New Delhi: India face the worst water crisis in its history, and 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, a new report from the NITI Aayog--a government think tank-- said, highlighting the need for “urgent and improved” management of water resources.

With nearly 600 million Indians facing high-to-extreme water stress--where more than 40% of the annually available surface water is used every year--and about 200,000 people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the situation is likely to worsen as the demand for water will exceed the supply by 2050, said the ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (CWMI) report , released on June 14, 2018.

While Indian cities are grappling for water supply, the Aayog has called for “immediate action” as growing scarcity will also hit India’s food security.

States need to start managing their groundwater and their agriculture water, said the (CWMI) report--India’s first comprehensive collection of nationwide water data.

CWMI is a step in the right direction, but NITI Aayog could have taken it a step ahead by comparing state water management practices against leading countries, according to experts. Attention could have been paid to the states’ performance in implementing existing laws against groundwater exploitation.

As we said, 21 Indian cities--including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad--will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people; 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, the report said.

Currently, many Indian states, including Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, face water shortages, exacerbated by changing rainfall patterns, IndiaSpend reported on June 6, 2018.

The Economic Survey 2017-18 acknowledged India’s water crisis and explained the triggers, including rapid groundwater depletion, decline in average rainfall and increasing dry monsoon days, The Times Of India reported on June 21, 2018.

Groundwater in India depleted at 10-25 mm per year between 2002 and 2016. Average rainfall declined, from 1,050 mm in the kharif -- summer cropping--season of 1970 to less than 1,000 mm in kharif 2015. Similarly, in the winter cropping, or rabi season, average rainfall declined, from ~150 mm in 1970 to about 100 mm in 2015. Dry days -- days without rainfall -- during the monsoons have increased, from ~40% to 45% in 2015.

If mitigation measures are not implemented, India faces a 6% loss in its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, the the NITI Aayog report said. With nearly 70% of water contaminated, India ranks 120th of 122 countries in a global water quality index, the report noted.

India holds about India holds about 4% of global freshwater and 16% of its population. Water intensive agricultural practices and growing water demand for industrial, energy production and domestic purposes are significantly stressing India’s limited water resource, said Samrat Basak, an expert on water-related issues from World Resource Institute (WRI), an advocacy.

Conceived as an annual exercise by the NITI Aayog, the index evaluates states on nine broad sectors and 28 indicators, including groundwater, irrigation, farm practices and drinking water.

Since water is a state subject, the decision-making related to the resource lies with states. “This index is an attempt to budge states and UTs towards efficient and optimal utilisation of water and recycling thereof with a sense of urgency,” Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of NITI Aayog wrote in the report’s foreword.

14 of 24 states score below 50% on water management, food security imperiled

In 2015-16, 14 of the 24 states analysed scored below 50% on water management and have been classified as “low performers”. These states are concentrated across the populous agricultural belts of north and east India and the northeastern and Himalayan states.

Gujarat performed best with a score of 76%, followed by Madhya Pradesh (69%) and Andhra Pradesh (68%).

Seven states scored between 50-65%--including Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura--and have been classified as “medium performers”.

“Water Index scores vary widely across states, but most states have achieved a score below 50% and could significantly improve their water resource management practices,” the report said.

Water Management Scores, By State
State Score (In %) Performance
Gujarat 76 High
Madhya Pradesh 69 High
Andhra Pradesh 68 High
Karnataka 56 Medium
Maharashtra 55 Medium
Punjab 53 Medium
Tamil Nadu 51 Medium
Telangana 50 Medium
Chhattisgarh 49 Low
Rajasthan 48 Low
Goa 44 Low
Kerala 42 Low
Odisha 42 Low
Bihar 38 Low
Uttar Pradesh 38 Low
Haryana 38 Low
Jharkhand 35 Low
Tripura 59 Medium
Himachal Pradesh 53 Medium
Sikkim 49 Low
Assam 31 Low
Nagaland 28 Low
Uttarakhand 26 Low
Meghalaya 26 Low

Source: Composite Water Management Index, NITI Aayog

India’s food security faces significant risks as low performers--such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana-- on the water index account for 20-30% of India’s agriculture output and are home to over 600 million people.

“Given the combination of rapidly declining groundwater levels and limited policy action (as indicated by the low Index score), this is also likely to be a significant food security risk for the country going forward,” said the report.

Low-performing states show improvement

Many water-scarce states have performed better in the Index, the report said. States with high and medium performances--Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana--have suffered from severe droughts in recent years.

In addition, 15 of the 24 states have improved their scores in 2016-17 compared to the previous year, data show.

On average, scores improved 1.8 percentage points between 2015-16 and 2016-17. Eight states gained 5 percentage points or more--despite the slow-moving nature of several indicators (such as irrigation potential utilised and area under rain-fed agriculture), said the report.

“Most gains have been led by improvements in restoration of surface water bodies, watershed development activities, and rural water supply provision,” the report said.

Meghalaya, Sikkim and Tripura are among the top five states which showed most improvement, gaining more than 7.5 percentage points each—a sign of increasing water policy actions taken by these states, according to the report.

Similarly, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Haryana--non-Himalayan states achieving best improvements--were also among the low performers in the overall performance index.

Groundwater management, sustainable water use key

Most states did well on the infrastructure-heavy themes of ‘major and medium irrigation’ and ‘watershed development’, and have also enacted policies in line with the recommendations on the ‘policy and governance’ theme.

However, they were lagging on the critical themes of ‘source augmentation’ (groundwater), ‘sustainable on-farm water use practices’ and ‘rural drinking water’.

On groundwater augmentation, 10 of the 24 states scored below 50%, highlighting the worsening situation--54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining--said the report.

Performance around groundwater augmentation can significantly improve with strengthening of groundwater regulations and strict implementation on the ground. Steps like improvement of monitoring network and continuous monitoring of groundwater level and groundwater quality, strict implementation of rain water harvesting and continuous operation and maintenance of the same will also help states manage their groundwater better, Basak said.

The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB)--a central authority to monitor and manage water groundwater resources of the country--has a network of 22,339 groundwater observation wells in India, which means one monitoring point in approximately 147 square kilometre -- approximate area of Mysore, a city in Karnataka.

Further, 17 of the 24 states scored below 50% on managing ‘on-farm water’ effectively. This underperformance--given that agriculture accounts for 80% of all water use--poses significant water and food security risks for the country.

An expedited adoption of micro-irrigation techniques can significantly improve on-farm water use, experts believe.

India has the potential to bring nearly half of its net cultivated area - 140 million hectares--under micro irrigation. But so far, only 7.73 million hectares--drip Irrigation covers 3.37 mha and sprinkler irrigation covers 4.36 mha-- as against the estimated potential of 69.5 mha has been covered under micro-irrigation, said Basak.

Research shows that sprinkler irrigation can use 30-40% less water, while drip can use about 40-60% less water compared to flood irrigation methods, he added.

Contrary views on composite water management index

Experts believe that CWMI is a step in the right direction but it could have gone a step further.

A comparative risk analysis and rating between participants (states) of very similar calibre and nature does not add much value for water risk mitigation and water security, said Basak. The need is to look at how the states are performing against some of the other better performing developing countries like China, he added.

CWMI is based on an administrative-boundary approach but water does not follow administrative boundary: instead it follows watershed/ catchment/ river basin boundary, Basak said.

“Therefore, it is critical to evaluate water risk and water management aspects at a watershed/ catchment/ river basin level. For example, look at how the water management indices of downstream states are getting impacted by the water management practices of upstream states and transboundary movement of water,” said Basak.

(Tripathi is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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