The adult human body is 60 percent water, thus needs no argument as to its importance. Water, besides drinking water, is needed for household usages like cooking and washing and to enhance productivity by irrigation and water-intensive manufacturing such as textiles and steel. The Government of India has laid emphasis on water and decided to have a convergence of water-related departments like Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation at Jal Shakti Ministry.
This, done in a system, will bring in a holistic approach.
Much of the argument is on water being a scarce commodity but in this article, the argument is water is not at all scarce but poorly managed in India. India is still a water surplus country and receives enough annual rainfall to meet the need of over one billion-plus people. According to the Central Water Commission, India needs a maximum of 3,000 billion cubic metres of water a year while it receives 4,000 billion cubic metres of rain.
We are blessed. But the problem is India captures only eight percent of its annual rainfall and rest is being runoff, and this is among the lowest in the world, underlining again the real issue is in management.
India has also been poor in the treatment and re-use of household wastewater. About 80 percent of the water reaching households in India are drained out as waste flow through sewage whereas in Israel, 80 percent of the irrigation is done with recycled water. India is blessed with a defined clear monsoon season. In India, annual average precipitation is 170 mm and about 80 percent of the total area of the country experience annual rainfall of 1750 mm or more whereas in Israel it is 300-400 mm. India gets nearly four to five times the rainfall. With an increase in population, there is definitely more pressure on demand for water but as I listed above nature still gives us 1000 billion cubic metres of rain. It is, therefore, an excuse, the real challenge is the effective use of what nature has provided India in abundance.
The productivity of our land is again low due to fragmentation of land and small landholdings, but if we look at water usage, from canals it is around 29 percent, tanks at 4 percent, groundwater wells at around 63 percent and have a steady increase thus drawing on groundwater, and other undefined sources at around 4 percent. Even here, water used for farming is much in excess than required. It indicates the need for a focused agriculture extension activity for optimising productivity with minimum water usage.
Israel has only about one-third of its area arable against 52.59 percent of total land area in our country. India is next only to the US in agricultural land area in the world. China has near equal irrigated land in absolute terms but with 34 percent of the land area available in China as that of India. Now, if we compare the agricultural productivity of India with that of China or Israel, it shows that we waste the water resource as the concept is water is a gift of nature that is available free of cost.India can be satisfied by its ranking as
the World’s largest milk-producing nation. Over the last three decades, the average productivity of Indian cattle has grown from 1.9 to 3.9 kg per day and 3.7 to 6.2 kg per day against crossbred cattle’s 7.1 kg per day. The global standard is 25.6 kg per day and in the developed economies, it is 38.6 kg per day. the World’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices. Well here, India is leading, but again with low productivity. World’s second-largest producer of food grains, fruits, and vegetables, but an introspection is needed as India is second to China in wheat and rice production and is 40 percent in fruits and vegetables are one-third of what China produces. A 2013 report from the Food and Agricultural Organisation points out: “India produces 106.19 million tonnes of rice a year from 44 million hectares of land. That’s a yield rate of 2.4 tonnes per hectare, placing India at 27th place out of 47 countries. China and Brazil have yield rates of 4.7 tonnes and 3.6 tonnes per hectare, respectively.”
In the case of wheat, productivity is better than that of rice. “With 93.51 million tonnes of wheat from 29.65 million hectares, India’s yield rate of 3.15 tonnes per hectare places it 19th out of 41 countries. Here, we do better than Brazil’s yield rate of 2.73 tonnes per hectare but lag behind South Africa (3.4 t/ha) and China (4.9 t/ha).”
In the budget speech 2019, the finance minister mentioned that India had only 4 percent of world drinking water for 1.5 billion i.e. 18 percentage of the world population. Agriculture consumes 68 percent of water. So India uses 52.59 percent of the land, with 68 percent of water available and productivity with the positioning of 27th in rice and 19th in wheat. It is a clear case of water wastage.
Irrigation is must to double the income of farmers, another laudable goal flagged by the government, but with this kind of water usage, one will be heading for disaster in terms of irregular water availability, leading to debt increase and farmers suicide. The need is to completely change the approach. The ultimate sustainable irrigation potential of India has been estimated in a 1991 United Nations FAO report to be 139.5 million hectares, comprising 58.5 mha from major and medium river-fed irrigation canal schemes, 15 mha from minor irrigation canal schemes, and 66 mha from groundwater well-fed irrigation.
The need is a transformation in the process and material usage for canal irrigation that constitutes 29 percent of irrigation. Construction of open canal should be stopped with immediate effect and for all new construction, a shift to steel pipe distribution system is necessary instead of water channel. This will prevent water loss in terms of seepage and evaporation and there is no need for regular maintenance and will have a longer life cycle. The field distribution system has to be mandatorily that of sprinkler/drip irrigation. The assistance to farmers should be on that account by making it part of the irrigation network programme.
It is again a misnomer that the above transformation in approach will add to the cost. In fact, it will be cost-saving in terms of both time and money for the acquisition of land for the canal system network. Pipes can easily be laid and only one crop loss to be compensated and paid to the landowner. The saving can be used to offset the high cost of pipe, (it is just 7 percent more) and the entire canal system that takes decades to complete can be done in less than a year’s time. We do have examples like Onkareshwar where piped distribution system has been reported to. Another important need is ensuring safe piped drinking water to every household as has been again flagged as the intention of the government to provide 90 percent rural households with piped water and 80 percent of rural households with taps by 2022. The need is to shift to stainless steel pipes that ensure zero leakage and hence no wastage. Delhi Jal Board has experimented with the same.
As many as 63 million Indians do not have access to clean drinking water. India has more people in rural areas – 63.4 million – living without access to clean water than any other country, according to ‘Wild Water, State of the World’s Water 2017’, a new report by Water Aid, a global advocacy group on water and sanitation. Only 16 percent of India’s rural families have piped water. (data provided by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, on February 6, 2017). Then there is an issue of iron and arsenic contamination. It is sad to say that according to the reports of the World Health Organisation (WHO), “The World Bank estimates 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water-related”.
The next step for urban bodies is to develop permanent and sufficient source for the drinking water. A Niti Aayog report released last year predicted Day Zero for 21 Indian cities by next year. Day Zero refers to the day when a place is likely to have no drinking water of its own.
Thus, for human need, the issue is ‘water-water everywhere but not a quality drop to irrigate or drink’ for the majority of the population, a challenge that can easily be mitigated by resorting to optimise minimal use for maximum gain through steel pipe distribution system with the last mile of the drip irrigation system, piped drinking water supply through stainless steel pipes -- no maintainance, no leakage and thus no wastage. The focus on scientific and systematic efforts to recouping water by water harvesting and watershed measures, the outcomes here are not visible in short duration but then is the need of the day.
Next challenge is industrial use of water. Israel treats 100 percent of its used water and recycles 94 percent of it back to households. Most important is recycling of water especially in urban areas and water-intensive industries such as textiles. Textile plant at Anjar in Gujrat has effectively demonstrated the same.
It is criminal to use freshwater in the industries, it is worth spending and incentivising such expenditures to be part of Corporate Social Responsibility for each of the industry to develop a mechanism by coordinating with local self-urban bodies and transport, treat and recycle sewage water for industry.
The holistic approach will enable correct management of what nature has blessed India to enhance the real indicators, that we are on the right path in terms of productivity in agriculture, ensure potable clean water, do away with water-borne diseases, recycled water to be used in the industry. It will be a reform to transform from ‘water-water everywhere and not available’ to that of ‘water-water everywhere with giving access to all’.
Aruna Sharma is a former secretary at Ministry of Steel, Government of India. The views are personal.
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