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Is India facing a major water crisis?

India will face severe shortages of water by 2050, a UNESCO report warns.

Rivers and groundwater resources are becoming increasingly heavily polluted across the country. The Central Pollution Control Board identifies 275 Indian rivers as polluted – more than double the figure five years ago. The high levels of contamination across the country mean 19 percent of the world’s people who lack access to clean water live in India.

Experts warn many Indian cities are at risk of water crises akin to that  experienced in Cape Town. There, citizens are preparing for ‘Day Zero.’ This is when water scarcity becomes so severe the city’s municipal government will be forced to shut off the city’s water distribution supply.


Bengaluru is one of the Indian cities where this could be the case. The Karnataka state capital – dubbed India’s ‘Silicon Valley’ – is one of ten global metropolises the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) says faces ‘Day Zero’ unless policymakers and populations take action.

Urban development and population increase is driving Bengaluru’s looming crisis, reports suggest. Bengaluru is India’s third most populous city, with more than ten million inhabitants. This is projected to increase to 20.3 million by 2031.

Since 1973, a digital tech industry boom has seen built-up land in Bengaluru increase from eight to 73 percent according to Down to Earth magazine. Dr TV Ramachandra of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru told Health Issues India that paved surfacing could cover 98.5 percent of Bengaluru’s landscape by 2025.

Bengaluru Copyright: <a href=''>noppasinw / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Bengaluru – India’s ‘Silicon Valley’

‘Unplanned senseless urbanisation and chasing the path of irrational growth’ in the city has been ‘at the cost of adequate and clean air, water and health,’ Dr Ramachandra adds. Mismanagement of household and industrial waste has led to high levels of contamination in groundwater resources, upon which he says 45 percent of Bengaluru’s residents are dependent. This has led to ‘escalation of chronic diseases,’ particularly kidney disease.

If current trends continue, Dr Ramachandra warns, ‘every house may have to have dialysis unit.’

Bengaluru has been enjoying some respite from the heat. Rainstorms hit the city towards the end of March. Some are hoping that this year’s monsoon season could go some way towards alleviating the burden on the country’s reservoirs. However, the potential of a water crisis is still a prescient worry.

‘India…can’t be complacent anymore’

Water shortages could pose a significant challenge to the health and wellbeing of Indians, as a summer that is expected to be exceptionally hot approaches. Heatwaves are anticipated across the country. However, in mid-March, 91 major reservoirs were at just 32 percent of their capacity.

Poor winter rains have left a number of India’s major river basins at a fraction of their water capacity. The capacity of the River Ganges basin – home to more than 400 million people – has dropped by 16.5 percent. The Sabarmati has fallen by 17.96 percent and the Tapi by 33.3 percent.

This has led to calls for water conservation measures to be enacted. Droughts in years past have affected Indians in the millions and claimed thousands of lives. A similar crisis may happen in the near future unless action is taken.

An editorial in The Hindu asserts ‘in India, we can’t be complacent anymore.’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued his support for water conservation measures, tweeting ‘when water is conserved, our cities, villages and hard-working farmers benefit tremendously.’ As previously covered by Health Issues India, farmer suicides are on the rise in India. Increasingly severe climatic events such as droughts are believed to account, at least in part, for the uptick due to detrimental effects on agriculture.

‘A long-term shift’

What experts say is needed is ‘a long-term shift in…[government] policies.’ These should avoid ‘projects that destroy our rivers and water bodies, such as large dams, hydropower projects in the Himalayas, the river-linking projects and the push for inland waterways.’ Instead, says engineer Himanshu Thakkar, the focus should be on ‘sustainability of groundwater…rainwater harvesting, ecosystem-based approach and local water systems.’

Measures are also being implemented such as alterations to irrigation techniques in farmlands and sanitation in rural communities to reduce depletion and pollution. A transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies to power India would also help in this regard.

The necessity of water conservation and protecting resources appears clear. The risk is apparent. Ramachandra makes it explicit the cost to India’s environment and population if action is not taken. ‘Losing water is as serious as losing country’s freedom,’ he says, identifying ‘clean air, water and environment as our fundamental rights.’

‘The country needs to develop but not at the cost of healthy citizens, ecology and environment,’ Ramachandra concludes. He further warns ‘adoption of development path depriving clean and adequate water, air and environment to the citizen will lead to large scale social unrest with the loss of water, food and healthy security.

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