India's Ongoing Water Crisis Impacts 600 Million People

India's Ongoing Water Crisis Impacts 600 Million People
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

Indian cities are forced to truck in drinking water, farms are failing, and the situation grows more desperate.

By Edmond Roy

The agonizing and often exhausting wait for the monsoon has long inspired India’s writers and poets. But it is the country’s farmers who know all too well that a delayed, failed, or even unusually heavy monsoon can impact millions of lives.

The monsoon is India’s life-giver as 60 percent of India’s agriculture depends on the rains, as the environmental activist Sunita Narian claimed, “Indians know that the monsoon is the real finance minister of India."

According to the Indian government’s report, the country is facing the worst water crisis in its history. Since 2015, India has been experiencing widespread drought conditions every year. In fact, some 600 million people in India are facing high-to-extreme water stress. The country's water demand is projected to be twice the available supply by 2030, the report stated.

But that is the future. Today, millions of farmers impacted by drought and crop failure are struggling to stay alive. More than 80 percent of districts in the Karnataka state and 70 percent in the Maharashtra state have been declared drought-affected. More than 6,000 tankers were deployed to supply water for nearly 15,000 villages and hamlets in Maharashtra alone.

This video of women from Phulambri, Maharashtra struggling to fill their utensils from a tanker sprinkling water over a newly constructed road, went viral on social media last month.

Further south, in the state of Tamil Nadu, which often floods in a good monsoon season, the four reservoirs that supply water to the capital Chennai have dropped below 1 percent of their capacity. The drought has shut down Chennai's metro system, and local hospitals have been forced to buy water for surgeries.

Chennai is home to 9 million people and there is no end in sight to the drought conditions. According to the South Asia Drought Monitor, Tamil Nadu along with other Indian states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra are trapped in a severe dry cycle that has so far lasted six months.

The crisis is not confined to Chennai. Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Delhi with a combined population of 60 million people are all facing the same fate. According to think tank World Resources Institute India (WRI India), the last two decades have seen a rampant rise in environmental challenges that, if left unchecked, could lead to several cities becoming uninhabitable. WRI India cites rapid urbanization, stress on natural resources, and pollution as some of the challenges in the face of India’s continuing economic growth.

Chennai's leaders have decided to spend nearly US$10 million to transport tanks of so-called drinkable water by rail from Vellore, a city nearly 200 kilometers away, as a temporary solution. Small hotels and restaurants have closed and many residents are contemplating the unthinkable: leaving the city altogether.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

The future does not look bright, either.

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world. According to the government, by 2020, as many as 21 Indian cities could run out of ground water, and by 2030, nearly 40 percent of the country’s population may have no access to drinking water. Groundwater, accounting for almost half of India’s water needs, is being depleted at an alarming rate.

The ongoing water crisis also has serious implications for India’s health. Currently, close to 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. With 70 percent of its water contaminated, India ranks 120th out of 122 countries in a global water quality index.

As the impact of climate change worsens, water is becoming a serious economic issue for India. A study by the country’s environment ministry found that desertification, land degradation, and drought cost India nearly 2.5 percent of GDP between 2014 and 2015.

The recently returned Prime Minister Narendra Modi administration has announced a water conservation awareness program in June. Modi also declared that his administration would aim to take piped drinking water to every household by 2024, which was received with rapturous applause in the parliament.

Outside though, the challenge was obvious. Where exactly would this water come from?

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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