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600 million Indians face high water stress in near future, says Niti Ayog

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By Rohit

India is on the verge of the water mayday, and most major Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, a new report from the NITI Aayog said, highlighting the need for “urgent and improved” management of water resources.

The extreme water shortage in major Indian cities, particularly Chennai, has brought public attention back to the issue of India’s water scarcity.

Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. The crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual 6% loss in the country’s GDP.

In the recent union budget, minister of  finance Nirmala Sitharaman during her Union Budget 2019 speech said that access to drinking water is a priority, while reiterating the newly formed Jal Shakti Ministry’s aim of ‘Har Ghar Jal’ by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission.

The finance minister also announced additional funds from Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) for the Jal Shakti Abhiyan.

While the current government’s initiative needs to be applauded yet one has to recognize that access to water is merely a part of systematic problems the Indian water management system is deeply entrenched in.

The largest component of ground water use is the water extracted for irrigation, which is close to 60%. Over the years, there has been a decrease in surface water use and a continuous increase in groundwater utilisation for irrigation. A Standing Committee on Water Resources suggests that in the last four decades, roughly 84% of the total addition to the net irrigated area has come through ground water.

The primary cause of over-exploitation has been the rising demand for ground water from agriculture.  Further, decisions such as cropping pattern and cropping intensity are taken independent of the ground water availability in most areas.

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Over the years, India has witnessed a major shift in the sources of irrigation. The share of canal irrigation in net irrigated area has declined rapidly and groundwater irrigation now covers more than half of the total irrigated area. It is this overexploitation of groundwater resources, more so, in the north-western part of the country which is one of the main reasons for India’s water crisis. Moreover, groundwater is used to cultivate some of the most water intensive crops like paddy and sugar cane in states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra. Rice, which is India’s main food crop consumes about 3,500 litres of water for a kilogram of grain produced. The most important crops of India — rice, wheat and sugarcane, are the most water consuming crops. Rice which is a major export crop, consumes about 3,500 litres of water for a kilogram of grain produced.

The High-Level Committee on restructuring of the Food Corporation of India in 2014, observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the effective price support is for wheat and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of wheat and paddy, which are water intensive crops and depend heavily on ground water for their growth. India tends to grow the crops that require greater the average amount of water (in cubic meters/tonne). Not only that, it indicates India’s efficiency in the usage of water for 8 agriculture as compared to other countries. Some data even suggest that India uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and United States.

To address this impending issue, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has developed the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) to enable effective water management in Indian states in the face of this growing crisis. The Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) is a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive scorecard for identifying, targeting, and solving problems in the water sector across the country.

The Index was developed in close collaboration with multiple national and state stakeholders and involved a robust data validation process.

The Index and this associated report are expected to: (1) establish a clear baseline and benchmark for state-level performance on key water indicators; (2) uncover and explain how states have progressed on water issues over time, including identifying high-performers and under-performers, thereby inculcating a culture of constructive competition among states; and, (3) identify areas for deeper engagement and investment on the part of the states. Eventually, NITI Aayog plans to develop the index into a composite, national-level data management platform for all water resources in India.

Firstly, in order to address India’s water problems, it is important to understand that the roots of the current water crisis do not lie in a deficient monsoon as is being played out as the major reason . Rather, it is years of government and public neglect, wrong incentives and outright misuse of the country’s water resources which has led to the current crisis. Additionally, it is important to understand that climate change is likely to further India’s water scarcity in the coming decades.

According to a report by the World Bank, a global mean warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the mismatch between water demand and supply will increase dramatically and will have serious implications on India’s food security.

Thus, any serious effort towards water management in the country should focus on the management of agricultural irrigation in India.

According to an ORF report, In order to avoid the doomsday when we actually run out of food and water, the country needs to introduce a slew of measures immediately. Firstly, as explained above, the northwestern and central part of the country which is severely water stressed should stop producing water-intensive crops like rice and sugar cane. Farmers should be given adequate incentives to switch to shift to crops like millets which require much less water and are climate resilient. Secondly, the spread of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems should be increased rapidly with state support. Thirdly, new agronomic practices like sub-surface irrigation, raised bead planting ridge-furrow method of sowing, and precision farming etc which have the potential to reduce water-use in agriculture should also be adopted.

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