Forget Food Security: India is Heading towards Water Insecurity

No Secure Future for the “Hunger Republic” in India

tap water and kidIndia is among the most food insecure countries in the world and despite the ordinance on the Food Security Bill (July 9, 2013) it appears heading towards a still more insecure future. The so-called impressive GDP growth of 6 – 9 percent during the past decade has little relevance when millions of poor are still struggling with poverty and hunger. With numbers beyond the US population of 350 million, people of the largest “hunger republic of the world” inside India must feel satisfied at being able to use mobile phones or looking at the pictures of air conditioned “Delhi Metro”. The irony, however, is that the latest cell phone models or the “world class” metro trains in a few metropolitan towns can’t feed empty stomachs; they can at best make fun of the poor or make them feel left-out.

The recently launched Global Food Security Index (GFSI) estimates that in 2012, about 224 million Indians (19 percent of the total population) are undernourished and 25 percent of the world’s malnourished children live in India. In the GFSI ranking, India is at the 66th place in the list of 105 countries. With the largest numbers of world’s poor and one-quarter of world’s malnourished children living in the country, India can only be compared with the neighboring Bangladesh or the sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to food security or hunger issues. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called it a “national shame.” Despite elaborate food procurement and distribution machinery, the lives of the poor fail to improve in any meaningful way, due to widespread corruption along with rising population.

The Global Hunger Index report of 2012 ranks India 65th of 79 countries. This is extremely alarming for those who have seen poverty themselves and for the poorest among them, it could be catastrophic. There is nothing in the food bill to protect them from the badly disturbed weather pattern and the sudden climatic disasters which are becoming increasingly common. They are in fact sandwiched between a callous government on one side and an increasing unpredictable life threatening climatic events on the other. They lose lives just to become statistics for the commercial media and government officials. The food bill also has nothing to counter the eminent water crisis waiting to happen in the coming years. In reality, the Ordinance on the National Food Security Bill has more to do with winning upcoming Lok Sabha election for the UPA than the poor, beyond their votes. What the poor need is an effective implementation of existing programs, not additional schemes that offer nothing better.

Climate change problem is increasingly disturbing the orderly weather pattern including the vital monsoon system. Combined with over exploited and depleting water resources in various parts of India, the future for the less fortunate millions of poor, who survive connected with agriculture, is anything but rosy. What is still worse is the fact that there is no debate on this issue. The Indian political class is as usual busy squabbling over petty trivialities and scoring minor brownie points over each other, the technocrats can at best study issues and write reports drinking bottled mineral water and for the bureaucrats water is something that comes from the taps automatically.

Global Water Scenario

The fast paced industrialization of particularly the developing world – most notably India and China – increasing urbanization and rising global population are putting enormous pressure on water resources. World population is predicted to grow from 7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050; by then India will be the most populous nation, with about 1,650 million people from the current count of 1,230 million. Given the present scenario, it only implies severe pressure on water resources. Besides, there are other factors like overconsumption, lack of proper water management, and the increasing severity of climate change related issues. The UN Water and the FAO estimate that the global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.

Water scarcity can originate due to several reasons. It is physical water scarcity when there is simply not enough water to satisfy the demand. It can happen when there is severe environmental degradation, very low groundwater level, or due to unequal or inadequate water distribution system. Economic water scarcity occurs happens due to a lack of financial means to create infrastructure to tap existing water sources. Most African nations are water scarce simply because they lack financial resources to create the necessary infrastructure.

Already about 700 million people in 43 nations are facing water scarcity. The situation is only expected to worsen in the coming years as population grows and the disruptions due to the severity of climate change events increase. It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water stressed conditions.

Increasing water and energy demand in the fast growing China is forcing its policymakers to plan for damming Tibetan rivers and diverting water from them to its water thirsty northern regions. The Chinese plans on the mighty Brahmaputra River are particularly worrisome for India. The fast receding Himalayan glaciers due to global warming are only going to make things worse and add to tensions between the two neighbors.

Water Scenario in India

The south-west monsoon is the most important source of water in India. About 75% annual rainfall is received during the short span of four months between June to September. The average annual rainfall in India is around 125 cm. However, there is wide variation in the rainfall distribution across the country. The areas of heavy rainfall such as the western Ghats and the Sub-Himalayan areas of the northeast, Assam, West Bengal, etc receive over 200 cm of rains annually. In contrast, the dry areas include the northern part of Kashmir, western Rajasthan, Punjab and the Deccan Plateau which get less than 50 cm rainfall.

At present India receives on average annual precipitation of about 4000 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM); this is India’s principal water resource. From this, after eliminating the natural evaporation- transpiration, only about 1869 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM) is the average annual natural flow through the rivers and aquifers. And of this, only about 1123 BCM is utilizable through the present strategies. So, there is considerable scope for inter basin water transfer, but only after evaluating the environmental, economic and social impact of such transfers.

water shortageWater insecurity, further aggravated by global warming, is arguably the most important factor that will determine India’s food security (or insecurity). Recently, the Water Resources Minister has called India a “water stressed” nation which is inching towards water scarcity as its ground water levels are depleting very fast. The water table has been falling by up to 1.5 – 2.0 meters per year in recent years in some areas. During 2007 – 2012, wells in Delhi in north and Andhra Pradesh in the south saw the biggest decline. The situation in parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and northwest India is particularly critical as ground water was dipping at an alarming rate. Clearly, natural replenishment lags behind usage. According to a World Bank study, most major Indian cities will run dry by 2020, unless significant improvement is achieved in country’s water management. Needless to say, water security is the base needed for food and energy securities.

The per capita availability of water in the country has declined to one-third of what it was 65 years ago. The per capita water availability in the country is reducing progressively due to increase in population and of course due to irresponsible use of existing water resources. The average annual per capita availability of water in the country in 2001 was 1816 cubic meters per year; it declined to 1545 cubic meters per year considering the 2011 census. It is expected to go down to 1341 cubic meters in 2025. There are studies that suggest that by around 2030, India’s total water availability per capita is expected to decline to 1,240 cubic meters per person per year and to 1140 cubic meters by 2050, which is not much far from the ‘water scarce’ benchmark of 1,000 cubic meter of the World Bank. [1 cubic meter is the name for 1000 liters. A typical bucket can carry about 20 liters of water. A glass of water can be one-fourth to one-third of a liter. ] The water quantity and quality have been declining due to irresponsible and increasing usage, poor infrastructure, and pollution. The economic liberalization in India is encouraging urbanization with consequent rise in both urban water consumption and pollution. Compare India with other nations in the following chart:
water use comparison

Over 50 percent of agriculture in India depends entirely on groundwater. In the North and Northeast India, there are perennial rivers like Ganga and Brahmaputra fed by the Himalayan glaciers, to sustain the agriculture. On the other hand, the West and South India depend on seasonal rivers and rapidly depleting groundwater resources.

The worst affected and most vulnerable are the small farmers of India. They heavily depend upon the sufficient seasonal monsoon rains just for survival. Slightest adverse changes, which, in recent years, have become more frequent both due to government policies and abrupt climatic conditions, can make their lives unbearably painful. Between 1995 and 2010, over 2,50,000 farmers, mostly from states such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, committed suicide: a stark reminder of how insecure their lives really are.

Why This Situation has Arisen in India

In earlier days, there used to be just one crop (one growing season) during the rainy season every year. But then due to growing need of food for the rising population, the concept of irrigation was evolved and additional crops began to be planned for the non-rainy season also. So, not just the surface water of rivers and lakes but also the ground water came to be exploited for irrigation of crops. Now besides agriculture, the industry as well as the rising population are also consuming water heavily and polluting water bodies as well. Since there is not enough surface water, there is heavy use of groundwater. Thus, we are in the situation of overuse and the water table is falling very fest: more than a meter per year at some places. Being a tropical country, there is rather high evaporation of water. The situation, in comparison, is different in Germany or Netherlands where on an average precipitation is more than evaporation but of course not all European nations are as fortunate as them. However, population pressure is rather small elsewhere. Note that India is home to about 16 per cent of the world’s population but has only 4 per cent water resources.

Groundwater is apparently cleaner because it is stored in the pores and fissures of the geological formations below the earth’s surface. So it is also preferred for drinking, and is less bound to be polluted.

Impact of Global Warming 

Global warming has already begun to manifest in two ways:

First, the rising temperatures have hastened the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, which feed major Indian rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra. Added to this are the worrying Chinese plans to divert Brahmaputra waters to feed its northern heartland.

Second, the climate change is also disrupting the monsoon’s weather pattern in India, causing it to become more erratic, arrive early or late and lasting for shorter, abrupt changes in rain intensities. Indian agriculture has traditionally depended upon orderly behavior of monsoon rains and its cropping patterns are built around it. The farming communities still overwhelmingly depend on the monsoon.

The net effect of global warming, climate change and over exploitation of water resources is violation of the water cycle, degradation of the aquifers and erosion of the ground water resources.

Why India must Act to Counter Water Scarcity Now?

wpmen waterThere are compelling reasons that India must become serious about the issue of water security now. The foremost is the rising population: from today’s 1.23 billion it is expected to reach about 1.65 billion in 2050. Besides, the urban population is expected to grow to 55.2% by then. It is a known fact that urbanites consume far bigger quantity of water. Significant larger amounts of water will also be required to grow more food grains for the bigger population. It will also necessarily entail changing farming practices to reduce water requirement, besides use of high yielding crop varieties. Together rice, wheat and sugarcane together constitute about 90% of India’s crop production and are the most water-consuming crops. Another serious issue is the shrinking land area under agriculture due to pressures of urbanization and expanding cities.

What about the water needs of the growing industrial sector? The industry needs power so the energy sector has to keep pace with the rising demand. Unfortunately, even today about two-third power comes from the thermal power plants which are the most water-intensive industrial units. A typical thermal power plant consumes 3.5 – 4.0 cubic meters of water per MW. What this means is the water required for a 1000MW power plant could irrigate 7,000 hectares of agricultural land annually. A side effect of the growing industrial sector will be rising pollution, that of water resources too. All of this will result in increased consumption of water.

Unless concrete and effective steps are initiated now water might become the source of all social troubles in the coming years and decades.

Remedial Steps towards Water Security

Responding to the water security needs of the country, the National Water Policy 2012 was formally launched in April 2013 by the President. One of the key goals is to increase water use efficiency by 20%. Under the policy, a National Water Mission has been launched under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). Its stated objective is “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution, both across and within States, through integrated water resources development and management.”

Beyond policy initiatives, perhaps the foremost requirement is to remove the mindset that water is an undepleteable resource and all that is needed is a further development of groundwater reservoirs. It must be recognized that the ‘era of further water development is already over’ and we must now urgently move towards better and more efficient water management. In this regard, water management in the agriculture sector is crucial for overall sustainability of nation’s water resources. It implies promotion of water efficient micro-irrigation techniques like drip and sprinkler and adoption of cropping systems such as the system of Rice intensification (SRI) that rely on much lesser water.

President’s suggestion that rainwater harvesting could be popularized by dovetailing the existing MGNREGA and the initiatives at integrated watershed development should be aimed at increasing the soil moisture, reducing the sediment yield and improving land and water productivity.

The urban areas should devise ways to minimize the waste of water. Losses due to transportation and leakages can be minimized by developing sources of water near the points of usages.

In conclusion, India must take effective steps to improve its water management policy under the NWP 2012. A lot of people in the informed circle envision that the next world war would be most likely triggered by water scarcity across the continents. In the Asian context all fingers are pointing towards Himalayan glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau which are melting very fast, putting a question mark on the future of Ganga and particularly the Brahmaputra which is shared by India and China. Will the waters of peaceful Tibet trigger the future Indo-China war, is a serious question that demands some serious long term thinking by Indian water policymakers.

You may also like to read:
United Nations of Thirst
Water Scarcity Affect the Businesses of 60% Indian Companies

Features of the National Water Policy 2012
A Review of the National Water Policy 2012
Draft National Water Policy 2012

Our Detailed Poverty Report

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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6 Responses to Forget Food Security: India is Heading towards Water Insecurity

  1. Safe drinking water for all. It’s requirement is only 2 litters per person per day. Why it can’t be supplied like milk. Pipe water is unsafe and haradous.

  2. Goodpal says:

    Thanks Anand for commenting.

    At the core of all problems in India, current or future, is the inability to implement good ideas. Where is the machinery to implement. If you are saying that the government should provide 2 liters of water, where is the surety that the babus will not drink away all water.

    • vijaya says:

      there was a rule in hyderabad about a decade ago, when rain water harvesting pits were made mandatory for every new building to get a permit including the malls………the statistics say our ground water level has improved.this can be implemented elsewhere i hope. but the failure of the monsoons is a serious problem

      • Goodpal says:

        Ground water depletion in not a recent phenomenon. Its is widely known fact for several decades. Was the rule implemented? This is the real question; making rules alone does not solve real life problems. Why blame the monsoon? Blame ourselves for being lazy, careless and irresponssible.

  3. A real good insight into the present condition,writing is good and i really appreciate that you are presenting your views in an open manner,however i’d suggest you to focus more on the analysis part rather than fact presentation part,facts are no doubt needed in presenting a meaningful cause but too much reliance is bad for the health of the article,overall an nice read.

  4. Goodpal says:

    Thanks Abhishek, for sharing. Your critique is much appreciated. Do keep visiting.

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