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India must take water action to ensure economic growth

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), while 2 litres of water are often sufficient for daily drinking purposes, it takes about 3,000 litres to meet the food needs of a person.

Realising that water scarcity can limit economic development in several parts of the world, the UN General Assembly, in its 47th session on December 22, 1992, adopted a resolution marking March 22 as the World Day for Water. The theme for World Water Day 2023, Accelerating Change, nudges individuals, civil society, and governments to enhance action on securing water sources and optimising demand.

The Indian economy is tightly coupled with the monsoon. A normal monsoon strengthens the economy’s demand, particularly in rural India. Presently, with continuing inflationary pressure, a high probability—55–60 per cent—of 2023 being an El Nino year and the unusually warm days experienced during February are a concern for the monsoon, food production, and overall demand of the economy.

Global warming and climate change have significantly modified the intensity of the water cycle and hastened the deterioration of water sources. The water stress crisis is deepening, with implications for food production and the attainment of sustainable development goals.

The FAO (2021) report on “The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture” concludes that: water and land systems are interconnected and are under pressure; agriculture intensification is not sustainable, as it is severely degrading land and environmental services; and under climate change, evapotranspiration is expected to increase, which would alter the quantity and distribution of rainfall, leading to changes in land and crop suitability and greater variations in river runoff and groundwater recharge. It estimates an increased demand for water with a 34 per cent increase in irrigated land in developing countries by 2030.

Surface and ground water are the major sources of fresh water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial uses. In Karnataka, about a fourth of all water used is groundwater, which is excessively exploited in 97 taluks. Over 60 per cent of the geographical area of the state is drought-prone. About 84 per cent of the rural population draws sustenance from it in the state.

Further, the Karnataka State Action Plan on Climate Change v.2 (2021) presents a Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) model-simulated ‘water yield reduction’ in the Cauvery Basin in the near term (2030) under a medium as well as a high greenhouse gas emission scenario. This emphasises a fresh consideration of water management, particularly on the supply side. The supply of water on the continents is ensured through the water cycle, which is driven by solar energy, as atmospheric currents carry moisture landward from the oceans. Precipitation on the continents is further influenced by terrestrial physical features like mountains and forests. In this ocean-land-atmosphere coupled system, the only component with manageability is forests. Moisture from forests and continental wetlands contributes up to 60 per cent of the rainwater received in the interior continental areas.

Forests and wetlands supplement the supply side of the water equation through rainfall, water storage, and aquifer recharge. According to the estimates by Wetlands International, India has lost two of its five wetlands, and about 40 per cent of the remaining ones do not host biota. Wetlands have been appropriated primarily by urbanisation, agriculture expansion, and as waste disposal sites.

For better management of water resources and enhancing access to water, the government of India has undertaken several structural changes, including launching a Ministry of Jal Shakti, the Atal Bhujal Yojana on groundwater, and the Jal Jeevan Mission to ensure freshwater access to all 19 crore rural households in the country. In Karnataka, the restoration of lakes and tanks is underway, and detailed project reports for 150 lakes in the Bengaluru area have been completed.

The way forward The Karnataka State Water Policy 2022 ticks all the correct boxes to address the increasing water stress under a changing climate. It encourages the reliance on technology for efficient water use and supports payment for water use and changes in the crops cultivated based on the availability and demand for water in a region.

Storage and redistribution of water are important strategies to meet the water demand. Shifting of water, intra and inter-basin, from surplus to deficient areas needs careful consideration, as under a future climate, the annual and seasonal availability of water can rapidly change due to changes in rainfall patterns. Accordingly, the present and proposed infrastructure and mechanisms for storage, transport, and distribution of water would need a fresh assessment of the associated physical, environmental, and social vulnerabilities and risks.

Given the uncertain future, preparedness and adaptation measures are better inspired by and rooted in the ways of nature. For example, the need for irrigation can be reduced by improving the water retention capacity of soils and planting trees with deep root systems in the farmlands to ameliorate dry and hot conditions, thereby reducing the demand for water and securing crop yield.

Finally, citizens’ demand for better water management and their participation in water governance are necessary to compel individuals, institutions, and governments to take urgent water action.

- Author is an IFS officer & DG, EMPRI.

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