India’s water crisis? Facts and fictions…

‘India is facing the worst water crisis in its history, according to a NITI Aayog report. Twenty-one Indian cities, it has been predicted, will run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40% of the country’s population may not have access to clean drinking water by 2030. NITI Aayog has also stated that India stands on the 120th position out of 122 countries in water quality index.’

Following research by NY Times journalist, Joanna Slater, the 21 cities claim now appears unsupported.  It might stem from a World Bank website article on the 2005 Briscoe and Malik report.  The website states: ‘Estimates reveal that by 2020, India’s demand for water will exceed all sources of supply’.  The 2005 Briscoe and Malik report doesn’t really say this.  It does say:

‘overall water balances are precarious, that crisis situations already exist in a number of basins and that by 2050 [sic], demands will exceed all available sources of supply. Already about 15% of all aquifers are in critical condition, a number which will grow to 60% in the next 25 years unless there is change.’ (Briscoe & Malik 2005, p.xi)

The report attributes the 2050 date to the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development 1999.  Elsewhere, these figures are treated as estimates (Briscoe & Malik 2005, p17, p18).  I’ve seen the 2020 claim repeated in a 2006 DNA article, and a 2008 academic journal too.  You can see the thinking behind the ‘extrapolation’ that NITI Aayog made using the 2013 CGWB study.  Groundwater use in 20 urban districts is extensive and unsustainable.  So if 60% of aquifers will become critical by 2030 they are likely to include those beneath major cities.  Unsustainable groundwater extraction is a real issue, but uncertain numbers won’t help us address it.  Although they may help build support for big surface-water projects like dams or river-linking, which have their own problems.

Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan has some more detailed analysis of the NITI  Aayog report here.  The single metric for water resource management may be overly reductive and the report seems oriented towards technical solutions like big dams, rather than ecological sustainability.  There are no measures for water pollution, river water quality and flow, or equitable distribution within states.  Dharmadhikary also questions the dubious 21 cities claim, which seems to ignore annual post-monsoon recharge as well as variable aquifer depths.

Delhi government is at least trying to make progress.  In a statement reported by Indian Express, June 25th, Chief Minister Kerjiwal said that 88% of all residential areas are now connected to water, a 30% increase since 2015 when the party came to power.  Ensuring water in the pipes, though is a different matter.  The Indian Express article suggest (without evidence) that, “For most of Delhi, illegal borewells are the primary source of water”.  People with a government water connection will use groundwater if their official connection is unreliable.The Delhi government intention to have 100% coverage of 24/7 potable water by 2024 is excellent.  Whatever means they use to achieve this, private sector network rehabilitation and management may be only a small part of the solution.  FirstPost, June 23rd, reports some issues with the trial of Public-Private Partnerships for water supply in Delhi here.  There is a more detailed discussion in my PhD.

Here’s a video on India’s water:

Lastly, if you haven’t been watching Netflix’ dystopian Hindi sci-fi drama Leila (water and air issues are a running theme), here is some dramatic coverage from IndiaToday on Delhi’s ‘water mafia’…  Personally, I’m still hoping for another series of Ghoul…

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