India suffering “the worst water crisis in its history”

India is suffering “the worst water crisis in its history,” according to a report by a government policy think tank NITI Aayog. Worsening water shortages – for farmers, households, and industry – threaten the lives and incomes of hundreds of millions of Indians, and the economic growth of the country, the report said.

An estimated 163 million people out of India’s population of 1.3 billion – or more than one in 10 – lack access to clean water close to their home, according to a 2018 report by WaterAid, an international water charity.

The port city of Chennai needs 800 million liters of water a day to meet demand for water, according to official data. At the moment, the government can provide only 675 million liters, according to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Like many Indian cities, Chennai and its suburbs plug that gap by buying water, encouraging residents to dig backyard borewells, or using private wells. Chennai depends on more than 4,000 private water tankers for its everyday water needs.  Each tanker may make up to five trips a day, ferrying water from the outskirts of the city to apartments, hotels, malls, and offices.

“There are neighborhoods that depend on tankers throughout the year with no access to government water pipelines,” said Shekhar Raghavan, director of the charity Rain Centre, which encourages rainwater harvesting and water conservation in urban areas. That, he said, has “given rise to the water mafia, which has total control over who will get how much water in the city.” Tankers identify good groundwater sources in agricultural areas in neighboring districts, pay a small fee to access the water and then sell if for 50 times that cost, Mr. Raghavan said. And what Raghavan called “indiscriminate” – and in many cases unauthorized – extraction of groundwater is creating growing problems as supplies run short.

Raghavan, of the Rain Centre, which has spent two decades looking for alternative and sustainable water for Chennai, said getting water to those who need it will require better rainwater harvesting and storage, and renovation of wells – not just more delivery tankers. “A common sense approach [is] required to avoid day zero,” he said.

Chennai’s highest court has ruled that overuse of rural groundwater is threatening food production and the country’s food security. “The water crisis is worsening and even we are worried about depleting ground water,” admitted Shakespeare Arulanandam, founder of the greater Tamil Nadu packaged drinking water manufacturers association, whose members filed the high court suit. “In the future we can only pray more fervently and hope for good rains to ensure there is enough water to go around. It will be up to the Gods,” he said.

[Thomson Reuters Foundation]

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