India's Water Crisis

India is facing its worst water crisis in four decades. Scorching summers have turned 54% of the subcontinent's area into a water-stressed dust-bowl. The situation is worse especially in southern India where many rain-fed rivers have gone dry over the last two decades. Although the average amount of rainfall has remained the same over the past 50 years, many rain-fed rivers have become dry. Why so?

The main cause behind this is not so much the lack of supply of water but rather its mismanagement and unchecked overuse. Rain-fed rivers have dried because of disruption of the natural groundwater recharge mechanisms, thereby disabling rivers from replenishing themselves. This disruption in the water cycle is caused by several factors like reckless over-exploitation of groundwater resources, misguided agricultural practices, rampant deforestation, unplanned urbanization, and others causing the following events.

Water Wars

The drying up of rivers is already causing unprecedented consequences, tensions and widespread disputes over water. Armed guards are being posted at dams to prevent desperate farmers from stealing water. Thousands of villagers in drought-hit regions of Maharashtra depend on tankers for water. Authorities in Latur district, fearing violence, imposed prohibitory orders on gatherings of more than five people around storage tanks. Special trains were made to run to supply water from as far as 375 Km away.

Crop Failures and Farmer Suicides

65% of India’s population depends on farming for its livelihood. The sector is also the thirstiest and worst hit of all – consuming nearly 80% of the country’s water resources and is worst hit because of dried up water sources.  The dearth of water has led to a regressive cycle of multiple crop failures, debt and despair, forcing farmers to move off their lands and even to commit suicide.

Environmental Degradation

The main causes for the drying up of rivers are urban encroachment and deforestation as well as unsustainable extraction of ground water and loss of traditional knowledge. Urban encroachment leads to the destruction of catchment areas that feed a river, while deforestation loosens the soil’s water-holding capacity. Indiscriminate planting of non-native species such as Eucalyptus and Acacia also interfere with the natural recharge process, leading to a loss of species across river basins nationwide. A domino chain reaction follows where the gradual disappearance of native flora causes a threat to the indigenous species of birds and animals in the area – causing an unfortunate yet avoidable loss of species and ecosystem diversity.

Unsustainable agriculture practices: growth of water intensive crops

Nearly 80-85% of water consumption happens in the agriculture sector – and much of it is unnecessary. Farmers grow water intensive crops such as sugarcane and cotton to make more profit, even though it may not be suitable to particular lands.

India’s water table is falling on average by 0.3 meters and by as much as 4 meters in some places. Yet, the country continues to pump groundwater at will, drawing up more annually than China and America combined. A recent European Commission report counted more than 2 crore boreholes in India, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s.