overdrawing groundwater to meet their needs and cities ferrying water from peri-urban areas, India is close to exhausting its groundwater reserves. What has gone wrong?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said Niels Bohr. But assessing India’s water future doesn’t seem so difficult. After all, in a little over half-a-century of independent existence, a water-rich nation has been reduced to a water-insecure one.

Between Cherrapunji’s 11,000 mm and Jaisalmer’s 200 mm, India averages 1,170 mm of annual precipitation. Yet several regions, in what is by any standards one of the wettest countries in the world, experience desert-like conditions. Thanks to an electoral politics that sustains itself on subsidies, an inefficient water bureaucracy, and a multi-ethnic society that is wasteful in its habits, water has become the scarcest resource in India. 

Over the years, the annual per capita availability of renewable freshwater has shrunk alarmingly. From a high of around 5,277 cubic metres in 1955 it dipped to below 1,820 cubic metres in 2001.

The projected increase in population by the year 2025 indicates that the per capita availability of water is likely to slip below the critical mark of 1,000 cubic metres. Though projections vary, India’s population by 2050 will in all probability balance between the low variant of 1,345 million people and the high variant of 1,581 million people.

The fact that most of this population growth will be accounted for by urban areas will add to the existing water crisis in the cities. By 2050, 48% to 61% of India’s population will be living in urban areas. Even if the middle variant of 55% is taken into consideration, 800 million out of the projected total population of 1,450 million, will be in urban areas, adding an unprecedented 500 million people to the present urban population of 309 million. While rural water demand is assessed on an allocation of 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd), the corresponding urban demand is against a norm of 135 lpcd. A population shift means additional demand on already shrinking urban water resources. If the accepted level of allocation (135 lpcd) is to be sustained in the year 2050, each of the metros will have to search for fresh sources of water to meet the growing demand. Already, cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai ferry water from as far away as 200 km. Should this trend continue, rural areas will be robbed of their water, creating a deep rural-urban divide on the one hand and an inverse impact on food production in the countryside on the other.

The ongoing tussle between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi on sharing Ganga waters, and the recent bloodshed over sharing water from the Bisalpur dam between villages and the city of Jaipur are precursors of a scary water future.

Inequities in distribution

The process of water distribution has continued to encourage inequality. Not only have the rich been served at the cost of the poor, they have literally been getting water free. Water tariffs have remained lowest in the country’s urban centres. In Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, water is supplied at Rs 0.5, 1.6 and 2.7 per cubic metre respectively. This means that the rich pay a fraction (less than 10%) of the actual cost of producing potable water.

Such low tariffs can only encourage wasteful water utilisation. No wonder some 30% of all potable water gets flushed down the toilet at a time when an estimated 170 million people in urban areas have no access to safe water, and the total subsidy on water is accumulating at $ 1.1 billion a year.

The poor, on the other hand, pay 8-20 times what the rich pay to get water from unreliable sources. While the poor bear the brunt of this inequality, water losses continue to accumulate.

At one extreme are a sizeable number of urban poor who don’t get assured water supplies, and on the other are the urban rich whose defecation is subsidised by the state. For the poor, the subsidy acts as a double-edged sword. First, they don’t seem to benefit from it and, second, the water sources they depend on get polluted by untreated sewage flushed down by the rich.

Can the water utilities ensure equity in water distribution by reaching out to the unreached? Can the subsidy be extended to the poor by re-adjusting water tariffs upwards of the prevailing rates for the rich? Or will electoral politics seize every conceivable opportunity to promise water through new loans and costly projects such as riverlinking?

Dwindling reserves

Groundwater has been the backbone of the Indian economy, and, consequently, a critical factor in India’s water future. If falling levels in several parts of the country are anything to go by, we are close to exhausting our groundwater reserves, which are shrinking faster than they can be replenished. While the government estimates that total groundwater use will be around 230 billion cubic metres (BCM) in 2010, some current estimates of groundwater use already exceed 250 BCM.

Added to this are recent instances of groundwater appropriation by soft drink and packaged water companies. The long-standing conflict between Coke and the Plachimada village panchayat has exposed the vulnerability of the poor, as groundwater extraction by corporates assumes major proportions.

The problem is made worse with 82% of all villages surveyed by the National Sample Survey Organisation ‘self-supplying’ water for domestic use by using groundwater. Any measures to control groundwater extraction may need to take the legitimate rights of users into account. Recent groundwater legislation in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh has been designed to restrict villagers’ access to groundwater.

A recent study by the International Water Management Institute in six cities (Indore, Nagpur, Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Chennai) notes that in the latter three cities the contribution of groundwater in meeting the city’s domestic and municipal water requirements ranges between 72 and 99%. Most of these cities also have a thriving tanker water economy (the biggest is in Chennai).

Annual revenues from the tanker water economy in these six cities alone are reported to be in the region of Rs 100 crore. Extend the figure to other cities across the country and this may well be the biggest informal industry, thriving solely on the failed municipal water supply system. This informal water economy depends entirely on groundwater extraction from peri-urban areas and, in the absence of any regulation, has led to the emergence of ‘well-fields’ all around cities. 

As groundwater shrinks from extractable limits, owing to erratic rainfall patterns and reduced recharge, the water sector will see some dramatic changes in the years ahead. More important, agriculture will be significantly affected as growing urban and industrial demands squeeze water out of the farming system.

The steady decline in exploitable groundwater reserves shifts the onus to surface water that, estimates indicate, will have to contribute no less than 63-65% of our total water requirement in the decades ahead. This shift is critical since, so far, groundwater has informally, and in a democratic and decentralised manner, been at hand for everyone who can afford a diesel pump.

This is likely to change. Projections indicate that the proportion of surface water in meeting domestic and municipal requirements will be between 55 and 60%; for industrial use it may range between 69 and 72%; for power, it will be between 80 and 82%. All other uses will have to be met only by surface water. However, such demands are pitched against shrinking ponds and tanks, marginal rivers that have run dry on account of the encroachment of catchments, and heavily polluted major rivers. 

Cropping squeeze

Meeting the food requirements of a huge population in 2050 is another challenge, as there will be fewer people producing food on farms. However, urban per capita consumption of cereals is much less than rural per capita consumption, hence our food output may have to rise 50% over present levels. Urban-rural population shifts also indicate diversification of cropping patterns from the traditional rice-wheat system. But the present investment policy continues to focus on rice-wheat cropping patterns and is targeting an additional 35 million hectares under irrigation, at a whopping investment of Rs 560,000 crore over the next three decades. Such policies directly contravene emerging trends and encourage farmers to grow crops that are economically remunerative in the open market, even if they consume more water.

Isn’t it a paradox to talk about water-use efficiency when there are major irrigation projects on the anvil? It tosses up a ‘surplus’ scenario for a largely ‘scarce’ resource. Unless farmers are given incentives and market back-up to grow water-efficient crops, the rural-urban conflict on sharing surface water (from irrigation dams and canals) will snowball into a major crisis in the years ahead.

Statistical puzzle

India’s water sector is a great big jigsaw puzzle; inconsistent and unreliable data is constantly being churned out. The Department of Drinking Water Supply (DDWS) claims that 94% of all rural habitations were given water supply by early-2004. With only 6% of the population left to be covered, the department may soon need to be closed down or its priorities shifted to other pressing demands of the rural sector!

If only 6% of the population remains to be covered, why has the DDWS sought Rs 404 billion for rural drinking water coverage in the Tenth Plan (2002-07) as against an expenditure of Rs 167 billion for the previous plan period? It would appear from the requested budget that the claims about drinking water coverage are indeed hollow.

There are similar variations in coverage and projected demand for the urban water sector. While the urban population has been projected to increase, the financial allocation for urban water supply for the Tenth Five-Year Plan has been pegged at around Rs 282 billion. Although here too it is claimed that 95% of the urban population has been covered, the ground realities are far from what’s being claimed!

Despite critical shortfalls in coverage and rising demand, the government is finding it difficult to fund, monitor and manage both rural and urban water infrastructure, thanks to the worsening state of public finances. Under such conditions, issues of quality and equity of distribution remain grossly unattended, both in rural and urban areas. The signs are ominous.    

The politics of convenience

Ever since water was moved from the socio-cultural domain of community control to the techno-economic sphere of bureaucratic management, it seems to have gone from being seasonally scarce to being chronically unavailable. Although part of the problem lies in rising demand from an increasing population, mismanagement remains the core issue.

For the ruling elite, water scarcity is, quite simply, a political tool. But governments have rarely attempted to diagnose and solve the crisis. With water under the full jurisdiction and control of the government, through a myriad ministries and institutions, communities have little idea about who actually is in control.

Water: Draupadi with many husbands

Though water is constitutionally a state subject, in many ways it has stayed a central one. While the Constitution mandates panchayats to control and manage water at the local level, India’s water policy reflects centralisation. Water remains under the control of a number of ministries and institutions, a la Draupadi.



•Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) Principal agency responsible for all water in the country
•Ministry of Rural Development

Watershed development and water supply in rural areas

•Ministry of Urban Development

Drinking water supply in urban areas

•Ministry of Power

Development of hydropower without any mandate on water Pollution from power plants

•Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)

Quality of surface and groundwater

•Ministry of Agriculture

Providing resources for irrigation of agricultural lands

•Ministry of Industry

Planning and development of water resources for industry

•Central Pollution Control Board

Monitoring and regulation of industrial water pollution

•Central Ground Water Authority

Regulation of quantity and quality of groundwater

•Water Quality Assessment Authority Apex body set up by MoWR and MoEF, yet to start functioning

This multi-ownership has helped successive governments evade crucial governance issues, as no one is willing to risk opening the debate on rationalisation of water tariff at the cost of losing an electoral base. Consequently, inefficient municipalities have been stretched to their limits, with mounting debts. These civic bodies are on the verge of collapse.

The municipality in the picturesque town of Simla is a case in point. Supplying potable water at an unbelievable rate of Rs 1.80 per kilolitre (100 litres) to households, and Rs 6 to the hotel industry, the municipality finds itself in dire straits. The actual cost of this heavily subsidised water is Rs 20 per kilolitre. No wonder annual losses amount to Rs 25 crore every year.

It’s the same for every civic body whose losses have been allowed to accumulate over decades. The result: erratic and unreliable water supply, as demand outpaces supply. It’s this apathy that has fed the packaged water industry -- the bottled water business is growing at around 30-35%.

Municipalities are not only overstaffed they are also inefficient. Consequently, water cess recovery is poor and water pilferage carries on unattended. We need strong political will to reduce staff, cut operational costs and increase efficiency.

Policy of contradictions

Launching the National Water Policy 2002, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said: “The cornerstone of the new National Water Policy should be an explicit recognition that water is a national resource and…the policy should also recognise that the community is the rightful custodian of water.” It seemed as though the ‘communitisation of water resources’ was on the cards.

In reality, though, it was just the opposite. Following the adoption of the policy, the newly-formed state of Chhattisgarh sought to privatise water supply from a semi-perennial river, the Sheonath. This unprecedented move opened up possibilities for the privatising of natural resources, unheard of in a country that had always insisted on restoring community rights over resources.

Though the prime minister’s statements were laudable, the policy document sought to pursue divergent interests. By emphasising private control and by declaring water an ‘asset’, the policy in effect questioned a fundamental right of the people. The policy paper did not explicitly mention the protection of interests of poor and marginalised areas.

No wonder then that in order to woo foreign direct investment, the government of Kerala has been granting private investors easy access to its groundwater resources. Since the policy and the law are unclear about who the primary beneficiaries of groundwater are, the water bureaucracy is allowed a free hand in making profits through private investment.

The then prime minister had also said: “Depletion of groundwater resources, on which millions of rural families depend for their drinking water needs as well as irrigation, continues unabated.” Surprisingly, even after years of deliberation there are no clear directions on the ownership and restrictive exploitation of groundwater in the country.

Despite a change in government at the Centre, the principles within the policy appear to have been reinforced. Crucially, the fact that centralisation -- as seen in recent initiatives like riverlinking, Sethusamudram etc -- is in direct contravention of constitutionally-mandated decentralisation through the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments has gone largely unnoticed.

The subsequent enactment of water policies by respective state governments reflects a neglect of the rural poor at the hands of the urban elite. The appropriation of surface and groundwater resources to meet the needs of growing urban populations has already led to violent conflicts in Rajasthan.

Is the water bureaucracy oblivious to such trends, or is it pursuing a course over which it has little control? Crucially, the resource-constrained water sector is heavily dependent on leading lenders like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that have full cost recovery and reduced public control over water resources as their guiding principles.

Ironically, the principle of full cost recovery and reduced public control has been the cause of growing civil unrest in countries like Bolivia, the Philippines, Paraguay, Argentina and Ghana. The privatisation of Delhi’s water supply is being contested on similar grounds. Let us read the writing on the wall. 

Future imperfect

Where does all this lead us? Can the core issue of effective water management be addressed in the current political scenario? Are there any mechanisms within the government that provide space for mainstreaming prevailing social concerns?

The central issue is re-defining water governance. Unless alternative institutional arrangements are examined along with the dilution of control of existing institutions, the situation is unlikely to improve. In the context of groundwater, the real challenge will be to create management principles that address ecological, equity and sustainability concerns.

There is also the need to identify, strengthen and provide legal validity to local institutions that ensure equitable and sustainable use of water, within ecological confines. Institutional reforms, differential water pricing and water conservation at all levels are pivotal issues that must be addressed in order to tide over the present scarcity and the emerging threat of conflicts over water.

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a Delhi-based water expert and development analyst. He is associated with The Ecological Foundation)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005