UPSC Editorial Analysis

Sustainable Water Management in Urban India

GS Paper 3 - Environment Management, Conservation of Resources


India is facing an impending water crisis, with significant parts of the country experiencing extreme water scarcity. Unrelenting heat waves and irregular rains have compounded the issue, rapidly depleting rivers and aquifers.

Reduced water flow in rivers and plummeting groundwater levels have made this summer exceedingly challenging. Taps in places such as Bengaluru have gone dry, resulting in tensions between governments over river water distribution. Providing tap water connections alone is insufficient to address this situation. India requires a long-term policy that prioritizes resource conservation, equitable distribution, and the implementation of a comprehensive strategy for sustainable water management.

Factors behind Water Crisis in India

  • Rapidly Depleting Groundwater Resources – India is the world’s largest groundwater extractor, accounting for around 25% of total groundwater extraction (World Bank). Excessive withdrawal has resulted in worrying depletion of aquifers.
  • Increasing Water Demand from Agriculture – Agriculture accounts for approximately 78% of India’s freshwater consumption (virtual water). The Green Revolution resulted in the over-exploitation of groundwater for agriculture, with water tables dropping dramatically in areas such as Punjab and Haryana.
  • Inadequate Water Infrastructure – India’s water infrastructure suffers from outdated systems, poor maintenance, and considerable losses due to leaks and theft. Mumbai loses over 700 million liters of water per day owing to leaks. According to an NITI Aayog report, over 2 lakh people die in India each year as a result of poor water supplies.
  • Urban Sprawl and Industrial Growth – Rapid urbanization and industrialization have increased water demand, while also contributing to water pollution. According to the NITI Aayog, 5 of the world’s 20 largest cities under water stress are in India and about 70% of India’s surface water resources are polluted.
  • Sand Mining – Unregulated sand extraction from river beds damages river ecosystems and lowers water carrying capacity. This not only affects downstream water availability, but it also raises the risk of flash floods and riverbank erosion. 
  • Fragmented Governance – In India, the national and state governments’ various ministries and departments frequently handle separate aspects of water management. Conflicting policies, ineffective resource allocation, and duplication of effort are the results of this lack of coordination.
  • Insufficient Attention to Demand-Side Management – India’s water policies have neglected demand-side management in favor of boosting supply through significant infrastructure projects. Recycling and water-efficient technology are two examples of measures that have not gotten much attention. While Israel recycles 89–90% of its wastewater, India only recycles 30% of its effluent.
  • Salt Infiltration and Sea Level Rise – Coastal aquifers are at risk of salinization as a result of climate change-related sea level rise. This salinization poses a serious threat to coastal communities by making freshwater supplies unfit for drinking and agriculture.

Consequences of Water Crisis

  • Human Capital Development Impeded – Girls, in particular, are frequently forced to miss school due to the time-consuming nature of water collecting, which impedes their education and future prospects. Additionally, children’s cognitive development may be hampered by water-borne infections and malnutrition brought on by a lack of water.
  • Long-Term Economic Risks – According to World Bank estimates, if water scarcity is not addressed, India may lose up to 6% of its GDP by 2050. Development and economic growth may be severely hampered by this. Lack of water might discourage companies from making investments in water-intensive sectors, which can have an effect on employment growth and financial prospects.
  • Rise of Water Mafias – The emergence of “water mafias” has led to the informal water markets in water-stressed cities like Bangalore, where they control access to water tankers and charge exorbitant fees.
  • Impact on Transboundary Water Disputes – Given that Bangladesh and Pakistan share river basins with India, water scarcity may heighten already-existing tensions between the two nations. This might lead to regional instability and greater conflict over water supplies.

Measures to tackle Water Crisis in Urban India

  • Turning Fallow Land into Recharging Units – Creating purposefully planned “water parks” on idle land with the goal of recharging groundwater. In order to create aesthetically pleasing areas that actively replenish aquifers, these parks can integrate bioswales, artificial wetlands, and rainfall gathering devices.
  • Desalination Powered by Renewable Energy and Waste – Developing large-scale desalination plants fed by a combination of renewable energy sources and waste-to-energy technology. In addition to producing clean water, desalination facilities turn trash into a useful resource, establishing a self-sufficient and sustainable water production system.
  • Urban Rainwater Harvesting Systems – Requiring all newly constructed buildings to have rainwater harvesting systems installed, as well as existing buildings to be retrofitted. In addition, green roofs can be used to collect and hold rainwater, refilling groundwater and lowering stormwater runoff.
  • Promoting Drip Irrigation and Aquaponics – Encouraging the widespread adoption of drip irrigation systems that deliver water directly to plant roots, minimizing evaporation losses.
  • Smart Water Grids – The creation of intelligent water networks that incorporate sensors and continuous monitoring systems across the water distribution system. This makes it possible to detect leaks early, manage pressure optimally, and increase overall efficiency.
  • Decentralized Water Management – Similar to Uttarakhand’s Swajal project, a decentralized, community-driven approach to rural water delivery and sanitation is required, encouraging community- or building-level decentralized wastewater treatment systems. 
  • Zero Liquid Discharge for Industries – Mandate the adoption of zero liquid discharge (ZLD) systems for water-intensive enterprises, where wastewater is treated and recycled for reuse promoting the creation of eco-industrial parks, which allow businesses to reuse and share water resources, thereby lowering the demand for and pollution from freshwater.

Way Forward

To combat India’s water crisis, a multifaceted approach is essential. Prioritizing demand-side management, promoting water conservation technologies, and enhancing policy coordination across all levels of government will be crucial. Implementing integrated water resources management (IWRM) practices that include effective rainwater harvesting, recycling wastewater, and adopting sustainable agricultural practices can ensure long-term water security. Public awareness campaigns and incentivizing water-saving technologies can also play a significant role in addressing the crisis. It’s imperative to move towards a water-wise future with collective action and innovative solutions.

SOURCE: The Indian Express

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