The average annual per capita water availability in India has declined from 1816 Cum in 2001 to 1486 Cum in 2021. The Composite Water Index report brought out by NITI Aayog has vividly stated that 600 million people in India face extreme water stress.
India accounts for a quarter of global groundwater use as 60% of the irrigated agriculture and 85% of domestic water supply in India depend on the groundwater. The Central Ground Water Board data released in 2017 reveals that 256 out of 700 districts in India have reported ‘critical’ or ‘over-exploited’ groundwater levels.
Fawzia Tarannum is an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator in the Coca-Cola Department of Regional Water Studies at the TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi, India. She is interdisciplinary water professional with 22 years of experience in project management, teaching and training.
Her interests include gender, equity and water management, participatory water governance, water conservation and Food Water and Energy Nexus. She has received Climate Leadership Corps Training by Al Gore, Former Vice President of the United States and is a Climate Reality Leader (CRL).
As a CRL, she has conducted awareness and sensitization programs on Water conservation, Science of Climate Change, Renewable Energy and Climate Change, Impacts of Climate Change, Environmental Issues among others for more than 3000 youth, trainers, and practitioners in India in the last two years.
In a conversation with Youth Ki Awaaz, she discusses India’s water crisis, the reasons for water stress in the country and possible solutions for the same.
Hemang Vellore (HV): How did you develop the passion for working in the water sector?
Fawzia Tarannum (FT): A young Electrical Engineer, in 1991, with a design engineer’s job in a multinational organization, I considered myself very the most fortunate person as India was then going through a severe economic crisis. Most discussions were around liberalization for economic revival, and no one spoke about sustainable development.
It Environmental education did not figure in the school or higher education curricula, and it was nowhere in my priority list either. Water resources development and management was part of Civil Engineering, and the focus was on building large infrastructures like dams and canals for irrigation, flood abatement, and power generation.
It was in 2005 that the company in which I decided to diversify into manufacturing shallow water dredging equipment for desilting the water ways and making them navigable. They entrusted me with this responsibility and that was the beginning of my water journey. This engagement provided me the perspective of community as a major stakeholder in water management and in 2010; I enrolled for Ph.D to further my passion for understanding the multidisciplinary nature of water.
HV: Is India’s water crisis real or hyped?
FT: That is debatable. The one thing that we know for sure is that India has an average rainfall of 1183mm which is more than the global average of about 1000mm. The challenge for India is that 70 percent of this precipitation occurs in the fourth months of the monsoon season (June – September). To harvest and store this rain is a daunting task as we have perhaps the least per capita water storage capacity (262 Cum) vis` a vis` say a country like China which has 1100 Cum or the United States which has 2000 Cum.
India has 20 rivers basins comprising 12 major and 8 composite river basins and is endowed with tens of thousands of distinct traditional waterbodies found in different parts of the country, commonly known as ponds, tanks, lakes, ahars, bawdis, talabs and others. Also, it has over 750,000 wetlands, accounting for nearly 4.7% of the total geographical area of the country. Not to speak of forests which also act as water repository. These storages have been systematically, ignored, encroached, and destroyed in the name of development.
That said, the average annual per capita water availability in India has gone down from 5177 cubic meters at the time of Independence i.e., 1951 census to approximately 1350 cubic meters now and it is a matter of grave concern. Given the varied geo-physical characteristics of India, there are regions which can be categorized as water scarce and others as water surplus.
HV: What are the possible reasons for water stress in India?
FT:Water stress in India is due to both reduced quantity and as well as quality of water due to increase in population, industrialization and urbanization. I would say poor governance is one of the prime reasons for water stress in India.
Others are weak enforcement of regulations leading to discharge of wastewater into the water resources, over-extraction of water for irrigation and groundwater contamination due to electricity and fertilizer subsidies, change in the cropping pattern post the green revolution, disregard for agroecology, lack of economic instruments to promote sustainable use, public apathy and lack of ownership by the community and climate change.
HV: How is climate change contributing to the water stress?
FT: India is among the top five countries in the climate risk index. The spells of rain which were earlier equally spaced during the monsoons have now become more intense and most of it falls in a short span of 15 days. With cities getting concretized at a fast pace, there is very little scope of infiltration and almost 85% of the water is lost to runoff and evapotranspiration.
The stormwater drains with limited water carrying capacity and choked with silt and solid waste and urban sewage get overwhelmed resulting in urban flooding and further contamination of the water resources.
Also, the intensifying of the global water cycle due to climate change is resulting in wetter regions becoming wet, and dryer regions become even drier. This increased variation stands to increase the existing discrepancies between water demand and availability. The sea level rise has inundated the coast and resulted into saltwater intrusion into our already stressed groundwater table. Springs in the Himalayan region are also drying up and the drudgery of people especially women is increasing due to water stress.
HV: How is it impacting the lives and livelihood of people?
FT: Climate change manifests itself primarily through changes in the water cycle. As climate changes, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, sea-level rise and storms intensify or alter, often with severe consequences. Crop failure due to persistent extreme weather events is resulting in outmigration of male members of the family.
Sometimes, people take loans at predatory interest rates to fund their migration. Forced movement often takes people to urban areas nearby and then to megacities where they are forced to take poorly waged unskilled jobs.
The migrant usually live in unsafe spaces and are often victims of abuse. They do not have adequate access to clean water and sanitation services which are crucial for human health and well-being. Food security, nutrition and children’s access to schooling also remain restricted.
Feminization of agriculture and of poverty, violence against women, human trafficking are some of the key consequences of migration due to climate change impacts. Also, structural barriers limit women’s access to land, technology, financial services, education and skills and make them more defenseless during disasters as compared to men, thereby limiting their coping capacity in post-disaster situations.
HV: What steps could be taken to alleviate the issue?
FT: I feel youth has a huge potential to bring about transformational change. Catching them young and grooming them to be water conservation ambassadors can be a force multiplier. Integration of interdisciplinary knowledge of water including the concept of virtual water in the school curriculum would be effective in influencing water related behaviour.
Other strategies could be strengthening water institutions and governance, enacting and enforcement of groundwater bill, revival of traditional water conservation practices, rainwater harvesting, water budgeting, capacity building and empowerment of water user associations, integrated water and wastewater management, reviving and recreating blue-green spaces, appropriate water pricing, use of digital technology for monitoring, fixing leakages, promoting water saving fixtures and water efficient equipment in homes, realigning the cropping pattern to agroecology of the place, influencing consumption pattern by attaching water footprint labels on consumables, building adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities and public awareness and sensitization.