India’s water security: challenges and solutions
India is home to over 1.3 billion people, almost 18% of the total world population resides here. Indian society has undergone large economic transformations in recent decades. Many estimates show that India will become one of the world’s largest economies, second only to China by 2050. But all this economic progress which seemed inevitable previously is now under threat of not being actualised, due to pressing concerns of water security. These threats can’t be ignored especially after Covid as it has been proved that the Indian economy may contract in case of unfavourable conditions affecting the population. India has been blessed with a good amount of seasonal Monsoon rain in most of its regions but climate change has made the monsoon highly unpredictable. This makes Monsoons unreliable for economic activities like agriculture which currently provides employment to almost 50% of the Indian population. The growing unpredictability of the monsoon is alarming and magnifies the need to focus on alternative water sources which can replace or at least decrease the dependency of the Indian economy on a seasonal monsoon. Water security in the context of agriculture is only a small step removed from food security of millions, and health and nutritional status, especially of women and children.
Most of the Indian population resides in the Northern plains of India which is dependent on the Himalayan rivers for water supply. The significance of rivers in India is very high culturally, spiritually and economically. But in recent years a new threat is emerging that is cross-border water disputes. These river disputes can prove to be very useful diplomatic assets provided India is on upstream but are a matter of grave concern when India is on the downstream side. The fact that two of northern India’s most important rivers Indus and Brhamputra originate in Chinese Tibet put India in a disadvantaged position on the issue of water security. The recent reports of China constructing a large hydroelectric dam on one of the main tributaries of Brhamputra in Tibet is cause for concern, as it may endanger India’s water security especially when considering the manipulative behaviour of the Chinese administration. This will give China a key to control Indian water supply according to their terms and conditions. India’s needs to raise this issue with China before it’s too late as once completed China might even refuse to negotiate the water sharing details stating the authority over the river water as there was no objection on the dam during the construction. Also once agreed water sharing deals like the Indus water treaty must be re-negotiated according to the present realities.
India’s industrial production is also not water efficient and is a major source of river pollution which makes river water unfit for direct human use. Those industries having very large water footprints aren’t sustainable and will cost much more in future than the profits generated by them today. Rivers are dying in most of the regions of the country due to dumping of untreated sewage into them. River pollution is a major concern for a country like India where rivers are considered as the lifeline of the economy. Despite running many projects to clean the major rivers no success has been achieved yet and rivers today are even more polluted than they have ever been in documented Indian history. The failure to preserve the health and ecosystems of rivers will only add to problems for the future. Including the availability of abundant and affordable fish as a source of protein to very many people who otherwise have a meagre diet, and the livelihoods of fisherfolk.
India’s water security can only be ensured with long term planning which involves a multidimensional approach. This planning should include rain water harvesting as India has been fortunate to receive a relatively good amount of annual precipitation when compared to many other countries but unfortunately till date Indian administration hasn’t seriously considered conserving rain water. India’s approach to rain water conservation has been largely focused on social awareness which is good but comes with it’s own limits. It’s time for the Indian government to start considering rain water harvesting seriously as it can also help to reduce the incidents of urban flooding as most of the Indian urban floods happen due to excessive rain over short periods of time. If somehow we can channelise this excessive flood out of the human settlements into storage pits, ponds or canals, this can significantly enhance round-the-year uniform water availability in urban settlements. The best part of rainwater harvesting is that it can be used on a decentralized basis and hence can serve multiple purposes. If India wants to develop it’s circular economy it can’t afford to waste rain water as “The earlier you start saving, the more you have in the end.”
Building new Dams can also help to store water for later usages. India will have to relax the environmental regulations governing the dam construction as dams can prove very useful to ensure perennial flow of water in the rivers which in turn can check the river population. Building new dams can also help in dealing with floods by regulating the flow in the rivers. Provided the highest per capita water consumption is of India, wastewater treatment plants can also help in ensuring water security. The treated wastewater can be used in agriculture for irrigation hence can benefit economic development too.