International Affairs Forum: A recent report that McKinsey & Company helped to write predicted that India would need to double its water-generation capacity by the year 2030 to meet the demands of its growing population. A separate analysis concluded that groundwater supplies in many of India’s cities —including Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai — are declining at such a rapid rate that they may run dry within a few years. What have been the difficulties and challenges in effectively managing water resources in rural as well as urban areas?
Anuradha Kataria: With unchecked population growth, the per capita availability of water is falling and declined by 15% in just the last decade.
The chief culprit is irrigation which uses up 80% of India’s fresh water supply. The government thus far has been preoccupied with increasing food production while the water issues stay neglected. The policy makers are yet to connect the dots between falling water supply and future food shortages. Some states have initiated reforms in cropping pattern, micro irrigation etc. which help improve water use efficiency by up to 35%. But many of these programs are hard to implement given the nature of small scattered farms which continue to rely on rudimentary practices. Larger cooperative farms may help serve the cause better but there are no substantial reforms or restructuring in the agriculture sector along these lines. The green revolution helped India improve its food yield - perhaps now it needs a blue revolution to bring about efficient use of its most precious resource - water.
In the urban areas, cities dump their human and industrial waste largely untreated into the rivers and streams making their waters unfit for drinking or even washing. This increases their reliance on ground water and the table is falling at an alarming rate. Urban planning and infrastructure has simply not kept pace with the economic growth.
It is not as if solutions to these problems are unknown but the political will and focus on water is lacking and is the key stumbling block.
IA-Forum: What impacts have water issues had on India’s development? Health issues?
Ms. Kataria: India grapples with a host of problems. In the federal structure, the States have authority over water projects and there are a lot of interstate conflicts on water sharing of rivers. Most dam projects have run into trouble with the activists. The drought prone areas tend to witness a lot of farmers’ suicides. Water pollution is another issue - contaminated rivers and ground water are a source of water borne diseases of which diarrhea alone claims 1600 children’s lives daily. Outbreaks of cholera, dysentery etc. are common among millions living on the banks of polluted rivers like the Ganges. All these problems affect the poorest sections of the society the most further worsening the already inequitable development.
Expected water scarcity coupled with food shortages and inter-state conflicts could potentially affect India’s stability in the next 10– 15 years.
IA-Forum: What steps are being taken to improve India’s water supplies and quality of water? (in rural as well as urban areas)?
Ms. Kataria: Some attention has been paid to augmenting urban and rural water supply since 2000, particularly in collaboration with companies from Japan, Germany etc. In the urban areas, Public private partnerships have focused on treatment facilities as well as reduction of Non revenue water in the form of water leakages or unbilled usage. A water desalination plant too has been setup with proposal for more in the coastal areas.
In rural India some of the World Bank aided watershed management projects have borne moderate results. They focus on restoring the ecological balance between soil, water and vegetation through participative community based initiatives.
While communal and even individual access to water supply has improved in urban and rural areas, water quality remains a cause for concern. Not much is being done about it and the vast sums allocated have either been wasted in poorly planned haphazard projects or lost to corruption.
IA-Forum: What effect has India’s current five year plan had on business investment for water supply and sanitation?
Ms. Kataria: India has been increasing its budget outlay for water resources. Over $1.1 trillion has been allocated towards the same in the current five year plan. Consistent efforts have improved access to water supply in both urban and rural areas. With hue and cry over India’s putrid rivers, some attention is also being paid to sewage treatment plants and even experimentation with waste to energy projects. But these ideas are yet to take off and efforts thus far to clean up rivers like the Yamuna have been unsuccessful. Over 600 million people use open defecation and most cities lack a drainage system. Not enough is being done to address the sanitation crisis the nation faces.
Most initiatives remain piecemeal and regional. There is no nationwide concrete plan to sort out the water issues be it in terms of agricultural reforms or urban planning.
IA-Forum: India has received a great deal of development assistance for water security from international organizations such as the World Bank, regional groups such as the Asia Development Bank, and countries (e.g., Japan). Results have been a mixed bag. How important is international aid for India’s water security and what can be done better to ensure internationally funded projects are successful?
Ms. Kataria: India has benefited from the international aid, technical know-how as well as assistance in implementation of water security projects. Such aid should grow in the future. But most foreign collaborators complain about the slow and somewhat corrupt bureaucratic machinery. Water is managed by an array of ministries and departments at the state and central levels. Some amount of streamlining with clearer lines of control and accountability is desirable.
Public mobilization around water issues should greatly help bring better political focus to the cause and all related projects.
IA-Forum: China has plans to construct at least 3 dams in the Tibet area. India claims they will affect the flow of the mighty Brahmaputra River into India. However, many experts say the dam proposals pose no immediate threat to India because they will not create large reservoirs. How can both countries work together to resolve the issue?
Ms. Kataria: China’s plans to construct dams on the Brahmaputra River have become a bone of contention between India and China of late. Given the lack of transparency about China’s plans India is concerned about its ambitions to horde water in lean seasons. China characteristically also does not have a water sharing arrangement with its lower riparian countries and India is no exception. Dialogue thus far has not yielded any results and India may have to seek some international or BRICS forum mediation to resolve this issue.
Anuradha Kataria is a writer and has published the book, Democracy on Trial, All Rise!, as well as editorials on the developing world issues. She is actively engaged in promoting awareness about the water issues in India. She is a Graduate in Botany Hons and an MBA from Delhi University.
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