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On Day Zero, India prepares for a water emergency

Surat Parvatam and Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.84 Published online 1 July 2019

Women in Rajasthan walk long distances to collect drinking water.

© S. Priyadarshini

Day Zero: The day when a city’s taps dry out and people have to stand in line to collect a daily quota of water.

Through most of June, this has been the situation in Chennai, one of India’s major cities facing an acute, unprecedented water shortage. Many other big cities, including the national capital Delhi, are likely to run out of groundwater by next year, according to India’s policy making body NITI Aayog’s recent assessment.

In all, 600 million people are facing the worst water crisis in the history of India.

Adding to the woes is the gloomy prediction that by 2030, the overall demand for water in India will double. “Forty per cent of the population would have no access to drinking water by 2030,” the report warns.

As the monsoon-heralding month of June ended with a 33 per cent deficit rainfall, leaving large parts of the country parched, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urgently launched a massive water conservation campaign in 255 water-scarce districts. The programme hopes to construct rooftop rainwater harvesting infrastructure, check dams, trenches, ponds and watershed structures.Through his popular radio show, Modi made an emotional appeal to people urging them to use traditional methods of rainwater harvesting and sought to augment his government's efforts by networking with non-governmental organisations.

India started the groundwork in May to face such a water emergency by merging some key ministries – Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The new umbrella ministry “Jal Shakti” (water power in Hindi) has now rung the alarm bells. "Water table is going down day-by-day and in some of the areas in India, it has come down to critical levels. Some of the areas are over-exploited and soon those areas may reach the level of 'Day Zero',” the ministry said in a recent note to the state governments.

According to the ministry, among the most parched states are Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. Global warming, over-exploitation of water resources and human errors are the reasons India is staring at a Day Zero scenario, the communication said.

“While much depends on how this integration (of ministries) materialises functionally, to have the demands and sensibilities of drinking water and sanitation informing the larger water policies should lead to positive outcomes,” says Srinivas Chokkakula, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Chennai.

Governance and policy in water-scarce India

For India, Day Zero is not some distant day in dystopia. Faced with the inevitable, the government has unleashed multi-pronged efforts to meet its severity. Experts feel that these efforts need to be sustained.

“This is not the first time water conservation is being promoted as the solution,” says Tushaar Shah, a public policy specialist at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) headquartered in Sri Lanka. Shah, who has extensively analysed water institutions and policies across Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries, says similar programmes to restore and conserve water bodies were launched by successive governments in India but without much outcome. 

“For water conservation to work, two conditions are necessary: ‘watershed thinking’ and community-driven actions. How these two fit into the government’s plan will decide what to expect of it,” he says.

Groundwater forms the lifeline for most people in India – 90 per cent of rural India’s drinking water comes from groundwater and 75 per cent of agriculture is groundwater-based. The downside has been the over exploitation of groundwater by landowners, pushing the water tables abysmally low. All of India’s water laws have traditionally focused on surface water. The groundwater problem has remained a silent crisis. 

Ninety per cent of rural India uses groundwater for drinking.

© Pixabay

In 2017, India formed a new groundwater Bill asserting the state governments’ control over the extraction of ground water. “However, not many states have responded well, and only Maharashtra has set up a regulatory authority to enact it,” Chokkakula says.

The Jal Shakti ministry also relaunched a programme it started in 2014 to clean up one of India’s largest rivers Ganga, whose basin houses over 400 million people making it the world’s most populated river basin. This relook at the Rs 20,000 crore ‘Namami Gange’ programme was prompted by a recent report by the Central Pollution Control Board. The report said most of the river’s water was not fit for consumption or bathing even after treatment with disinfectants.

Only a quarter of India’s domestic wastewater is currently recycled or treated, says Shobha Shukla from the Water Innovation Centre at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. Compared to that, almost half of the country’s industrial wastewater undergoes treatment, thanks to the government’s ‘zero liquid discharge’ policy, she says.

However, a host of pollutants such as nitrates, fluoride, arsenic, iron, salinity and pathogens render large volumes of groundwater unfit for drinking in India, Shukla says. “Some mapping has been done is some parts of the country but deeper analysis is needed if we are to make this water portable by using low-cost sensors and purification technologies.”

Most of Ganga water is not fit for consumption or bathing even after treatment with disinfectants.

© S. Priyadarshini

Technology to the aid

Arid states such as Rajasthan are trying to develop resilience against the impending water crisis by introducing new technologies. For instance, the state government has given a technology revamp to the old canal systems along river Narmada and made micro-irrigation of farms mandatory. “The cultivatable area in Rajasthan increased from 1.35 to 2.46 lac hectares and food production increased by 277 per cent with the same quantity of water,” the NITI Aayog report says.

With many parts of the country in the grip of severe water shortage and drought, researchers are also looking at artificial rains by cloud seeding as an alternative. Savita Morwal of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune has been part of the multi-institutional Cloud Aerosol Interaction and Precipitation Enhancement Experiment (CAIPEEX) in Karnataka state.

“We used two aircraft to create clouds by binding raindrops with calcium chloride and silver iodide,” she says. The experiment conducted in 2017 saw a 27 per cent increase in rainfall over different districts of Karnataka after 15-30 minutes of seeding.

The cost of cloud seeding experiments – a major obstacle in their wider use – could be brought down significantly by using indigenous technology, says environmental engineer Sachchida Nand Tripathi from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. “Done successfully, it could cost less than any other means of delivering water to a water-scarce region,” he says.

Tripathi and his team had planned to seed clouds in Delhi last year but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) aircraft they were to use was deployed into India’s second Moon mission Chandrayaan 2. The team is now tying up with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to make an effort again.

The Water Innovation Centre - Technology, Research and Education (WICTRE) is using the combined expertise of 18 scientists from IIT Bombay, IIT Hyderabad, National Chemical Laboratory Pune and the Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University to meet India's heightened water demand by developing low-cost, scalable technology solutions. “The idea is to make use of available disruptive sensor technologies and develop futuristic technologies, such as graphene-based materials, to prepare for a sustainable future," Shukla says.

Amidst the water crisis, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is hopeful of a long period average (LPA) rainfall of 96 per cent for the rest of the monsoon season. LPA is the average rainfall in the country for the last 50 years, and is used as the benchmark for rainfall measurement. “While June has been deficient, it (the monsoon) is expected to pick up in July,” says IMD chief Mrutyunjay Mohapatra.

However, despite the promise of a decent spell of rain, India’s water managers have a tough job cut out to ensure that the country remains hydrated.