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Beti Khan is a domineering presence in the evening crowd around the old village well in Gusiyari. The 50-year-old charges up to visitors to this drought-stricken community in north India to demand they provide the water that the country’s politicians — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi down — have failed to supply.
“The water crisis is acute here,” she says. “It’s a huge problem. Sweaty people smell awful but you can’t bathe here every day. Some people don’t wash for four days. And nobody wants their daughter to get married to someone from here because they think their daughters will die carrying water on their heads all their lives.”
The large, brick-lined well next to a dry stream bed, said by the 3,500 villagers to have been built 300 years ago, is the only one that produces fresh water for Gusiyari, in Uttar Pradesh state. The bricks along its rim are furrowed by the ropes used to raise the water from 50ft below in pots. Nearby wells with hand pumps produce water so salty it is used mostly for washing utensils.
“In my own neighbourhood, there must be at least 18-20 guys who can’t get married due to the water crisis,” says Rajesh Kumar Tiwari, who grows wheat and chickpeas. “There is no provision for irrigation here, no tube well or canals . . . Farmers in this area are on the verge of starvation, forced to commit suicide.”
The region known as Bundelkhand, which straddles the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh on the southern edge of the Gangetic Plain, has long been plagued by periodic droughts, and the inhabitants have responded by migrating en masse to find work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai or the outskirts of New Delhi.
India is not alone in facing water shortages. But, with more than two months of rising summer heat still to come before the scheduled arrival of monsoon rains, the latest water problems demonstrate the gravity of its double water crisis: an acute shortage after two below-average monsoon seasons, and a chronic and increasingly severe problem of water depletion that is already affecting agriculture and urban life for India’s 1.3bn people.
Ten of India’s 29 states from Uttar Pradesh in the north to Karnataka in the south have declared droughts this year; dams, canals and sacred rivers in some places have run dry; and groundwater in parts of India is being pumped out at an alarming rate that has sharply lowered the water table. With Indian economic growth of more than 7 per cent still outpacing China’s, the damage from the latest drought has so far been confined mainly to farmers. But in the longer term, mismanagement of water is likely to affect industry and the broader economy.
“It’s possibly the worst summer India is going to face in the post-independence era, particularly in Central India,” says Himanshu Thakkar, who runs a pressure group called the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
Such concerns are not confined to non-government organisations. Shashi Shekhar, secretary at the Indian water ministry, says of the coming years: “Neither the political class nor the intelligentsia have understood that a water crisis is literally staring us in the face.”
He and other experts warn that conflicts — not just between nations but also between states inside India — are already brewing because of competition over scarce river water.
In the south, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have long been locked in a bitter dispute over the waters of the Cauvery river. In the north, Punjabi landowners, abetted by the state government, have used bulldozers to fill in an unfinished canal that would take water from the Sutlej river south to Haryana.
“It’s a crisis now and if we don’t arrest it, then 10 years down the line we’ll have water wars,” says a senior official in Delhi. “Punjab and Haryana will be in flames in no time.” Indeed, activists in Haryana recently sabotaged a canal supplying water to Delhi. “We are having water wars in India already,” says Brahma Chellaney, author of books on the fight over water.
The poor monsoons, with rainfall 12-14 per cent below average in 2014 and 2015, have intensified attention on India’s water problems in the current dry season.
In the hard-hit state of Maharashtra in the west, the authorities are supplying fresh water to the parched Marathwada area by truck and even by train. In the driest places they have banned gatherings of more than five people around water supply points to prevent fights. And in the state capital Mumbai, judges demanded to know more about the “criminal wastage” of water for cricket pitches after hearing a plea from environmental activists for the Indian Premier League tournament to be moved from Maharashtra.
On the other side of the country in West Bengal, a big coal-fired power station at Farakka that relies on cooling water from the Ganges had to suspend operations last month for lack of water in the canal that supplies it. Activists who complain that Coca-Cola extracts too much groundwater boast they have forced plant shutdowns, though the soft-drink manufacturer says it draws only a small fraction of the water used by farmers and has suspended operations at five bottling plants for efficiency reasons described as “production capacity optimisation”.
Cause and effect
Even if the monsoon rains fall as generously as predicted across India this year, the water crisis is here to stay in a country that is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous within a decade.
According to Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive of the Council on Energy, Environment & Water, a research group, the average Indian had access to 5,200 cubic metres a year of water in 1951, shortly after independence when the population was 350m. By 2010, that had fallen to 1,600 cu m, a level regarded as “water-stressed” by international organisations. Today it is at about 1,400 cu m and analysts say it is likely to fall below the 1,000 cu m “water scarcity” limit in the next two to three decades.
As in neighbouring Pakistan, the problem is not an absolute shortage of water. In fact rainfall in India is high, albeit seasonal, and northern rivers are also filled with melted snow from the Himalayas. The real causes of India’s dearth of water are the country’s rapid population growth; its inefficient transport and use of the stored surface water in some 5,000 large dams; the planting of water-intensive crops such as rice and sugar cane in dry areas by politically powerful landowners; and a failure to control demand for water because of free electricity and subsidised diesel provided to hundreds of millions of farmers for their pumps.
“We’ve always looked at the problem from the supply side, not from the demand side,” says Mr Shekhar. “This sector has always been in the hands of technocrats, particularly structural engineers. They only know how to construct . . . The general feeling is, ‘We have plenty of water, it’s available free of cost, it’s the government’s duty to provide me water’.”
It is not just that canals leak and farmers waste the water sent to them by the state. Landowners can pump as much as they want from the ground, too. A recent European Commission study on Indian water legislation noted that the number of boreholes or tube wells had risen from a few tens of thousands in the 1960s to more than 20m today. In some parts of Punjab, that has led to a decline in the water table of up to three feet a year.
India, the report said, pumps 230bn cu m of groundwater, more than any other country. More than 60 per cent of India’s irrigated agriculture, and 85 per cent of its drinking water, depend on this groundwater.
Shyam Khadka of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons groundwater in the Punjab is now typically 400ft below the surface, four or five times as deep as it used to be and requiring much more energy to extract. “The situation looks a little bit scary now from a groundwater perspective across India,” he says. “The situation is basically known to policymakers, but the political will to regulate groundwater usage is very low.” Government data, already five years out of date, show that 839 of India’s 5,723 administrative blocks were suffering from over-exploited groundwater in 2011.
Mr Ghosh adds climate change to the list of water woes. Not only is north India expected to become a few degrees warmer, which increases water use, but the rains are also expected to become less predictable.
Behind the scenes, there is broad agreement, even between the rival camps of the environmentalists and the development-minded national government, on most of the steps that need to be taken to avert a future water catastrophe — although many officials still tend to favour costly “river-linking” projects regarded by green activists as damaging.
In this year’s budget, Arun Jaitley, finance minister, promised to double the income of hundreds of millions of farmers by 2022, and announced $2.5bn of spending this year to accelerate delayed irrigation projects.
Plugging the gap
Some analysts say demand for water should be controlled by setting a price on it while restoring ancient and forgotten “tanks” and local storage systems in towns and villages. Alongside those measures officials would also need to reduce leakage from poorly maintained canal systems, stop the growing of thirsty crops such as sugar cane in dry places and manage water on the basis of entire river basins rather than state boundaries. Recycling of urban wastewater on a much bigger scale will also be needed.
The alternative is to have India sink into a deeper water crisis with each successive drought, and to see entire blocks of land abandoned by their populations for lack of supply — something that already happens in the dry-season months when millions of rural Indians become temporary water refugees seeking work in the towns.
Few water experts are confident of swift action.
“The government has done some symbolic things,” says Mr Thakkar, “but in terms of programmes, policy and practices, there’s absolutely no change.” For the FAO’s Mr Khadka, the good news is that India’s low agricultural productivity means it has the chance to increase farm output while using its water more wisely, though he says water will soon be a “huge issue” and fears the country is “sleepwalking” into serious problems.
Back in Gusiyari village next to the only freshwater well, an old man says the drought and heat sometimes get so bad in May and June that people “wake up at 3am to get some nice cold water from the well”. And what if this well too dries up? “Gusiyari village will cease to exist the day that happens,” he replies.
Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh