The capital of India’s Southern state of Tamil Nadu- Chennai is crippling with a serious water crisis. The city has run out of water in the middle of scorching summer because all the 4 lakes which supplied the city with freshwater have dried up. The situation is so bad that together all these 4 lakes amount to 1% of the volume of water they had last year.
So is it just climate change? While climate change obviously cannot be ruled out especially because of the weak monsoon the city had received last year, it is certainly not the only fault line. Chennai’s water crisis is largely a man-made disaster. And this disaster is not far away from other metropolitan cities of India.
According to a study published by Central government’s think-tank- NITI Aayog, 21 Indian cities across India will run out of groundwater by next year which includes India’s capital New Delhi and India’s IT Hub Bengaluru. The situation is already bad because more than 2 lakh people in India die due to unsafe drinking water- more than the number of people killed due to terrorism around the globe. A shocking 600 million people face “high to extreme” water stress.
However, doubts are being raised on the NITI Aayog’s report after Joanna Slater, the India bureau chief of The Washington Post, reported through a series of tweets on June 28 that NITI Aayog’s claim could be the result of a questionable extrapolation of district-level data provided by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), a body under the Union ministry of water resources. She claimed that when CGWB was approached on the matter, they denied having claimed that 21 cities would run out of groundwater in 2020. However, the source was later found out to be a CWGB Report of 2017 that included data only till 2013 which had claimed the same situation. The situation seems to be coming out as truth but since the data is not updated (which will contain factors like water preservation after 2013 and sources like lakes and reservoirs), experts believe the NITI Aayog’s faulty claims are not the way to showcase a crisis even if the crisis itself maybe real.
Coming back to Chennai’s crisis and how it is a man-made disaster, less than four years ago, Chennai was swamped by devastating floods. Though located on a flood plain, the city had paved over the lakes and wetlands that might have helped the process of recharging the water table. As a result, heavy rains couldn’t percolate into aquifers under the city. Water pooled and surged aboveground. That reduced the resources available to deal with a crisis like this year’s.
The rest of India has a demand issue. Central Water Commission’s Reports claim that India receives enough amount of water through monsoons for meeting the needs of over 1 billion people. But in reality, much of it is wasted due to inefficiency and misuse. The situation is very bad in North-Western agriculture-intensive parts of India. Farmers were taught to revere Green revolution in the 1970s and quickly the northwest turned into granaries, thanks to tube wells and canals pumping out large amounts of groundwater. This system or revolution has now become unsustainable. In 2011, 245 billion cubic meters of water were withdrawn for irrigation – a quarter of the total groundwater depletion globally that year.
Northwestern states should grow less water-intensive crops and Northeastern states which receive a high amount of rains should take over as India’s granaries. But this system seems to be politically problematic. Not only do the farmers in Northwest India want to continue growing water-intensive crops, they also want free or subsidized electricity with which they extract fast-depleting groundwater.
Water has already begun to become a flashpoint in 21st century. The Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Pondicherry have been fighting for water from the Cauvery River with Tamil Nadu accusing its neighboring state of Karnataka for holding up its fair share of water and not letting it flow down to the Cauvery delta. Things could be worse in the north. Bangladesh and Pakistan already complain about India being stingy with river water. There is genuine fear that China may divert its Himalayan Rivers for its own use when the time comes. This could be very problematic because the water flowing through Tibet into India is a major source of water.
India should take a warning signal from the water crisis in Chennai. As every summer gets hotter and hotter and rains become more erratic and unpredictable, India needs to rationalize its farming, make cities drought-proof, introduce water harvesting measures and find out ways to replenish ground water levels. Else, a country of 1.3 Billion people may soon become unlivable.
(Author is an RTI Activist and Freelance Journalist)