As India looks at a future of acute water shortage,it’s time we brought in far greater efficiencies in our use of this precious resource

At a recent meeting that revolved around discussions on urban sustainability, this writer had the chance to listen in on a discussion about the linkages between climate, energy, water, and agriculture. It was startling to realise, even for someone who has spent almost a quarter century understanding development pressures on the planet, that in terms of absolute water availability India and China are seemingly comfortable but when it comes to per capita availability India is water-stressed, China is not.

How can this be? The irony is deepened by the fact that India has seen a 60 per cent decline in per capita availability of water in the last 50 years, while China has seen a decline of about 50 per cent.The grimmer news is that the per capita availability of water in the next two decades will decline further by over 15 per cent in India but only by over 5 per cent in China.

So where does the problem lie? If you look at consumers of water, you will see that agriculture takes the largest slice at 80 per cent. What we can do to bring this down dramatically, by at least 20 per cent, will be one of the big challenges before farm experts and farmers over the next two decades.

India has one-sixth of the US’s landmass with four times its population. As for China, it has about 2.7 times more landmass compared to India with a population that’s only about 100 million more. Indian agriculture uses 80 per cent of water, while China uses 60 per cent for an annual food grain production that is 20 per cent more. China is clearly far more efficient with water than India. India is among the highest annual miners of water with as much as 610 billion cu. m ground water drawn out. It's interesting that the US comes a poor third after China in water mining, although per capita withdrawal rates in the US, Canada, and Australia are right on top of the table because of the far smaller populations in these countries. The last decade alone has seen an increase of 12 per cent in groundwater withdrawal in India. The most water-scarce state is Maharashtra, also the highest GDP earner in the country.

Few of us realise that the coal and power sectors together consume as much as one-fifth of all our water. And in industry, the power sector alone accounts for 40 per cent of water usage.

China is all set to increase coal-based power generation by about 60 per cent in the next five years but that will mean more water consumed. Similarly, India’s need for water for power generation is set to grow. However, there is no sign of any steps to bring efficiency into the use of water for farming or for industry, particularly power generation. Indian industry consumes 2-3 per cent water, and 90 per cent of the demand within that segment is for power generation.

Nuclear power consumes even more water than thermal power. The plant in Tamil Nadu was located on the seaside for just this reason so that it could avoid groundwater withdrawal and use seawater instead.

The trouble with the Indian peninsula is that the only source of water is the monsoon. The country receives nearly all its rainfall in less than 90 hours of rains. This is about 1 per cent of the time of an entire year. The short rainy season of no more than four months across most parts of India implies acute water shortage before the monsoon.

Nearly Rs. 40,000 crore is being invested in the water sector in India over the next five years alone. This means an average growth of capital infusion of about 10 per cent. The water ‘industry’ is, therefore, among the faster growing segments and needs advanced and relatively inexpensive technologies for wastewater treatment, wastewater dissemination, seawater dissemination, and other systems of water treatment. Indian industry is beginning to see that looping used water is about the only solution, for you cannot ‘manufacture’ water. How do we, therefore, grow our own water while keeping the technology easy to use for the consumer, as well as inexpensive? If there is a solution ahead of us for better water management, it would be a complete focus on reduction of dependence on thermal power or nuclear power, establishing a good and positive equation between water and food production, and ensuring that carbon-neutral agriculture is promoted with higher productivity and lesser use of arable lands for such farming. This means programmes oriented toward enhancing crop productivity, better crop mix and irrigation practices, and soil mechanics that get the best out of the land.

A move away from synthetic fertilisers will be the first big step. The shift to organic farming will be a long road but it is one we have to take.

The writer is Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of BCIL, Zed Homes