A Parched Future

By Anonymous

While questions of slum redevelopment and mass transit dog Indian cities in their quests for modernity, a far more basic concern will make or break said aspirations … water.   Unless solutions are found to India’s rapidly depleting water table, Delhi runs the risk of going the way of Fatehpur Sikri and Babel.

Northern India, according to most estimates, will run out of water in the next 15 years.  Like Mexico City, massive urbanization, illegal water tapping, waste and poor government enforcement have exacerbated the problem. Unlike Mexico City, Northern India experiences a routine wet season that, if managed properly could mitigate the alarming depletion of its underlying water table.  However, according to a NASA study, the states of Punjab, Haryana & Delhi and Rajasthan have not developed the catchment programs necessary to reduce over-harvesting and are still withdrawing much more than their groundwater recharge rates [2].  In fact India as a whole runs a yearly 17 cubic mile deficit (18.5 trillion gallons)[3].

Surprisingly, peak water has never been quite as fashionable as peak oil (until Bond’s Quantum of Solace) in spite of its far more fundamental role in human, animal and vegetative survival [1].  Without delving too deep into the theory, there are three types of potable water: underground aquifers that have built up over millennia (non-renewable stock water), surface rivers and lakes (stock of renewable water) and rainfall (flow of renewable water).  As global populations have grown and exploited surface water, they have increasingly drilled deep into the underground aquifers, emptying them faster than rainwater can refill them.  While this is not troubling globally, as the earth has enough water, distributing this plenty to the stressed regional water systems involves prohibitively high cost and difficulty (think of Mexico City’s problems on a much larger scale).  The only equitable and feasible option is better water management.

In India the main causes of Indian water table depletion are:

1)Agriculture                                                                                                                                                    2)Increased urban density

While I am a neophyte in this field, travel in Israel and Singapore (two water-starved nations) shed light on some interesting water management techniques to ameliorate India’s deteriorating water situation [4]:

–          Reclaimed wastewater for agricultural use (52% of agricultural water in Israel is reclaimed)

–          Drip hose irrigation for agriculture (Israeli & Indian companies lead this sector)

–          Rainwater collection on all housing developments for artificial aquifer recharge (separate drainage systems avoid issues of cross-pollution with wastewater)

–          Advanced membrane technology water purification to create potable water

–          Setting realistic water tariffs (agricultural water is currently free!), reducing leakage and pilfering through capital improvement plans (new pipelines)

–          Better trash & sanitation management to avoid pollution of existing surface freshwater


[1] a more academic definition of the term: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/25/11155

[2] http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/india_water.html





3 thoughts on “A Parched Future

  1. You’re right that when it comes to water, India is in a heap of trouble. Unfortunately, surfacing and sharing best practices in water conservation and management represents only a small part of the solution. Widespread adoption will continue to be obstructed by the deep-seated politicization of public service delivery in the country.
    When India gained her independence in 1947, both Nehru and Gandhi envisioned a bucolic future with power resting in the hands of farmers. Though India is urbanizing rapidly, the country’s power structure remains largely the same today. India is 70% rural, and over 80% of total water usage is agricultural. The greatest water subsidy in the country comes in the form of nearly free electricity for farmers running irrigation pumps from borewells on their land. No local politician would risk rescinding that subsidy – they’d be out of a job (or worse). As a result, farmers have little incentive to apply any of the conservation best practices you outlined in your post.
    Water provision in cities may be easier to solve, as the steady erosion of service delivery and availability eventually (hopefully) forces political action in the form of improved infrastructure and metering to reduce demand and recover costs. But residential water usage is only a small fraction of consumption in the country. Any conservation solution that does not involve some change to the current incentive landscape for farmers will have marginal impact. And it looks like it will take a major crisis for such change to happen.

  2. Thank you for this insightful post. Having growing up with running water all my life, I was also exposed to water shortages when I visited my family in India. Taking showers with buckets was a hard reality for me to face, but it is extremely difficult for me to imagine the lifestyle where water was scarce. We also have a saying that you should always offer guests water when they first enter the house, and you should never deny a request for water. As a water short future approaches, will this be possible?

    I believe that policy and economic incentives that aim to decrease water use may be effective – paying people to not use water sounds like a creative solution. However, unless we deal with the underlying issue of a water-needy population and industry, we are acting with short-term thoughts. As India develops, it will need to adopt more efficient technologies for industries that are water intensive or move away from such an economy.

  3. Your solutions for India’s water crisis make a lot of sense. However, people need incentive to change. The surcharge you suggest is important because it will incentivize farmers to conserve water in the ways you list. However, as we saw in the Mexico case it is very politically difficult to charge poor people for water, especially since they often view access to cheap water as a right. Perhaps it is more politically feasible to pay farmers for the water they save instead of charging them for the water they use? Another problem is how do you value water? Only future generations will truly know the value of the water wasted today. At least incentives for saving water are easier to adjust than water surcharges.

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