by Nirupam Bajpai
The Hindu: Business Line
Jan 12, 2007

While the development of sustainable and safe drinking water supplies is a global challenge, it is particularly acute in India, given its high population density, space and time variability of rainfall, and increasing depletion and contamination of its surface and ground water resources. The wasteful subsidy system only worsens the crisis. Needed are urgent reforms in water resource management and tariffs, says NIRUPAM BAJPAI.
The UNDP's Human Development Report 2006 rightly focuses on one of the most serious problems facing humanity today — the global water crisis. Water supplies are under severe stress. More than a billion people have no access to safe drinking water and almost two million children die every year for want of clean water and sanitation facilities. As a result of poor water resource management, high population growth, rapid urbanisation and increasing demand from competing uses for drinking, agriculture, industry and energy, the pressure on this finite resource is mounting every day. Climate change is also affecting the hydrological cycle, significantly affecting freshwater production and its distribution.

The human development costs of the crisis are immense, with the poor being hit the hardest. They are the first to be affected by water-borne diseases; there has been little improvement in child mortality rates, and education is a low priority for the girls, who spend most of the day collecting and transporting water. Even if they do manage to get to the school, they are more than likely to drop out, as most schools do not have toilets for girls.

The provision of safe drinking water has important equity and development implications. On the one hand, unavailability of potable water in the desired quantities has implications for the quality of life in terms of the time spent in collecting water and the adverse impact of consuming contaminated water on health and productivity.

While the development of sustainable and safe drinking water supplies is a global challenge, it is particularly acute in India, given its high population density, space and time variability of rainfall, and increasing depletion and contamination of its surface and ground water resources.


India, with a sixth of the world's population, faces a rapidly growing water crisis, both in the urban and rural areas. These include wasteful practices in the use of water, particularly for irrigation, water-logging and salinity, and inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In cities such as Chennai and Delhi, several localities rely on private water tankers for their daily water needs.

Groundwater is the dominant resource that has been developed in rural India to meet the drinking water needs. But often, the shallower wells are found to be affected by fluoride, arsenic, iron, salt and/or microbial contamination. In many States, especially Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, this is a significant concern.

Deeper wells typically have cleaner water, but require electricity or diesel and installation of a water tank. The capital and operating costs are significantly higher and, given the high variability of electricity supply, reliability is poor.

While ground-water depletion is a major environmental concern in India, it should perhaps be viewed as part of a much larger agenda in ground-water management, in keeping with the policy goals of equity, efficiency, and sustainability.

Over-use of pesticides and chemicals in agriculture is the primary cause for groundwater pollution in the rural areas. A survey conducted in Uttar Pradesh in 2004 revealed that people in one region are compelled to drink polluted water with a high fluoride content, leading to large-scale dental fluorosis and arthritis.

Wasteful Subsidies

With regard to surface water, low water rates are a major factor influencing both waste and low accruals to the exchequer. Continued losses on this front tend to impair the ability of States to undertake further investments in this field. Revenue from the sale of water does not cover even the operation and maintenance expenditure of the schemes, let alone meeting depreciation charges and a part of the capital expenditure. In the agricultural sector, water is often used inefficiently, resulting in soil erosion, nutrient depletion, land degradation, and lower water-tables.

This creates a vicious circle of poverty, land degradation and low productivity. In this regard, increased availability of small-scale water management technologies will significantly help small landholder farmers. Community-based watershed development projects have also demonstrated excellent results, but need to be scaled up.

India continues to be a predominantly agrarian economy, with the majority of its population dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture contributes 27 per cent to the country's GDP and employs more than 60 per cent of its workforce.

Of the 182.7 million hectares of land used for cultivation, only about 50 million hectares is currently irrigated; the rest are depend entirely on monsoon rains. Hence, from the agriculture sector's point of view, enlarging the cropped area under assured irrigation is critical for the economy. Reforms in agricultural power and water tariffs are needed. Of course, any move towards greater cost recovery must be accompanied by reliable services that meet the needs of agriculture.

India should move away from its current wasteful subsidy system, in which items such as water and electricity are provided at highly subsidised rates (or for free!), but with most of the subsidy being taken up by the richer farmers. The result is a very expensive system where most of the benefits fail to reach the poor farmers. In place of the wasteful subsidy system, there should be "life-line tariffs," in which all of India's below-poverty-line rural citizens would be ensured a fixed, but limited, amount of water and electricity at zero price, to ensure that every family can at least meet its basic needs. Above that fixed amount, families would be charged a proper tariff.

Ground water is drawn from aquifers whose rates of recharge are much lower than the rate of withdrawal. here is, hence, a pressing need for the conjunctive use of ground and surface-water for irrigation.

Inclusive Strategy

Any strategy to enhance water productivity should ensure that it extends to the poor. In India, the revival of traditional rainwater harvesting systems in various ecological zones in response to the groundwater crisis has demonstrated the potential to generate large returns on investment and at the same time to reduce risk and vulnerability.

Drought-stricken villages found that those that had undertaken rainwater harvesting and/or watershed development in earlier years had stored plenty of drinking water and, in some cases, could even irrigate their crops. Hence, community-based rainwater harvesting seems to be the way to go in rural India.

To deal with the problem of frequent droughts and floods and the scarcity of water resources for irrigation purposes in India, one of the schemes put forward is the Inter-Basin Water Transfer (IBWT) from the surplus basins to deficit basins. Interlinking or networking of rivers entails the construction of a large number of dams and canals and connected hydraulic engineering works for mass transfer of water across river basins.

Interestingly, China is working on a somewhat similar scheme that envisages a South-North water transfer (across more than 1,000 km) to divert more than 40 billion cubic metres of water to the industrial and urban regions in the Hai basin. However, the long-term ecological consequences of inter-linking of rivers should be comprehensively evaluated by a team of experts before embarking on such a project.

(The author is a Senior Development Adviser and Director, South Asian Programmes, Centre on Globalisation and Sustainable Development, Columbia University, New York.)