The per capita availability of water in Delhi is more than that in Amsterdam. China, with a larger population, uses 28% less fresh water than India. We have ample water yet we face a huge water crisis.
About 80 percent of our water is used for agriculture. We are cultivating water-guzzling crops like grapes in Maharashtra, sugarcane in UP and red chilies in Rajasthan. Often times, we export these crops. In doing so, we pack our scarce water into sugar and chilies and send that water for the consumption of foreign nationals. This huge use of water is the main cause of our crisis. We are diverting almost all the water of our rivers for irrigation through the canals. Further, we extract large amounts of water from the groundwater aquifers. The water level in the aquifers is falling by up to 1 meter every year. That is leading up to less availability of water. The depletion of groundwater also results in water of our rivers percolating into the ground and the rivers going dry. The Yamuna has become dry for 100 kilometers below the Hathnikund Barrage in Haryana for this reason.
We are encouraging our farmers to grow the water-guzzling crops because the use of canal water is also not metered. Farmers have to pay a small fixed amount based on the area irrigated irrespective of the numbers of irrigations. Thus, farmers flood the fields many times over even though such excessive irrigation adds precious little to the crop production. Further, they are being given free electricity to pump out the water from the groundwater aquifers. The simple solution is to price canal water on the basis of the volume of water used and remove subsidies on electricity. That will force the farmers to use the water judiciously. It will become uneconomic to cultivate grapes, sugar cane and chilies because farmers will have to pay huge amounts for the water used. They will themselves give up the cultivation of these crops. That will reduce the agricultural demand for water substantially; and make more water available to the industries and urban habitations.
However, our farmers are already reeling under financial crisis. It is wrong to suggest an increase in the cost of water for their use. The way out is to increase the sale price of the crops simultaneously. Say the cost of cultivation of sugar cane is Rs 250 per quintal today and the sale price is fixed by the government at Rs 300 per quintal. Now, the cost of cultivation increases by Rs 30 to Rs 280 per quintal because of the increase in the price of water. The purchase price of sugar cane can be simultaneously increased by Rs 30 to Rs 330 per quintal. Then there will be no impact on the farmer. His margin will remain unchanged at Rs 50 per quintal. The difficulty here is that the cost of sugar for the urban consumer will increase.
The urban people have to choose between cheap sugar and plentiful water. They can seek an increase in the price of water for the farmer and a corresponding increase in the price of sugar. That will reduce agricultural demand and make available more water for drinking and bathing. Alternatively, they can argue in favour of the present low price of water for the farmer and correspondingly maintain the present low price of sugar. The solution of the water crisis lies in the hands of the urban people.
We have made the problem worse by storing water in large dams like Tehri and Bhakra. However, the open storage in the reservoirs leads to about 10 to 15 percent water being lost to evaporation. Secondly, these dams hold monsoon waters and reduce the floods. These floods spread the water over large areas and recharge the ground water. Reduction in the floods, therefore, means less recharge of ground water and less availability of water for irrigation. The large dams, therefore, have two contrary effects on the availability of water. On the plus side, they store water which is provided through canals for irrigation. On the minus side they lead to loss of water by evaporation and less irrigation due to less recharge of groundwater. Instead of dams, we can store the monsoon waters in the ground water aquifers by making check dams on the streams and bunds in the fields. We can store more water in this way. The storage capacity of the groundwater aquifers in UP alone is about 76 billion cubic meters which is about 30 times the storage capacity of 2.6 billion cubic meters of the Tehri dam.
River interlinking is equally misconceived. It will not add to the availability of water. It only shifts the irrigation from one area to another. In fact, it may reduce the total irrigation. The loss of irrigation due to less floods in the so-called “surplus” areas may even be more than the increase in the so-called deficit areas.
Action is also needed in reducing the water usage by the urban people. The urban sewage can be recycled. Treated sewage can be used for washing cars, watering gardens and flushing toilets. Urban buildings must have two supplies of water. One supply should be of fresh water to be used for bathing and drinking. Second supply should be of recycled water to be used for washing cars and the like. Industries in Nagpur and Mumbai buy sewage from the Municipal Corporation, treat it and use it for industrial purposes because price of fresh water is high. Similar high price of fresh water for urban consumers will make it economical for them to install two supply streams for fresh and recycled water. The Mahanagar area of Lucknow previously had such a two-stream system. Need is to reestablish that system.
Action is also required to require industries to move to “Zero Liquid Discharge” (ZLD). The consortium of 7 IITs that made a Ganga River Basin Management Plan has suggested adopting this policy. Industries will be required to treat and reuse the waste water. This will reduce the amount of water by them because they will meet part of their requirements from the recycled water.
At the end of the day, the urban consumers have to take a call. The present policy provides them with cheap sugar and low-priced water for washing their cars; but it is leading to a crisis. The alternative is that they may pay more for sugar and for fresh water and have the same available in greater measure. That will also save our rivers and environment as well.
Bharat Jhunjhunwala is a former Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru.