India faces a turbulent water future. Unless water management practices are changed – and changed soon – India will face a severe water crisis within the next two decades and will have neither the cash to build new infrastructure nor the water needed by its growing economy and rising population.
A draft World Bank report, India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future, by John Briscoe, Senior Water Advisor at the World Bank, examines the challenges facing India’s water sector and suggests critical measures to address them. The report is based on 12 papers commissioned by the World Bank from prominent Indian practitioners and policy analysts.
Crumbling Water Infrastructure and Depleting Groundwater
India’s past investments in large water infrastructure have yielded spectacular results with enormous gains in food security and in the reduction of poverty. However, much of this infrastructure is now crumbling. Shortfalls in financing have led to an enormous backlog of maintenance. The implicit philosophy has been aptly described as Build-Neglect-Rebuild. Much of what currently masquerades as "investment" in irrigation or municipal water supply is in fact a belated attempt to rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure.
Faced with poor water supply services, farmers and urban dwellers alike have resorted to helping themselves by pumping out groundwater through tubewells. Today, 70 percent of India’s irrigation needs and 80 percent of its domestic water supplies come from groundwater. Although this ubiquitous practice has been remarkably successful in helping people to cope in the past, it has led to rapidly declining water tables and critically depleted aquifers, and is no longer sustainable.
A number of areas are already in crisis situations: among these are the most populated and economically productive parts of the country. Estimates reveal that by 2020, India’s demand for water will exceed all sources of supply. Notwithstanding the catastrophic consequences of indiscriminate pumping of groundwater, government actions – including the provision of free power – have exacerbated rather than addressed the problem.
Growing Water Conflicts
Severe water shortages have already led to a growing number of conflicts across the country. Some 90 percent of India’s territory is drained by inter-state rivers. The lack of clear allocation rules, and uncertainty about what water each state has a right to, imposes high economic and environmental costs. Other federal countries which face water scarcity have clearly defined water rights. These include Chile, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa, with Pakistan and China fast putting in place systems of water entitlements.
On the international front, India has clearly demarcated water rights with Pakistan through the Indus Waters Treaty. Nationally, promising innovations on entitlements are visible in Noida, Ghaziabad, and Delhi which bought water rights from the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) by financing the lining of canals in UP and in the city of Chennai where water rights were leased from the state’s farmers.
Climate Change Worsens the Scenario
Sewage and waste water from rapidly growing cities and effluents from industries have turned many rivers, including major ones, into fetid sewers. Massive investments are needed in sewers and wastewater treatment plants to protect people’s health and improve the environment.
Climate change projections show that India’s water problems are only likely to worsen. With more rain expected to fall in fewer days and the rapid melting of glaciers – especially in the western Himalayas – India will need to gear up to tackle the increasing incidence of both droughts and floods.
Massive Investments Needed
There is clearly an urgent need for action. First, India needs a lot more water infrastructure. Compared to other semi-arid countries, India can store relatively small quantities of its fickle rainfall. Whereas India’s dams can store only 200 cu.m.of water per person, other middle-income countries like China, South Africa, and Mexico can store about 1000 cu.m. per capita.
New infrastructure needs to be built especially in underserved areas such as the water-rich northeast of the country where investments can transform water from a curse to a blessing. Furthermore India, desperately short of power in peak periods, has utilized only about 20 percent of its economically viable hydropower potential, as compared to 80 percent in developed countries. The country needs to invest in water infrastructure at all levels – from large multipurpose water projects to small community watershed management and rainwater harvesting projects.
Gearing Up for Tomorrow
Importantly, India cannot have a secure water future unless there are drastic changes in the way the state functions. Past attention to infrastructure development has to be complemented with present attention to water resource and infrastructure management. And, policies and practices have to come to grips with the challenges of the future.
The state needs to surrender those tasks which it does not need to perform and to develop the capacity to do the many things which only the state can do. Competition needs to be introduced in the provision of basic public water services, bringing in cooperatives and the private sector. The state can then focus on financing public goods such as flood control and sewage treatment and play the role of regulator to balance the interests of users.
The state has to define water entitlements at all levels, improve the quality and quantity of data and make these data available to the public, and has to stimulate the formation of user groups at all levels – the river basin, the aquifer, and the irrigation district.
The report was discussed by leading experts in New Delhi on October 5, 2005.
Read the Report
Shoring up India's Water Infrastructure
Empowering Users by Giving them Clear Water Entitlements
Relevant Data, Reports and Websites
World Bank Water Resources Management Web Site
World Bank Water Resources Strategy
Country Water Resources Assistance Strategies