Food & water, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia, The World

2 July 2019

With water becoming an increasingly scarce resource in India, girls and women are at a greater risk of experiencing health and social issues, Kaveri Mishra writes.

The world’s water crisis is quickly worsening – and at an extremely worrying pace. Worldwide, around four billion people live in water-scarce areas with about 844 million people without access to clean water.

India has been worst hit and is experiencing the most severe case of water scarcity in its history. Some one billion people live in areas with extremely limited access for at least part of the year, and around another 600 million live in areas suffering from high to extreme water stress.

More than 40 per cent of the country is in drought. And things will only be going downhill from here with a steady increase in the country’s groundwater depletion rate, which has increased by 23 per cent between 2000 and 2010.

With a population of over 1.3 billion, the country is the world’s biggest consumer of groundwater, accounting for almost one-fourth of global demand – more than that of China and the US combined. Its usage of groundwater accounts for 24 per cent of the global total.

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Globally, water consumption has increased six-fold in the last 100 years. The surge in demand has been driven largely by population growth, a change in diets, and consumer habits.

Moreover, agricultural intensification, urbanisation, mega-city projects, and climate change have boosted competition over water resources as well.

Rice and wheat are staple foods in Indian cuisine, but are also a prominent water-guzzling crop in the agricultural sector. There is, therefore, an urgent need for society to shift to eating more sustainable and water-based crops.

Water scarcity also occurs in urban areas. With globalisation has come a massive increase in infrastructure and construction projects that have greatened the demand for water. Internal migration to cities amongst those in search of jobs and an improved quality of life has also contributed to strained resources in urban areas.

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Estimates have shown that 21 cities in India are likely to run out of groundwater by 2020. Signs of a water crisis are already apparent in New Delhi and India’s Silicon Valley.

This, however, may occur even before 2020. In New Delhi, bathtubs, sprinklers, and washing machines in homes are already things of the distant past. Residents are restricted to a few buckets of water during summer.

The situation is much worse in India’s Silicon Valley. Apartment complexes in the area no longer have direct access to water. All year round, residents are now dependent on water tankers that source water from lakes and wells, all lined up next to each other in residential areas.

These tankers are quite costly as well, and prices go up as temperatures rise. Some people are having to move out of their hometowns as a result.

Should current trends continue, the Institute for Social and Economic change predicts that India might incur a 6 per cent loss in its GDP by 2020 – with the agricultural sector expected to be the most affected.

The government, however, continues to fail to implement stringent laws against the use of groundwater. This has resulted in a severe exploitation of resources in commercial, domestic, and industrial use.

The water crisis is also linked to biodiversity, food security, and health matters. Rapid water depletion will lead to major food shortages. The country’s most disadvantaged communities will face disease and death.

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Moreover, the sociocultural implications of the crisis are far less noticed. India’s patriarchal society puts the burden of household chores on girls and women. To complete their daily tasks, they are made to travel miles each day to collect water. In rural areas of India, households have designated days on which they make the trip for water, which is then used for cleaning, cooking, taking care of animals – the list continues.

To understand how this might affect India, one must only look to Africa. A similar shortage in water has caused a great change in the lives of girls and women across the continent. In the face of health and hygiene issues – mainly to do with menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth – a lack of clean water can make them vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, and even death.

But the implications of a lack of water go beyond immediate health issues. The crisis has also resulted in higher rates of school dropouts in Africa, with girls having to spend their days travelling to collect water.

The situation has also widened the inequality gap in India, with the poorest and most marginalised people bearing the brunt of the shortage with no access to clean water.

To tackle this issue, a serious policy framework needs to be put in place to encourage partnerships between all government bodies, as well as private and public participation. Managing groundwater resources and wastewater management is vital. Sewage treatment plants that recycle water must be made compulsory, while rainwater harvesting should be made mandatory at every stage too.

Issues have no doubt snowballed into a concoction of social and economic challenges. Groundwater has been exploited beyond imagination, also presenting problems for both the waste management and aviation industries. Until stringent water policy is actually put in place, India’s future is not set to change.

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