Image used for representational purposes.

World Water Day: When Will We Wake Up to the Groundwater Crisis?

TheQuintOpinion

(This article is being re-posted from our archives on World Water Day 2019.)

Recently, there has been a bit of a bother that Delhi is at the epicentre of a growing groundwater crisis. Like any bother, this one was sparked off by a study: “We have no clue how much ground water storage is left in the region. But what we clearly know is that the picture is very grim,” Dr Virendra M Tiwari, Director of the National Geophysical Research Institute, whose institute conducted this study, was quoted as saying.

Anxiety on this front was already heightened by the Niti Aayog report published in 2018, that said several cities would run out of groundwater in the next couple of years. But, are we indeed going to run out of groundwater?

Let me answer this, by breaking this up into four further questions:

  • Can we run out of groundwater?
  • Will we run out of groundwater?
  • Why are we running out?
  • Can we do something about it?

Let us start with: can we run out of groundwater?

Yes, we can. I got into the climate change space because running out of water at home burst my bubble like the one with which so many of us surround ourselves. More generally, the peripheries of cities like Bengaluru and Pune in India are running out of groundwater, and with no municipal supply, these residents exist in a sort of “Day Zero”, dependent on rapacious tankers for their daily water.

But, will we run out of water?

Where? Delhi? This is harder to answer without precisely understanding the water flows involved. Consider a financial analogy: how will you know if a person will run out of money?

You will need to know his income, his expenses, what assets he owns, and what his obligations, or debts are.

(Picture courtesy: Personal Communication from Dr Tiwari)

We Have No Idea As to How We Use Our Water

Applying this to water, this means we need to know how much water we get (rain, river flow (both over and underground)), how much we use (in households, industries and farms), how much we lose (to evaporation, and importantly, to leaks), what is the size of our water reservoirs – both over and underground, and finally, what are our obligations – do we need to share water with downstream users, or leave some below ground for our grandchildren?

This is where the problem starts: we have imprecise/no answers for many of these questions. We have a good idea of how much rain we get, and some idea of what our river flow is, but our understanding of how much underground flow (in and out), or how much water is in our underwater reservoirs is far from complete.

Coming to the “costs”, we have a poor understanding of our use of water – one reason for this is the lack of meters. Unfortunately, the average level of metering in Indian cities varies from 13 percent to 24 percent. Using a financial analogy again, if only quarter of the expenses of a company were reported, would you invest in the stock?

AAP’s ‘Metre’ Offering

The AAP government tried to get more people to adopt meters, by giving 20,000 litres per month free if one had a metered connection. Perhaps it was no surprise that revenue went up, as the number of metered connections rose. But now, when the scheme looks to be discontinued, many organisations are protesting that free water should be given even without metering.

Not knowing how much we consume, coupled with skewed pricing, means it doesn’t hurt as much as it should when Indian cities lose between a third to a half of their water to leaks.

After all, you don’t pay, and the municipal staff face no penalties for leaks, while the process to fix the leaks is both labyrinthine and arduous. Easier to wait for the next headline to divert attention.

Why Are We Not Managing Our Water Better?

About 90 percent of India’s groundwater is used in agriculture, and here the problems are even more acute. Think: how does one access groundwater in a farm? Through a borewell, which is often powered by electricity. Who owns these borewells?

While studying tank ecosystems around Madurai at Sundaram Climate Institute, we found that borewells are almost always owned by the larger, politically well-connected farmers.

This makes free agricultural power plain regressive by allowing the more powerful to extract a common resource such as groundwater cheaply and preferentially. Given free water, it’s no wonder the Economic Survey shows Indian Agriculture’s water productivity is abysmal.

But why is this happening? Why are we not managing our water better?

Is Free Water a Basic Right?

In a recent talk I attended, of senior politicians from across the political spectrum, in response to a question asking if pricing water for agriculture was politically feasible, one politician openly said that it was political suicide, while the two others dodged the question entirely. Blame this on the narrative that both the population and the politicians believe: water is a right, it cannot be priced, and to do so is undemocratic. Only, in a water-scarce country, this philosophy leads us down to the path of collective water suicide – to Day Zero – where we will run out of groundwater.

Can we avoid this fate?

Yes.

It begins with changing the narrative: water is a responsibility, something that has always been part of the Indian ethos, until that changed with the British rule. Once that shift occurs, the solutions are plenty – metering, smart pricing, upping storage and sewage treatment to name just a few.

How Treated Sewage Can Be a Source of Usable Water

When we ran out of water, and were paying thousands in buying water, we installed upwards of 15 meters in our house (and 100 meters in the factory), to understand where and how we were using (and losing) water.

We discovered the glory of sewage – yes, you read that right. Unlike fickle rain, sewage is reassuringly present, which makes treated sewage a wonderful source of water for meeting some part of our needs.

In a financial analogy, we are creating a non-volatile revenue stream. Moreover, pricing electricity for farmers is not political suicide: incumbent governments have won time and again after doing so as in Madhya Pradesh.

But that doesn’t resonate with elections today, where, unfortunately, water management is not a winning electoral platform. But with water running out, it might just become one.

(The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)