How soon before India's water wars begin?

A study warns that by 2025, large parts of north-western and southern India will have "critically low groundwater availability"

Residents crowd around a water tanker in Delhi
Residents crowd around a water tanker in Delhi

Rashme Sehgal

India is facing one of its hottest summers in recorded history. The failure of winter rains and the raging of forest fires across the Himalayas has precipitated an already precarious situation.

In March, India’s primary reservoirs hit their lowest levels in a decade —filled to just 25 per cent of their capacity as per data from the Central Water Commission (CWC), which monitors 150 reservoirs that are vital sources of water for drinking, irrigation and hydro-electricity.

If the monsoon rains do not come soon, the government will have to resort to rationing drinking water and power through June and July. A senior official in the CWC pointed out that in case the situation deteriorates, drinking water supply will get priority over power generation.

The southern states are the worst hit. The main reservoir for Bengaluru is down to a mere 16 per cent capacity. Across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there is a major crisis as 42 reservoirs are down to 14 per cent capacity.

This marks a 21 per cent decrease from the 55.037 BCM (billion cubic metres) during the same period last year, well below the normal storage of 45.480 BCM, based on the average of the last ten years.

The situation is equally bad in the north. Water levels in the agricultural states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are well below the ten-year average. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are not faring any better.

Low water levels can be attributed to a poor monsoon — last year saw the lightest rains since 2018. August 2023 was the driest in more than a century due to the El Niño effect, which also resulted in some areas receiving more rain than others.

The monsoon season, which once extended to four months, is now down to less than 30 days of heavy rain. But even this precious rainfall is not conserved, with rainwater harvesting schemes in limbo. The blinkered attitude of state governments who are focusing on building infrastructure at the cost of our forests makes a bad situation even worse.

A resident rushes to collect water from a tanker in Delhi (photo: Vipin/NH)
A resident rushes to collect water from a tanker in Delhi (photo: Vipin/NH)

Both North and South India have been subjected to rampant deforestation. Research shows that large-scale deforestation has had an adverse impact on our monsoon, depressing precipitation levels. The reason is simple: fewer trees equals fewer leaves transpiring water back into the atmosphere equals drier weather conditions.

Commenting on the situation in Uttarakhand, environmentalist Dr Shekhar Pathak said, “The loss of forests is humongous; and the springs that originated within these forests have declined by 80 per cent in sixty years.”

In 2019, the Niti Aayog had issued a report on India’s water situation, warning that India was undergoing the worst water crisis in its history with millions of lives and livelihoods under threat. A staggering number of 600 million Indians faced high to extreme water stress and over 200,000 people died every year due to inadequate access to safe water.

It added that 21 cities including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad would run out of ground water by 2030, adversely affecting 100 million people. Moreover, 40 per cent of India’s water supply was being depleted at unsustainable rates while another 70 per cent was contaminated.

This seems to be the horror story unfolding across the nation. Cherrapunji, once the wettest place on earth, now faces a drought every winter. Chennai and Bengaluru, once blessed with a large number of water reservoirs and lakes, are now totally dependent on water tankers.

Instead of genuine action to preserve forests and revive our natural springs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to this nationwide crisis is to launch the Jal Jeevan Mission, meant to provide tap water to households. A sum of Rs 3.6 lakh crore has been set aside for this and the Jal Shakti ministry claims it has already provided tap water to 30 million new households.

But as one water activist pointed out, the Jal Jeevan Mission could well go the way of Modi’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) that provided women living below the poverty line with a free gas cylinder and subsidised stoves in order to minimise the use of wood and coal.

The dried up Yamuna riverbed in Delhi's Kalindi Kunj (photo: Vipin/NH)
The dried up Yamuna riverbed in Delhi's Kalindi Kunj (photo: Vipin/NH)

Millions of women joined the Ujjwala scheme, but soon found they could not afford new cylinders. Is the Jal Jeevan Mission yet another gasbag scheme? Millions of rupees will be spent on providing infrastructure without taking into account the most crucial but missing commodity — water.

Already 80 per cent of our critical ground water and surface water resources is contaminated by human activity; 85 per cent of other water sources is diverted for agricultural activities, while the remaining 15 per cent has to be shared between industrial and domestic use.

With the government at loggerheads with the farming community, it is going to be extremely difficult for the Modi Sarkar to gain the confidence needed to wean them away from growing water-guzzling crops.

A study by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) backed by satellite images shows that over 40 per cent of India’s land is affected by degradation of which desertification is a major component. This is a frightening prospect because, in essence, fertile land is being converted into desert.

Accelerated degradation into desert will only increase our water woes, which in turn will affect our water security. Dr C.P. Rajendran, scientist with the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Bengaluru pointed out, “That our river basins, both big and small, contain so little water should be a top-priority concern for the government. Take any river basin and we will find that water levels are diminishing rapidly. The government has sanctioned the construction of several dams in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh which will further destroy our rivers. With ground water levels falling, we are not going to be able to regain what we have lost.”

Decreasing water levels in our rivers has left us dependent on ground water. India has emerged as the largest extractor of ground water in the world — we extract more than the US and China combined.

A study published in the journal Science warns that by 2025, large swathes of north-western and southern India will have "critically low groundwater availability". This is Armageddon now. The government needs to do better than announce missions that are no more than a drop in a leaky bucket.

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