|| Water Availability Crisis and Ways to Check the Depletion
Dr. Harender Raj Gautam
Water is the lifeline of human lives and the world needs to wake up to the ground reality that one day this nature's gift may dry up from this planet unless we take good care to nurture and replenish its sources. Water consumption of the world is doubling every 20 years, which is more than twice the rate of increase of our population. The United Nation predicts that by 2025, two thirds of us will experience water shortage, with severe lack of water affecting the lives and livelihoods of 1.8 billion. Central Water Commission estimated that only about 1,123 km3, (690 km3 from surface water and 433 km3 from groundwater) can be used due to topographical constraints and spatio-temporal variations in resources. Annual water availability of the country in terms of natural runoff (flow) in rivers is about 1,869 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM)/year. Out of the 1,123 BCM/year, the share of surface water and ground water is 690 BCM/year and 433 BCM/year respectively. If 35 BCM of water is set aside for natural discharge, the net annual ground water availability for the entire country is 398 BCM. In terms of usage of water, agriculture was the largest consumer, accounting for almost 85 per cent of the total water consumption, followed by industry and energy (9 %), and domestic users (6 %) in 2010. The Water Resources Group estimates that if the current pattern of demand continues, about half of the demand for water will be unmet by 2030. In India, due to a 3-fold increase in population during 1951–2010, the per capita availability of water in the country as a whole decreased from 5,177 m3/ year in 1951 to 1,588 m3/ year in 2010. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations, the per capita availability of less than 2,000 m3/year is defined as a water-stressed condition, and the per capita availability below 1,000 m3/year is termed as a water-scarce condition. This suggests that at a macro level, India is in a water-stressed state. The story at the local/regional level is far starker due to uneven rainfall patterns and shrinking underground water resources. India is divided into 20 river basins. Out of these, 14 basins are in a water-stressed condition. The major source for dynamic recharge is rainfall, which contributes about 67 per cent of the recharge.Global warming is the other important concern which will affect the availability of the water on the earth. In water-stressed areas, people and ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to decreasing and more variable precipitation due to climate change. In most countries, except for a few industrialized nations, water use has increased over recent decades, due to population and economic growth, changes in lifestyle and intensive agricultural practices. It is no wonder that water is being increasingly referred to as ‘blue gold’. Furthermore, even under the conservative emissions scenarios and moderate storylines of the predictions of the IPCC, in the future, very likely there will be less precipitation in the major agricultural regions of the world. Wiser water use will be necessary to ensure increased food production and better living standards for the world’s growing population.
Water Stress on the Rise
World scientific community is keeping a continuous watch on the depleting water resources and the ways to replenish them. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) satellite imagery data released in 2015 indicate that the world’s largest underground aquifers are being depleted at alarming rates. In North-Western India, farmers are withdrawing groundwater more quickly than anywhere else on Earth, making the water situation even more precarious. Across the country, 54 percent of 4,000 measured groundwater wells are declining. The data released by the NASA indicate that groundwater-level decline map shows a similar pattern of water stress. Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers located in India, China, United States and France have passed their sustainability tipping points which means that more water was removed than replaced during the last decade. In India, the main cause of the drought is the failure of south-west monsoon. Drought has become a regular phenomenon in Indian agriculture with occurrence of 18 droughts in the 20th century and the frequency is increasing with occurrence of 5 droughts between 1999 and 2012. Current data indicates that there may be twofold increase in drought frequency by mid 21st century and threefold by end of 21st century in many regions.
According to the Central Water Commission, the total water availability in live storage of 91 reservoirs in the country being monitored by end of the February 2016 was 51.2 BCM. This is 32 per cent of the total live storage capacity of these reservoirs and 76 per cent of average availability during the last 10 years. Over-dependence on groundwater beyond sustainable level use has resulted in significant decline in the groundwater table, especially in northwest India. The Central Groundwater Board has categorised 16.2 per cent of the total assessment units Blocks, Mandals or Talukas numbering 6607 as ‘Over-exploited’. It has categorized an additional 14 per cent as either at ‘critical’ or ‘semi-critical’ stage. Most of the over-exploited blocks are in northwest region of the country. Ministry of Water Resources estimates that 80 per cent blocks in Punjab have been subject to overexploitation of ground water. According to the latest report of Punjab’s Irrigation Department on subsoil water indicate that the average fall in water table in central Punjab was 20 cm per annum from 1980 to 1900, 25 cm from 1990 to 2000, 75 cm from 2005 to 2008, 45 cm from 2008-2013 and 70 cm in 2014-15. The report indicates that out of the total 138 blocks put under observation for water assessment, 105 are over exploited in the state. Only 26 blocks are in the safe category. Availability of water in rural areas is getting further strained due to urbanization that is expanding urban boundaries and policies that allocate rural land to attract investment for economic activities. Climate change will further aggravate the problem by causing erratic weather patterns. More extreme rates of precipitation and evapo-transpiration will cause more instances of droughts and floods, with disparate and complex effects at the sub-basin level.The unsustainable groundwater use necessitates demand management and supply augmentation measures for improved water use efficiency in agriculture sector. On the other hand, eastern region, where groundwater utilization is on a limited scale, offer greater scope for harnessing the benefits of groundwater usage to improve crop yields.
According to the Government norms, people in the rural areas are entitled for 40 liters per capita per day (lpcd) of safe drinking water, one hand-pump or stand post for every 250 persons and the water source should exist within the habitation / within 1.6 km in the plains and within 100 metres elevation in the hilly areas. However, a person in rural India has to spend, on an average, 20 minutes to fetch drinking water. According to the 69th round of National Sample Survey, over 46 per cent of households in rural India and 77 per cent of households in urban India had drinking water sources within their premises and over 80 per cent of both rural and urban households reported having sufficient drinking water. The country has already spent an over Rs. 1,105 billion on providing safe drinking water since the First Five Year Plan launched in 1951 yet thousands of crore are still spent on controlling water-borne diseases, indicating that the problem needs to be addressed from different perspective. According to the country representative of WaterAid in India, 50 per cent of villages in India do not have protected drinking water. Annually, 37.7 million people are affected by water-borne diseases, 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea and 62 million people are at the risk of suffering from fluorosis due to excessive fluoride in ground water. In India, approximately Rs. 6,700 crore is annually spent on treatment of water-borne diseases by poor people in rural areas. It is heartening that while only 38 per cent of households had access to drinking water in 1981, that figure has gone up to 78 per cent by 2001.Much of the progress has been in rural areas, with the number of households having access to drinking water going up from a mere 26 per cent in 1981 to 73 per cent in 2001.
Challenges in Water Availability
The major problems with rural drinking water are its adequacy and quality. Central Government has taken many innovative initiatives for streamlining and augmenting the water supply in the rural areas. To enable the rural community to shoulder the responsibility in management, operation and maintenance of water supply systems at village level, decentralized, demand-driven, community-managed approach in the form of Swajaldhara has been adopted. To further strengthen community participation in the drinking water sector for sustainability, National Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring & Surveillance programme was launched in February, 2006 under which 5 persons in each Gram Panchayat would be trained to carry out regular surveillance of drinking water sources for which 100 per cent financial assistance including water testing kits, were to be provided.
Need to Improve Water Efficiency in Agriculture
India uses 2-3 times more water to produce one tonne of grain in comparison to countries like China, Brazil and USA. This implies that if we improve our water use efficiency to the level of these countries, India can at least double irrigation coverage or save 50 per cent water currently used in irrigation. Achieving these gains would require the application of multiplicity of instruments. In India, successful technologies have been developed by different institutes working in the area in different agro-ecological regions and they need to be up-scaled to benefit larger communities. Such technologies have resulted in good success stories in some parts of the country. In Madhya Pradesh, water efficient crop production technologies have resulted in gains in 2 million ha water logged regions. Among such technologies, the broad bed and furrow (BBF), short duration soybean cultivars like Samrat along with balanced nutrient management options and minimum tillage for chickpea/wheat crops could double farmers' incomes and minimize land degradation. In Indo Gangetic Plains (IGP), simple seed priming technique i.e., soaking chickpea seeds in water and micronutrient solution for six hours and drying in shade could establish good chickpea crop in rice fallow areas and increase crop production and incomes by using residual soil moisture. This technology has potential for adoption in 12 million ha rice fallows in India spread in MP, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chattisgarh. In Kashmir region, application of micro-irrigation at the rate of 70m3/ha during reproductive period increases productivity of saffron by over 50 per cent. Apple yield can be increased to more than 40t/ha using pressurized irrigation system in karewas. Strawberry under low cost poly-house matured 45 days earlier than outdoors and productivity increases substantially. In Tamil Nadu, precision farming approach involving drip and fertigation and pit method of irrigation in sugarcane increased the-yield and income of the crops by 20 per cent. In Gujarat, G-9 variety of drilled paddy increased the crop productivity to 2.5 tons/ha with high water use efficiency. In the coastal regions of the country, about 10 million ha. area is water logged in coastal Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. In these areas, digging out aquaculture ponds raised about 35 per cent of the area under embankment by 1-1.5 metres. Further, growing fish and prawn in dugout ponds and fruits and vegetables in embankments and rice in part of the farm increased the water productivity up to 7 times.
Rainwater Harvesting Vital
Annual average rainfall in India is 1183 mm and 75 per cent of the annual rainfall is received during south-west monsoon. In India, 16 per cent of the total area is drought prone and 68 per cent of the sown area is subjected to different degrees of drought. Annually, 50 million people are exposed to the brunt of the drought. There are two monsoon systems operating in the region. The South-west or summer monsoon accounting for about 80 per cent and the North-east or the winter monsoon accounts for roughly 20 per cent of the rainfall. There is a large variability in the monsoon rainfall on both space and time scales. Consequently different Indian regions experience drought or flood in some parts of the country almost every year during the monsoon period between June-September. Monsoon rains assumes great significance in Indian agriculture as almost 60 per cent of the sown area is still rain-fed. The summer monsoon accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the annual rainfall over major parts of south Asia. There is a large variability in the monsoon rainfall on both space and time scales. At all India level, there is no trend in monsoon rainfall during last 100 years but there are some regional patterns. Monsoon rains are thus critical for agricultural production and availability of water. It has been estimated that most of rainfall during the South West monsoon period occurs within 100 hours. We receive approximately 1100 millimetre average rainfall annually, that too irregularly and only during limited period of two to three months.
In our country, only 29 per cent rainwater was being put to productive use. Even if 5 per cent of annual rainfall were harvested properly, that will produce a substantial quantum of water to the tune of 900 million litres. Therefore rainwater harvesting becomes very important. This is one of the important tools to make our agriculture more resilient to dependence on monsoon rains. It is estimated that about 24 million ha metre of rainwater can be potentially harvested through small water harvesting structures in different rainfall zones of India. If the harvested water is suitably stored, about 30 per cent of it can be utilized for providing supplemental irrigation to rabi crops covering an area of about 95 million ha. An additional yield of 1 tonnes per hectare can be realized through supplemental irrigation. A part of the remaining 70 per cent of the harvested water would help in recharging the groundwater aquifers which may help in raising the groundwater level by 2 metre as experienced in different agro-climatic regions. Our agriculture is more prone to monsoon rains as we are growing high water requiring crops like rice and sugarcane. We should increase area under low water requiring but high value crops like pulses and oilseeds to counter the erratic monsoons.
Central Government has launched the National Water Mission and the main objective of the mission is to conserve water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management. The five identified goals of the mission include; comprehensive water data base in public domain and assessment of impact of climate change on water resource; promotion of citizen and state action for water conservation, augmentation and preservation; focused attention to vulnerable areas including over-exploited areas; increasing water use efficiency by 20 per cent and promotion of basin level integrated water resources management. Central Government has launched Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) in 2015 which provides a sound framework for the expansion of as well as effective use of water in irrigation. The scheme was launched with an outlay of Rs 50,000 crore for a period of 5 years and allocation of Rs 5,300 crore has been made for the present year. The impact of the scheme can be greatly enhanced by restoring the original flexibility of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in asset creation.
Earlier, ‘Bharat Nirman’- a flagship programme of the Central Government has also resulted in creating the required infrastructure to have good quality water to rural households. Rural drinking water was one of the six components of this programme and it targeted 55,067 un-covered and about 3.31 lakh slipped-back habitations with provisions of drinking water facilities and 2.17 lakh quality-affected habitations for water quality problem. Presently, much of the rural drinking water needs are met by groundwater. Now, the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have been empowered for the delivery of water service in the rural areas. But, decentralization has not been accompanied by adequate financial resources and capacity building for PRIs to fulfil their responsibilities for the operation and management of rural water supply schemes. Fundamental changes are required in the approach towards rural drinking water supply. Foremost amongst these is setting legally binding water quantity norms and quality standards that are equitable. In the new Rural Drinking Water Policy, minimum water quantity norms are defined at the level of a household, which is diluting the fundamental right of an individual. Second, local government institutions and PRIs must be given the necessary regulatory and fiscal powers to ensure effective implementation of the tasks that they have to perform. Water should be considered as a socio-economic good only after meeting the minimum core obligations. The rural water supply programme and guidelines have been further revised in 2009 as the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). Under this scheme, financial assistance is provided to States for Coverage of all rural habitations, including quality affected habitations with safe drinking water provision. In the Union Budget of 2015-16, a provision of Rs. 2611.00 crore has been made for NRDWP and the rural water supply sector.
On the part of the Central and State Government, regulatory mechanisms are also necessary to check the blatant and unscientific use of this resource. Currently, the Easement Act, 1882 provides every landowner with the right to collect and dispose, within his own limits, all water under the land and on the surface. This century old law makes it difficult to regulate extraction of ground water as it is owned by the person to whom the land belongs. As water falls under the State List of the Constitution, state legislative assemblies can make laws on the subject. The central government has published certain framework laws or model Bills in 2011 on which states could choose to enact their laws. In addition, the Central Government outlined a National Water Policy in 2012 articulating key principles relating to demand management, usage efficiencies, infrastructure and pricing aspects of water. In addition, the government published a National Water Framework Bill in 2013. Excess digging of wells should be avoided or restricted in severely affected areas. Permission for digging of wells should be linked with construction of water harvesting structures. In urban areas, harvesting of rainwater should be made mandatory so that the water stored could be used for other than drinking purposes. The private sector should be enlisted to improve water management in cities, making drinking water more expensive than recycled water, which can be used for gardening and outdoor use. It may be noted that the fundamental right to water has been evolved by the Supreme Court and various High Courts of the country as part of ‘Right to Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution. Courts have dwelled on this issue in detail and have delivered verdicts on concerns such as access to drinking water and on the right to safe drinking water as a fundamental right. Our rights for safe drinking water are well enshrined in the constitution but every citizen has to keep in mind that we can not make more rains, so we have to manage water better. It might just rescue us from hydrological anarchy and also sustain desired higher growth in agriculture.
The author is Principal Scientist, Department of Plant Pathology, Dr, Y.S.Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Nauni, Solan, Himachal Pradesh
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