The Rain God has been playing pricey for a while. All the skyward prayers and rain-invoking rituals seem to have been in vain with the rainfall still remaining elusive and erratic in many parts of India.

The delayed onset of rains is said to have resulted in a 27 per cent drop in the sowing of Kharif crops. With the water crisis looming large on the horizon, the subject experts and scribes are having a field-day diagnosing the problem and related issues, while also prescribing any number of solutions. This is where the rub lies.

We have all known the problem and solutions for long. But when it comes to acting on the recommendations, everyone everywhere falls short and comes a cropper. And this has something to do with the way we engage in politics today. Our decisionmaking capability is beholden to the generosity of the political class who, more often than not, shrink from taking the right decisions while playing to the gallery of the voters. It is this attitude and the emergent situation which have been playing havoc with the way we deal with every issue in this country including water.

The policy of almost ‘free water’, ‘no user charge’ or ‘free electricity’ has somehow cost us dearly, with the same resulting in the extensive and mindless use of ground water by all the stakeholders, almost verging on the criminal. The stakeholders including agriculturalists, industrialists or the hoi-polloi see no merit in water conservation by way of prudent consumption of the same. However, the time has definitely come for all of us to soak in all the available “water wisdom” by reflecting on our water consumption patterns.

Today, 18 per cent of the global population in India has access to only 4 per cent of its usable water, with 163 million Indians lacking access to safe potable water. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) in its recent report has portrayed a very grim water scenario. As per a report shared by NITI Aayog, 22 cities, including New Delhi, shall run out of water by 2020. One shudders to imagine the resultant chaos and mayhem unless we immediately start bracing ourselves for the eventuality.

An estimated 21 per cent of our diseases are water-borne and with no access to safe drinking water, almost 200,000 Indians reportedly die every year because they don’t have access to water that is fit for consumption. It has been indicated that 600 million Indians face ‘high to extreme’ water stress. The situation will only worsen in the days to come. Thus, we are virtually sitting on a ticking timebomb in the form of a potential health emergency waiting to unfold. Poor state regulation and gross mismanagement over the years by our water managers have resulted in our rivers and water systems being heavily contaminated by solid waste.

The high coliform content makes the water unusable and unfit for human consumption. Seventy years since Independence, safe piped drinking water reaches only 70 per cent of urban and 19 per cent of rural households. It is really laudable though that the Government has pledged to supply piped water to all rural households in five years by launching a Nal Se Jal (Water from Tap) scheme. Also on the anvil is a dedicated Ministry in the form of ‘Jal Shakti Mantralaya’ for a more holistic and coordinated approach to the water problem.

A better convergence with national programmes like Namami Gange, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and similar state government initiatives could ensure better policy outcomes, thereby addressing the problem of inegalitarian access to water resources in certain parts of India. If we don’t wake up in time to evolve a geographically-customised water policy, our dream of becoming a developed country or a ‘superpower’ is bound to be dashed against our water woes, not to speak of our health and food security being severely compromised.

Some of the solutions that the Government needs to consider are: a sound watershed management; building of smaller check-dams rather than big-ticket behemoths; construction of more percolation tanks linked to the main service tanks; popularising dedicated ‘on-farm tanks and ponds’ for agricultural purposes; better networking and deepening of our canal systems; imposing a population- specific progressive user charge; a regional river-linking plan to be gradually upgraded into a full-fledged national riverlinking project; incentivising water harvesting and water conservation behaviour; encouraging more and more afforestation; renovating and redoing our traditional water systems while creating more water storage capacities for better recharging of our groundwater aquifers.

The required policy and regulatory support should be immediately in place. It is felt that all the municipal and PRI bodies should hugely incentivise and make it mandatory for all the private and public buildings to have a ‘roof-top water harvesting structure’ as far as practicable, while also recycling most of the water we use to make the same usable for different purposes, including drinking. The regulatory machinery must ensure zero discharge of industrial, household and municipal waste into our rivers and water systems, thereby not only improving the quality of water, but also saving the entire aquatic ecosystem.

We also need to reflect on our cropping patterns. By traditionally cultivating water-intensive crops like rice, sugarcane, soyabean, wheat and cotton, we have been unwittingly depleting our water resources. The export of such crops actually means an indirect export of water to the recipient countries. We must selectively switch from the more water-intensive crops to the more water-efficient crops like pulses, oilseeds and other cash crops which yield better returns on the investment of all kinds of resources including water, labour and capital.

According to the Central Water Commission, India receives 4000 billion cubic metres of rains, while it requires only 3000 billion cubic metres of waters for its populace as of now. However, as per the recent Composite Water Management Index Report prepared by NITI Aayog, the country’s demand for water is projected to be twice the available supply by 2030. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an individual requires 25 litres of water each day for meeting one’s basic needs in terms of hygiene and food.

While India’s average per capita use of water is much more than this as of now, the same is going to be severely compromised in the near future if we don’t take corrective measures sooner rather than later. We must also raise the general awareness among all stakeholders regarding the looming water crisis and the related imperative to conserve the same. We urgently require the framing of a National Water Policy to ensure a more responsible water ethos. Hopefully, with determination and effort the raging water crisis will be suitably addressed.

(The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. Views are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government)