The concept of ‘Day Zero’ may have been terrifying for Cape Town, but in India, it’s reality

Collecting water in New Delhi, India. Image credit Patrick Beznoska

Cape Town, South Africa, has managed to put off its ‘Day Zero’ – a rough estimate of when taps in the city would run out of water – to 2019 after a slew of successful efforts to conserve water.

But in India, ‘Day Zero’ is not new, and is instead regarded as a day that has come and gone in many parts of the sprawling country, and leaving residents to dig wells or purchase water in place of taps that have dried up in times long past.

There, a burgeoning population and rising demand for water in industry and agriculture coupled disastrously with bad management of water supplies have left groundwater in India at levels so low, they have never been documented before. And according to experts, rising temperatures are threatening to make an already precarious situation worse.

According to a 2018 WaterAid report, at present, almost 163 million people in India’s total population of 1.3 billion, more than one in ten, do not have access to potable water that is close to their homes. According to the charity that is based in the United Kingdom (U.K.), that number is highest in every country in the world.

Moreover, disputes with neighbours over sharing limited water supplies that come from rivers that zigzag over national boundaries have led to higher tensions as water scarcity continues to grow, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director and South Asia expert at the Wilson Centre, a policy think tank based in Washington D.C., United States (U.S.).

“Countries that get along the least are forced to share and cooperate over water resources, and many major rivers originate in, or pass through, politically contested and tense areas,” he said to the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “So you have population growth, intensifying climate-change impacts, poor water management, and geopolitical tensions. It’s a perfect storm for greater water insecurity.”

But India is caught in a complicated web of water disputes with Bangladesh and Pakistan – its neighbours – who are also accusing the nation of monopolising water moving downstream towards them. But India is afraid of losing water to China, which is planning a number of dams over the Tsangpo River, also known as the Brahmaputra, that flows into eastern India. And while the trans-boundary rivers in India have treaties concerning the sharing of water, disputes are nonetheless on the rise as water shortages continue to stoke and encourage tension.

Bhutan and Nepal notwithstanding, South Asia’s availability of water per capita is well below the average in the world, and, according to Kugelman, the region could be hit with widespread water scarcity with less than 1,000cbm of water available per person by 2025.

With water supplies in India predicted to fall 50 per cent below demand by 2030 according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), around 600 million people in the nation are at a high risk of not being able to rely on water on the surface, including regions in the south and northwest, and where, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the country’s breadbasket is located.

“Large parts of India have already been living with ‘Day Zero’ for a while now,” Mridula Ramesh, author of a book on climate change, pointed out to the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “Much of it is because of bad management. Most cities lose between a third and a fifth of their water from pilferage or leakage through antiquated pipes, and we don’t treat and reuse wastewater enough.”

And as stated in a report recently released by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy and research group based in New Delhi, India, Bengaluru, Kabul, and Karachi are among the top ten metropolises on the globe that teeter on the “verge of an imminent water crisis.”

Bengaluru, once famed as the “city of lakes”, is now heavily reliant on groundwater, a resource that is not being recharged and is unable to sustain the population growth.

“’Day Zeros’ are inevitable unless cities push for judicious use of water – including rainwater harvesting and reuse of wastewater, as well as more efficient irrigation, and regulation of tubewells,” Sushmita Sengupta from the CSE, said.

India is one of the world’s biggest consumers of groundwater, replete with shortages partially brought about by subsidies for farmers allowing them to operate irrigation pumps and no limits regarding digging wells and water extraction.

Some states are taking measures in order to manage available water better. Karnataka and Maharashtra, for instance, now require industries to use urban wastewater that has been treated, and Gujarat and other states have similar measures in the pipeline.

But regulating the use of potable water is an issue that is politically sensitive, and one that few policymakers are ready to touch upon, Kugelman stated, even as farmers migrate from arid areas in the thousands or contemplate suicide as their crops dry and wilt. Moreover, water scarcity has been forecasted as the cause of migration for some 50 to 70 million people from Bangladesh, China, India, and Nepal, as stated in research published by the Strategic Foresight Group in Mumbai.

“With greater migration to the cities, there will be increased social disruptions and greater stress on water resources in urban areas,” Kugelman explained to the Thomas Reuters Foundation. “These will, in turn, increase tensions between states and countries over water. Even treaties can’t help them.”


Source: Thomas Reuters Foundation