Most of the water used by humans comes from rivers. The visible bodies of water are referred to as surface water. The majority of fresh water, 98 per cent of the Earth’s available freshwater, is found underground as soil moisture and in aquifers. Until recently, Groundwater was not a highly utilised resource. In the 1960s, more and more GW aquifers developed. Changes in knowledge, technology and funding have allowed focussed development into abstracting water from GW resources, away from surface water resources. These changes allowed for progress in society such as the ‘agricultural GW revolution’, expanding the irrigation sector allowing for increased food production and development in rural areas. GW supplies nearly half of all drinking water in the world. It is estimated that 85 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population in India is dependent on GW for fulfilling needs. India is by far the world’s largest user of GW, withdrawing an estimated 251 cubic kilometres per year, more than twice that of the United States, the country with the second highest quantity of withdrawal.
India currently has the largest land area under GW irrigation in the world. As per the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), 2018 by NITI Aayog, GW in India depleted at 10-25 mm per year between 2002 and 2016 and the water demand will exceed supply by 2050. Meanwhile, more than 16 per cent of districts are classified as ‘overexploited’ or ‘critical’. This problem is particularly acute in western and north-western India as well as the hard rock regions of peninsular India. Uniquely, India has vast areas under GW irrigation in hard rock aquifer areas. To be precise, 65 per cent of the Indian land mass is underlain by hard rock geology. Of this, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and western Orissa have experienced little GW development; as yet, they do not have GW depletion on a serious scale. It is reported by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) that 1,114 out of 6965 GW assessment units in the country are overexploited; 270 are critical; 1057 are semi-critical; 4427 are safe and 97 are saline.
The overexploited areas are mostly concentrated in the northwestern part of the country including parts of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh where even though the replenishable resources are abundant, there has been indiscriminate withdrawal of GW leading to over-exploitation. Northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana are considered the bread-basket of India. But depleting GW levels have now made farming unsustainable there. CGWB’s latest report predicts a huge shortfall of GW for irrigation in 2025. The other such areas include parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and southern parts of peninsular India including parts of Karnataka, AP, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu. The North-western part is the victim of indiscriminate withdrawal of GW, mainly for cultivation of water-guzzling paddy and sugarcane, whereas parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan fall in arid climate zones where recharge is limited. As to the parts of peninsular India, it is said that the GW availability is low in the region due to inherent properties of crystalline aquifers. Pollution of rivers, streams, and GW aquifers is a serious problem contributing to water shortages in many areas of the world.
The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, in which multiple UN agencies participated, reported in 1999 that “More than one-half of the world’s major rivers are being seriously depleted and polluted.” One of the reasons for this global tragedy is that neither depletion nor pollution are included in the world’s prevailing system for measuring national income and productivity ~ GDP. As economist Herman Daly points out, “We do not subtract the cost of pollution as a bad, yet we add the value of pollution cleanup as a good. This is asymmetric accounting.” GW in one-third of India’s 600 districts is not fit for drinking as the concentration of fluoride, iron, salinity and arsenic exceeds the tolerance limits. Nearly 90 million people including 6 million children in the country in 200 districts in 15 states are affected with dental, skeletal and/or nonskeletal fluorosis. The fluoride affected states are AP, Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, J&K, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and UP.
The problem of arsenic contamination in GW from the vast tract of alluvial aquifers in West Bengal, Bihar and UP is known to have affected a population of about 50 million in different districts of India. During the last four decades arsenic contamination of GW in nine districts of West Bengal has become a serious problem. About 20 per cent population of West Bengal is in these districts ~ Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly and Burdwan ~ and about 20 per cent population of these districts are affected by arsenicosis. Arsenic enters human bodies through drinking of arseniccontaminated water, use of contaminated water in food preparation and irrigation of food crops, industrial processes etc. Indeed, arresting the decline in GW requires two approaches: one, the speeding up recharge; two, checking indiscriminate exploitation.
Government has woken up to the reality of the crisis and the Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation formulated the National Water Policy (2012) which advocates: (1) rainwater harvesting and conservation of water; (2) augmentation of direct use of rainwater; (3) conservation of river, river bodies and infrastructure in a scientifically planned manner through community participation, and others. There are several projects aiming at rejuvenating rivers and recharging aquifers: Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA); building of water bodies ~ Amrit Sarovar ~ across the country; development and rejuvenation of 75 water bodies in each district as part of ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (75 years of Independence) and reinforcing water–related projects under MGNREGS.
But water governance and management in the country seems to be very fragmented and faces three kinds of ‘hydro-schizophrenia’ ~ that between (i) surface and GW, (ii) irrigation and drinking water, and (iii) water and waste water. Moreover, Government departments, both at the Centre and in the states, dealing with one side of these binaries have tended to work in isolation from, and without coordination with, the other side. When there is not enough portable water for a given necessity, the threat of a water crisis is realised. Water is not confined to political borders.
Around 48 per cent of the globe’s surface is covered by transboundary river basins. An estimated 148 countries have international basins within their territory. These countries include territory within one or more transboundary river basins, 39 countries have more than 90 per cent of their territories within one or more transboundary river basin, and 21 lie entirely within one or more of these watersheds. Water crossing international boundaries would cause tensions between nations that share the basin. Indeed, freshwater is going to be more precious than oil. In the words of Ismail Serageldin: “The wars of the twentyfirst century will be fought over water.” We do not know if the prophecy will come true. But we are sure that skirmishes and even full-fledged battles over freshwater are here to stay in India. Water tensions are on the increase across the country