Many of India’s problems are summed up in its mismanagement of water, [which includes corruption and unsustainable subsidies]. Now a scanty monsoon has made matters much worse.
[...] Around 450m [Indians] live off rain-fed agriculture, and this year’s monsoon rains, which between June and September provide 80% of India’s precipitation, have been the scantiest in decades. Almost half India’s 604 districts are affected by drought, especially in the poorest and most populous states—such as Bihar, which has declared drought in 26 of its 38 districts. [...] That also means less water for thirsty cities, including Delhi, where 18m people live and the water board meets around half their demand in a good year.
[...] India’s extremes of hydrology, poverty and population present vast difficulties for water management which it has never mastered. [...] Increasingly frequent droughts [...] will accentuate India’s problems, with the monsoon rains, which supply over 50% of much of India’s annual precipitation in just 15 days, predicted to become even more contracted and unpredictable. At the same time, the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers promises to deprive the great rivers of the Indian sub-continent, the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, of their summertime source. This threatens a triple whammy: of longer dry seasons, in which these rivers do not flow, and more violent wet seasons.
Despite daunting seasonal and regional variations, [India] should have ample water for agricultural, industrial and household use. But most of it falls, in a remarkably short time, in the wrong places. India’s vast task is therefore to trap and store enough water; to channel it to where it is most needed; and, above all, to use it there as efficiently as possible. And on all three counts, India fares badly. Without huge improvements, according to a decade-old official estimate, by 2050, when its population will be a shade under 1.7 billion, India will run short of water.
There are already signs of the conflict this would cause [...] Maharashtra and Karnataka are now furiously building dams and diversions [on the Krishna river] … in Orissa 30,000 farmers laid siege to a reservoir in 2007 to try to stop factories using its waters … Rajasthan has seen similar protests against the diversion of water to its growing cities … in one, five farmers were shot dead by police.
[...] The government’s main solution is to build more large dams and river diversions [...] but given the decrepitude of much of its existing water infrastructure, and its profligate ways with water, its more urgent priorities are to repair and reform.
[But] without expensive maintenance [...] grand dams and irrigation schemes tend to be as inefficient as they are environmentally destructive. And India’s corrupt, underfunded and overmanned state irrigation departments—UP’s, for example, employs over 100,000 people—often provide no maintenance at all. As a result, each year India is estimated to lose the equivalent of two-thirds of the new storage it builds to siltation. Bad planning, often as a result of inter-state rivalries, causes more waste. Thus, between 1992 and 2004 India built 200 large and medium-sized irrigation projects—and the area irrigated by such schemes shrank by 3.2m hectares.
[In] many places, including productive Punjab and Haryana, whose rather well-off farmers also get free or cut-price electricity, the rate of groundwater extraction is unsustainable. Nearly a third of India’s groundwater blocks were defined in 2004 as “critical, semi-critical or over-exploited”. [...] Satellite maps released by America’s NASA last month showed that north-western India’s aquifers had fallen by a foot a year between 2002 and 2008: a loss of 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of water.
As bore-holes run dry, as those over the hardrock aquifers of southern-central India do on a monthly basis, many poor people may be deprived of safe drinking water. Currently, 220m Indians lack this. Not all India’s groundwater is potable anyway; in places, it is getting seriously polluted. And India’s groundwater reserves will be especially missed when climate change makes surface-water sources even more sporadic.
Some excuse this resolute destruction by saying that India’s farmers do not understand groundwater. But they know when it is running out.
[But] set against [free water and electricity and government guarantees to purchase rice at a "minimum support price”] Punjab’s efforts to conserve its groundwater, mainly by telling farmers not to transplant paddy before the monsoon rains, are rather puny.
[With] over a quarter of India’s electricity given free or cut-price to farmers [...] state power utilities are bust. [But] two chief ministers who recently tried charging farmers for electricity, in AP and Madhya Pradesh, were kicked out of office.
The subsidy raj is not confined to farmers. Many municipal governments price water well below cost, and therefore struggle to supply it. Delhi, where the water board’s revenues cover only 40% of its operating costs, should have plenty of water. It draws 220 litres per citizen, more than Paris. But half of it disappears from leaky pipes. To mend these, workmen, having no underground maps, must dig up and sift through a tangled mass of pipes and cables.
Predictably, for a couple of hundred rupees a month, posh south Delhi gets the best water supply. When its taps run dry, the locals, including India’s political and bureaucratic elite, pump groundwater—often illegally. By one estimate, bore-holes provide 40% of the capital’s water; and south Delhi’s groundwater [...] is being depleted by up to three metres a year. But tube-wells, which cost around $600, are no option for Delhi’s poor, including 4m slum-dwellers. To augment their supply they must buy water, of dubious quality and at extortionate prices, from a well-connected water mafia.
In fiery June residents of Sangam Vihar, a poor suburb of south Delhi, rioted after getting no water for two weeks. In normal times, according to Vishnu Sharma, a 36-year-old resident, he and his family receive, at unpredictable times, around an hour and a half of muddy piped water each week. They pay $2 for this, he said—and another $20, or a quarter of his factory wage, to private water-sellers in cahoots with corrupt water-board officials. “So why bother complaining?” he said angrily.
Who could deny that rich Delhiites must pay more for water, so the city’s poor can get more? The rich, of course. In 2005 a World Bank-sponsored effort to reform the water board was shot down by local NGOs. As well as worrying, reasonably, about the bidding process for contracts, they were outraged to discover that, in return for round-the-clock clean water, the targeted households would be charged about $20 a month—or what Mr Sharma pays his local water don.
To make farmers use less water, they must pay, or pay more, for electricity. [...] To charge farmers more for electricity, utilities will have to improve supply. And farmers must learn to use water more efficiently.
Selling groundwater to cities, as farmers outside Chennai have done, is one possible answer. Another, to keep up India’s food production, is to spread the use of modern seeds and other technologies—such as an improved system of paddy cultivation that uses half as much water and has boosted yields in Tamil Nadu and AP.
[...] In dry areas, where profligate water-use by one farmer can make many wells run dry, farmers have been persuaded to share information on rainfall, groundwater levels and cropping, and so collectively regulate themselves. One attempt at this in central AP involves 25,000 farmers.
And India must have more dams[but] India’s state governments would do better to concentrate on building and restoring millions of small water storages, tanks and mini-reservoirs, and put local governments in charge of them.
Source: Economist, 10 Sep 2009