Picture a circumstance in which a natural resource, that should be available to everyone not just because it is a right or a necessity for living but because it’s all around us, is suddenly becoming infrequent and increasingly privatized. No, this is not a summary of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax;” this is what water has become in India.
The National Institution for Transforming India, or NITI Aayog, a policy think tank for the Indian government, released a report with findings that India is suffering the worst water shortage in its history, with 600 million Indians enduring high to extreme water shortage.
With 70% of the country’s water contaminated, India places 120th out of 122 countries in the water quality index. According to the World Bank, 21% of the country’s diseases are linked to contaminated water, inadequate water supply, or lack of hygiene. These dangerous conditions have cost India 200,000 lives each year, and every day 500 children under the age of five die due to diarrhea from the water shortage and/or contamination.
The severity of this water crisis has led to violent outbreaks in the city of Wazirpur, located in Delhi. In March, a father and son were killed in a fight that escalated after neighbours accused the two of cutting in the line for filling up water buckets. Daily activities are affected as water becomes a rare commodity. Police are assigned to guard water distribution sites and car wash operations were shut down. In the city of Shimla, tourists are turned away to preserve water for local residents.
With a population of 1.3 billion people (the second largest in the world), and access to only 4% of the global water, it is not difficult to see how India got here. However, poor irrigation techniques and exploitation of water aggravate the crisis. Irrigation is expensive, and without assistance from the government, farmers revert to drilling for groundwater since precipitation has been unreliable and insufficient. This is unfavourable, though, since adding new water systems contributes to the overall depletion of the resource and India does not have a rich supply of groundwater to start.
Groundwater use for farming consequently leaves household taps dry, leaving residents reliant on water tankers. However, India’s water distribution system has not been updated since it was under British colonial rule, so these pipes leak 5 million litres of water every day. This water is stolen then sold at premium by Delhi’s “tanker mafia.”
This also touches on the reality of growing income inequality. Central New Delhi, a sparsely populated area where politicians and high-ranking civil servants live, receive 375 litres of water per person per day. This is a stark contrast to another city in Delhi, Sangam Vihar, which is more populated but only receives about 30 litres to 40 litres per person per day against the standard requirement of 150 litres. One resident claims that “[her] family of four could survive…because [they] decided to give up the luxury of having daily showers and doing daily laundry.”
NITI Aayog researchers estimate that 21 major Indian cities will run out of groundwater in 2020, only two years from now, which would affect 100 million people. By 2030, water demand is projected to be twice of the available supply. Water security is likely to be a leading cause of political conflict in the future for it affects food security and the economy. NITI Aayog concludes that if water shortages the water crisis persist, India’s GDP could fall six percentage points within a decade. It seems to be a recurring theme that Asian countries are fast-developing, but adequate resources and management of excessive demand are absent. The largest factor contributing to the water crisis may perhaps be lack of government action. Prime Minister Modi must implement conservation measures especially in the face of climate change and irregular weather patterns.
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