On 19 June this year, the city officials in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, declared that “day zero,” or the day when there is almost no water, had been reached. The four reservoirs that supply water to Chennai had nearly run dry. As national and international news organisations have reported, hundreds of thousands of people are lining up in front of government trucks to get water for their daily needs. Hospitals and schools have been hit and doctors reportedly have had to buy water for surgery.
The situation in Chennai is an indicator that India’s water crisis is not impending, but already here. It is in fact a recurring feature in the hinterland. Two consecutive weak monsoons have caused a severe drought that has affected around 330 million people in India.
The numbers speak for themselves. From 3,000–4,000 cubic metres in 1950, the availability of water per person per year came down to 1,545 at the time of the last census in 2011, and has come down further since then. A country or a region where water availability per head per year is less than 1,700 cubic metres is defined as “water-stressed” by the United Nations. When the availability slips below 1,000 cubic metres, the country is labelled as “water scarce.” India’s average number masks the fact that availability of water is already below 1,000 cubic metres per person per year in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country, mostly in western India and the Deccan Plateau. By all projections, if current patterns continue, these numbers are going to get worse, and more regions are likely to get affected.
Thus, water scarcity perhaps poses one of the biggest challenges to the new government. To deal with it well, the government needs to understand the numerous causes of the crisis, most prominent of which include inefficient use, pollution, poor policy and climate change. It needs to understand that its approach to the problem has been largely misguided and requires a radical overhaul. The government also needs to acknowledge certain uncomfortable truths about the crisis, and show willingness to take tough decisions. The Modi government, which has constituted a water ministry called “Jal Shakti,” claims water conservation is a priority, but it has shown little understanding of the issues at hand.
For an effective approach to water conservation, we need to understand how water is consumed. By most estimates, almost eighty percent of India’s water consumption is for the irrigation of our crops. Since the time the British started building canal irrigation systems in the Ganga and Indus river basins, the process of using more and more water for agriculture only accelerated, with the Green Revolution contributing heavily to the trend. While the Green Revolution made India self-sufficient in foodgrains, the long-term adverse effects are now showing.