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    Water security under threat


    Water-related battles have been on the rise not only in India but most parts of the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that two-thirds of the world’s population will face severe water shortages in 2025.

    In 2011, some farmers were even killed following protests against the Maharashtra government decision to give water from the Bhavna Dam to Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation near Pune. Why is the fight for water increasing now? Are the water reserves in our country declining?

    Data from the Ministry of Water Resources show the amount of water that can be used per year is 1,123 bcm (billion cubic meters). Of this, 690 bcm can be drawn from surface sources (rivers, tanks, etc) and 433 bcm from groundwater.

    But the demand for water has multiplied due to the ever-increasing population and rapid changes in agriculture and industrial development. The Central Water Commission has projected that the country’s total water requirement will increase from 634 bcm in 2000 to 1,093 bcm in 2025 and further to 1,447 bcm in 2050. That is, India’s total water demand will exceed its utilisable water reserves very soon.

    This does not mean that there is no water scarcity at present. Water scarcity is already rampant in different regions of the country. According to Falkenmark’s water stress index (the world’s most widely used index for estimating water scarcity), where the water availability is less than 1,700 cubic meter per capita per year, there is water scarcity.

    Per this criterion, about 76 per cent of the people in India are currently facing water scarcity. That is, out of the total 20 major river basins classified by the Central Water Commission, only nine have no serious water scarcity at present.

    Sector-wise water use

    To overcome the scarcity, how much water is being used currently by different sectors needs to be known. Of the total 634 bcm of water used in 2000, approximately 85 per cent was for agriculture, 7 per cent domestic, 2 per cent industry, and the rest for other uses.

    However, some major changes in water consumption have been projected to occur between 2000 and 2050. While the total water demand is projected to rise from 634 bcm to 1,447 bcm, agricultural demand is estimated to increase from 541 bcm to 1,072 bcm, domestic use from 42 bcm to 102 bcm, industrial demand from 8 bcm to 63 bcm, and the water needed to generate electricity from just 2 bcm to 130 bcm. This means that the consumption by agriculture will decline to 74 per cent from the current 85 per cent and the demand for industrial and other uses will increase manifold.

    Two types of solutions are generally advocated to combat the increasing water scarcity. One is to augment the water supply, and the other is to save water. Some suggest that the water storage capacity could be raised by building new dams, tanks/ponds and others. Is this possible?

    The water storage capacity cannot be raised as and when needed. The total water potential of a country is a more or less static. Dams built beyond potential limits will not only be economically unviable but can create ecological damage. For example, the total irrigation potential of our country is 139.90 million hectares, of which, around 85 per cent is already developed. Therefore, it is not possible to build new dams and augment the water supply, as the most easily possible irrigation potential has already been utilised.

    Pointers to save water

    Given the increased demand for water and declining water potential, it is necessary to make constructive efforts to increase its efficiency. Water has long been considered a free good and, therefore, water use efficiency is very low in all the sectors. Although pricing of water alone will not completely solve all water-related woes, its efficiency can be increased to a greater extent by fixing its prices on a volumetric basis.

    There is a vast scope to increase its efficiency in the agricultural sector. In the widely used conventional surface irrigation method, water use efficiency is just 35-40 per cent. Approximately 60 per cent of the water is lost through conveyance and distribution.

    But modern irrigation methods such as drip and sprinkler can not only save at least 50 per cent of the water but can also increase crop yields by 40-60 per cent, and lower cultivation costs and electricity consumption.

    The MS Swaminathan Committee (2006) report, ‘More Crop and Income Per Drop of Water’, has underlined the importance of using drip and sprinkler methods of irrigation in crop cultivation. The report of the Task Force on Micro Irrigation’ (2004) has estimated 70 million hectares as the total potential area for this method of irrigation.

    At the end of March 2019, about 11.42 million hectares were under this modern irrigation system. Therefore, steps must be taken to increase the adoption of drip and sprinkler methods to save water.

    About 18 million hectares are presently cultivated using canal irrigation. The report of the Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water (1992), set up by the Central Government, and the working group of medium and large irrigation projects constituted for the 11th and 12th Five-Year Plans underlined that water use efficiency is pathetic under canal irrigation.

    By introducing a water accounting method in the canal command area during the mid-2000s, Maharashtra was able to increase water use efficiency substantially.

    A similar water accounting method must be introduced in all the canal command areas across the country to improve water use efficiency.

    Groundwater overexploitation

    Of India’s total irrigated area of 98 million hectares, groundwater accounts for about 65 per cent. The reports published by the Central Groundwater Board warn that the uncontrolled overexploitation of groundwater is not only depleting water rapidly but also causes various environmental problems. Appropriate pricing of electricity with judicious rationing of electricity supply may help save water for future use.

    There are possibilities that the rapidly changing climate may reduce the spread of rainfall and exacerbate the current water scarcity further. In a country of 135 crore people, increased water scarcity can cause severe food shortages and increase the incidence of poverty as well. The opportunities to increase water storage are continuously shrinking, but the water demand has been increasing. Therefore, tough decisions have to be taken to avert the looming water scarcity.

    The writer is a former full-time Member (Official), Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, New Delhi. Views are personal

    Published on June 03, 2022

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