India's water woes: How the country is racing against time to conserve water

Image credit: MrGauravBhosle [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

As Chennai and several states, particularly in the western and southern regions of the country grapple with acute water shortage, following a particularly delayed monsoon, startling statistics about India’s water issues keep surfacing. As per a report by NITI Aayog, 21 cities in India, including New Delhi, Bengaluru Chennai and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2020, as the country faces the worst water crisis in history. Further, 40 percent of the country’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, as per the report.

The country has been ranked 120 out of 122 countries in terms of water quality - while 75 percent of households do not have drinking water on premise, 84 percent of rural homes do not have access to piped water. Making matters worse is the fact that despite having 18 percent of the world’s population, we only have 4 percent of the world’s fresh water resources. The Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) by NITI Aayog further states that 600 million people face high-to-extreme water stress.

As per NGO WaterAid, 163 million Indians lack access to clean water, this is the highest number for any country. By 2030, the country’s water demand is also projected to be twice the available water supply – which will create a severe water crisis impacting millions across the country.

On a war footing

Faced with an acute water shortage that is getting worse, the current Modi Government has decided to make water conservation what Swachh Bharat was to Modi 1.0 – its pet project. In his first Mann Ki Baat after coming back to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stressed on the need for the people of the country to come together to start a mass movement to conserve water and to share knowledge on traditional methods of water conservation. In May 2019, the Government set up the Jal Shakti Ministry, merging the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, as part of the it’s poll promise.

Earlier this month, the Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat launched the Jal Shakti Abhiyan to create awareness of water conservation and make it a people’s movement. The scheme, which will be carried out in two phases, coinciding with the ongoing monsoons – from 1st July to 15th September and with the retreating monsoons – from 1st October to 30th November, will focus on 1592 blocks that are water stressed, across 256 districts.

The campaign will have five key aspects – water conservation and rainwater harvesting, watershed development, renovation of traditional and other water bodies, reuse of water and recharging of structures, and intensive afforestation.

As per media reports, to ensure proper implementation, 446 director and deputy secretary level officers have been dispatched across to these highly water-stressed district, where they will serve as block nodal officers.

Further, under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, every city will now have to rejuvenate at least one of its water bodies, while each urban body has to constitute a rainwater harvesting cell that will monitor groundwater extraction and groundwater aquifer recharge.

The first budget of the new Government also saw a thrust on water conservation with Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing the Jal Jeevan Mission. Under the scheme, the government aims to make piped water connection to every house a reality by 2024, covering 19.5 percent of rural households during 2019-20. The Mission has got a budgetary allocation of Rs 10,000.66 crore, signaling an 82 percent boost from last year. The scheme also envisages that at least 50 percent of the population will be provided access to 55 litres of piped water per capita, per day, within the household premise or at a distance of not more than 100 metres. As per Sitharaman, the project will be monitored online through an app and through geo tagging.

Under the rural employment guarantee scheme, MGNREGA, the Government has set a target of completing one million projects linked to water conservation in the first 100 days of the Government. Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmer Welfare, Narendra Singh Tomar has also asked that states to create awareness of water conservation practices such as drip and sprinkler irrigation and water harvesting, among farmers.

With india’s massive coastline of 7,800 kms providing immense opportunities, NITI Aayog is also working on a plan to set up desalination plants to make the sea water usable, as per a report in the Economic Times. The plants will desalinate sea water and then supply it through pipeline connections. As per the report, these plants will be energy efficient as well as they will run on solar energy. Dry countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar have been using desalination plants, employing reverse osmosis to ensure that sea water is transformed into fresh water fit for consumption.

Conservation by states: some success stories, some not

According to NITI Aayog, Rajasthan has been ranked at the top in water conservation due to the water conservation structures which were built under the Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan programme, set up by the Chief Minister. While 4 lakh water conservation structures were built in the state, groundwater level had risen by 5 percent in around 21 districts. It however ranks poorly in water management with only 44 percent of the state having access to clean water.

The previous TDP Government of Andhra Pradesh implemented the Neeru Chettu programme, an interdepartmental convergence programme among departments such as Agriculture, Horticulture, Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, Municipal Administration and Urban Development to stabilise and improve groundwater levels. Under the scheme, the Government has set up a timeline of five years to make the state drought-free.and to increase green cover to 33 percent as opposed to the current 25 percent.

Gujarat has been at the forefront of water conservation, having bagged the highest water index score in NITI Aayog ranking of states based on an assessment of water resource management. Through the Sujalam Sufalam Yojana, which is currently in its second phase, the state has undertaken deepening of its existing water bodies, cleaning and desilting of riverfronts, sprucing irrigation canals. As per the official website, 18,220 works of deepening ponds and lakes were accomplished in the first edition, as against a target of target of 16,616 works.

Maharashtra, another state which has been reeling under drought, launched the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan in 2016 to make the 25,000 villages hit by drought, water neutral by 2019. As per official figures, the scheme created water storage facilities of 24.35 lakh thousand cubic metre (TCM), bringing 34.23 lakh hectares of land under irrigation in 2017-18. 16,000 villages have also been made free of water scarcity, as of now.

The scheme, however, has been faltering under a lack of public participation. While when it was first launched, there was much participation from the public, through both contribution of funds and labour, this has gone down drastically. As per the Maharashtra Economic Survey, participation has gone down from 6,374 in 2016 to just 30 in 2019. One of the reasons cited for this is lackluster initiation by the local administration in reaching out to people.

Meanwhile, as Chennai continues to reel under acute water shortage, a special train carrying 50,000 litres of water from Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district will be reaching Chennai today.