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Not a drop to drink: This four-point plan will help fix India’s deepening water crisis

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If India wants to become an economic powerhouse in the region, it should leverage the current water crisis to act with a sense of urgency.

Not a drop to drink: This four-point plan will help fix India’s deepening water crisis
India’s water woes have escalated beyond being a seasonal scare. Even as the monsoons pick up pace across the country, a sense of anxiety continues to prevail over India’s 255 water-stressed districts in 17 states, including Chennai city, which went completely dry barely a month ago.
The growth of Asia’s third-largest economy, harbouring ambitions to become a $5 trillion economy in the next five years, will be severely hampered by the hovering threat of serious water shortage. In fact, in a recent global report, India ranks 13 among the 17 worst-affected countries in the world. Enough warning bells have been rung to motivate India to strongly push for long-lasting, radical solutions.
No doubt, the government’s move to establish the Ministry of Jal Shakti, a Central ministry that looks at ‘water’ more holistically is an encouraging development. However, to make any kind of impact, the Ministry of Jal Shakti should supplement its grass-root level efforts to conserve water, with some bolder and holistic efforts. This includes both innovative techniques to manage water demand and supply as well as driving changes at the policy level. Achieving this requires a focused, four-point agenda for the Ministry of Jal Shakti.
Drive faster adoption of drip irrigation
To begin with, one of India’s major challenges involves limiting the unabated use of precious groundwater resources by its largest user – the agriculture sector. Only 15 percent of India’s agricultural land uses sustainable drip irrigation compared to 80 percent in Israel. Drip methods can reduce the volume of water applied to fields up to 70 percent while increasing crop yields by 20 to 90 percent.
The government must re-energise its National Mission on Micro Irrigation (NMMI) to drive drip methods through education, incentives, one-time insurance against failure and systematic monitoring against targets. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Jal Shakti should work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare to encourage a gradual shift from water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat, and sugarcane.
Manage key aquifers as a national resource
Studies suggest that over-exploitation of groundwater reserves has largely led to this water crisis. The Jal Shakti Ministry has kick-started an initiative to augment depleting groundwater levels, with the CGWB (Central Ground Water Board). It is in the process of expediting aquifer-mapping and drawing up a replenishing module for all water-stressed districts by March 2020. But, we need to go beyond this. Once mapped, India needs to treat approximately 40 critical aquifers as national strategic reserves.
Even though groundwater aquifers are a common public resource similar to lakes and rivers, they are actually private property through land ownership. But, the time has come for the government to reclassify and manage some of the key aquifers centrally. This programme should include remotely monitoring them and recharging them periodically to ensure a minimum of three months of water availability. This is very similar to how the US stores underground crude oil reservoirs to have enough safety-stock of oil, in case of a supply disruption.
Price water optimally and provide incentives to save water
If the government has to reduce water consumption, they have to price water to reflect its true cost. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has a major role to play in water pricing, as it cannot manage demand without the right pricing model. This pricing model should, however, be based on water availability, demand and affordability across India’s geographic spread and demographic segments.
The government also needs to provide incentives to farms, industries and residential communities to reduce water consumption, reuse and recycle water, just as they have done in the case of renewable energy. Other incentives can include making capital expenditures to save water, tax-deductible. Unlike electricity, water cannot be easily moved, so net metering is not possible. However, with the right policies and market mechanism, industries and communities can be encouraged to 'sell' water they have saved to neighbouring industries or communities.
Recycle waste to water
Up to 80 percent of Israel’s farms use treated sewage water from the cities, while Singapore treats and recycles all its sewage back to the city as “new water”.  In India too, the government has mandated that any power plant within 50 km of a city, must use treated sewage water. However, India only treats 20 percent of its city sewage. According to a McKinsey study, 49 clusters of districts will drive 77 percent of India’s incremental growth from 2020 to 2025. If each of these clusters treats its sewage and supplies this treated sewage to adjoining industry and commercial establishments or even to farms during droughts, the cost of setting up these sewage treatment plants can be borne by the end-users.
Catching the tide
By introducing 'jal prabharis' in every district, and making plans to make 'Har ghar jal' a reality, the government has shown it has a bias for action and is willing to pursue audacious goals. A lot more, however, needs to be done to make India water secure.
To reach year-long water security, the government needs to drive the 4-point agenda outlined above. However, to implement this agenda effectively, it should bring together various stakeholders including scientists, state and rural bodies, industries and communities to create a unified Call-to-Action. The timing couldn’t be better. If India wants to become an economic powerhouse in the region, it should leverage the current water crisis to act with a sense of urgency.
Mukund Vasudevan is Co-Chair of FICCI Water Committee, Member of CII National Water Committee, and MD and Country Head of Ecolab India.
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