April 24, 2023: Rapid, unplanned, and uncontrolled urbanisation gift-wrapped as ‘development’ and ‘progress’ in thickly populated cities that are bursting at the seams is sending India hurtling towards a deepening water scarcity crisis.
Widespread construction work taking place across India’s cities and townships at the behest of greedy real estate corporations, both indigenous and overseas, has disturbed the hyperlocal climate and damaged ecosystems.
A disaster such as Joshimath – a northern Indian Himalayan town that is alarmingly sinking into the ground – is only one such fallout. The clock seems to be ticking for another famed Himalayan city, Shimla, as Empire Diaries showed in a recent investigative report.
A similar tragedy could befall many other cities and towns in the coming decades if those in power continue to ignore repeated warnings from activists and scientists about the vital sources of freshwater drying up because of overuse and anthropogenic changes to the climate.
Chennai water crisis
The horrific experiences of the residents of India’s sixth most populous city and fourth most populous urban agglomeration, Chennai, the capital of the country’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, is a case in point. In the peak of summer in June 2019, all four major reservoirs or lakes – Poondi, Cholavaram, Redhills, and Chembarambakkam – supplying water to the expanding metropolis and its adjoining areas, almost went dry, sparking a massive crisis.
Taps ran dry, schools were shut down, countless restaurants and hotels ran out of business due to lack of basic water supply, and the police had to throw security rings around water resources to prevent law and order breaches. The state government was forced to truck in 10 million litres of water a day to feed the giant, thirsty city.
Ironically, Chennai was drowned by massive floods only in 2015, and it gets on an average 1,400mm of rainfall annually – more than double of what London receives.
The poor were the worst hit by the water crisis as the waiting period for the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board’s (CMWSSB) tankers stretched to 15-25 days due to skyrocketing demand, even as private tankers fleeced the residents desperate for water. Those residing in slums or lower-income societies saw almost half of their monthly income drained out in buying water.
While it is true that ahead of the 2019 crisis, Chennai received two years of deficient monsoon rains, experts said the calamity resulted from long-term indiscriminate groundwater extraction, mass-scale encroachment, and rampant illegal constructions – all resulting from uncontrolled migration from broken villages to the big city in hopes of a better life.
Apart from these causative factors, poor implementation and lack of maintenance of rainwater harvesting systems also played a major role in exacerbating the crisis. While TV news channels ran reports all day about the causative factors, they didn’t venture another step deeper into precisely what’s behind them.
Water crisis in Delhi
The lapses in Chennai were repeated in New Delhi, India’s capital city, which has also witnessed a population explosion with people from financially broken parts of the country descending for jobs, businesses, and better living. In a research article published in the International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, Arindam Biswas and Druti Gangwar studied the impact of excess urbanisation on water supply.
“The rapid urbanisation of Delhi is leading to population-resource imbalance due to the limited surface water allocation for domestic consumption, for example, drinking water supply. Groundwater, the other source of water, is being widely extracted to meet industrial and agricultural demands.
“Some percentage of the groundwater is also used to meet the domestic or municipal water demand. The total municipal water requirement for municipal and drinking water demand of the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi is nearly 913 million gallons per day (MGD). The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) supplies 835 MGD (including around 100 MGD from groundwater). The net deficit in the drinking water supply is approximately 88 MGD,” said the 2020 paper titled “Studying the water crisis in Delhi due to rapid urbanisation and land use transformation”.
“The planning department of the government of NCT Delhi aims to meet this drinking water deficit by additional groundwater extraction, although this initiative may lead to overexploitation of groundwater,” the authors noted.
In 2015, a study by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) underlined the depleting groundwater situation in the northwest, southwest, and southern districts of Delhi.
Water scarcity in Jaipur
Such water deficit scenarios are not limited to Chennai and New Delhi. Cities and towns across the country suffer from acute water shortages due to lack of focus on tackling expanding populations and increasing urbanisation.
In a 2018 research paper carried by the online journal Nature Sustainability, scientist Robert Mcdonald and his colleagues projected that by 2050, Jaipur in Rajasthan would become the second most surface-water deficit city in the world after Los Angeles. Chennai is estimated to take the 20th spot.
Two years later, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) identified around 30 Indian cities, including Jaipur, Indore, Amritsar, Pune, Srinagar, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kozhikode, and Visakhapatnam, which would face increasing water supply risks over the next few decades.
It is high time the authorities initiate emergency measures. Time is running out. Research undertaken by the Centre for Science and Environment has shown that groundwater forms the source of 48% of India’s urban water supply, and in seven of the nation’s 10 most populous cities, groundwater levels have gone down significantly over the past two decades.
A paucity of water supply networks also poses a problem for India’s urban dwellers. While over 34% of the country’s population lives in the cities, 31% of urban households, mostly colonies and slums not recognised by government authorities, lack access to piped water or public tap water.
The majority of Indian cities, thus, cannot meet the per capita water supply limit set by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation, which is 135 litres per day.
UN water report about India
In a recent and more damning report, the United Nations has made a dark prediction about India’s worsening water crisis. According to the UN, India will become the world’s worst-affected country in terms of water scarcity by around 2050. “The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023: Partnerships and Cooperation for water” was published last month on the eve of a major UN summit in New York on water scarcity and water crisis.
The report said between 2.2 and 3.2 billion people lived under water stress for at least one month in 2010, corresponding to 32% and 46% of the world’s population at the time. Around 80% of people living in water stress lived in Asia – in particular, in northeast China, India, and Pakistan.
The global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to increase from 933 million (one-third of the global urban population) in 2016 to 1.7-2.4 billion people (one-third to nearly half of the global urban population) in 2050, with India projected to be the most severely affected.
According to Richard Connor, the report’s lead author, the impact of the “world water crisis” will be a “matter of scenarios”.
“If nothing is done, it will be a business-as-usual scenario – it will keep on being between 40% and 50% of the population of the world that does not have access to sanitation and roughly 20-25% of the world will not have access to safe water supply,” Connor wrote in the report. With the global population increasing every day, “in absolute numbers, there’ll be more and more people that don’t have access to these services,” he wrote.
Corporate control over water
India’s fast-escalating water supply crisis comes as a paradox in a resource-rich country whose large swathes soak in abundant quantities of rain during the monsoons. For India to be labelled the most water-scarce country in the coming years reminds us of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic line from his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
In a world where empires and their administrations are obsessed with agenda-driven issues such as coronavirus vaccines and climate change, a chilling piece of stat throws the searchlight on how lopsided our priorities are. Diarrhoea, a silent killer that doesn’t make it to primetime headlines, claims about 2,200 young lives every day — much more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined — and it is generally caused by a lack of access to clean water and sanitation services.
It is amply clear that water scarcity is not being prioritised above flashier and more spectacular issues plaguing the human race. What could be the reason behind it? Is it because fixing water woes would throw a spanner in the wheels of profit-focused corporatisation of modern civilisation?
Is it something far more sinister than the mere mismanagement of water supply? It is well-known that growing water supply problems consistently dovetail rapid and expanding urbanisation. Do empires that are corralling an increasing number of people into templatised, monoculture cities are plotting to someday cash in on this deepening water scarcity and eventually commodify the essential compound?
Modern history has shown that resource-based business models are always preceded by a scarcity of those resources. The commodification of seeds, urban land, minerals, and underground fossil fuels came right when these vital resources were ‘seen’ as becoming increasingly scarce. Much in the same way, will the intensifying water scarcity in India be followed by an industry-level ‘productification’ of natural water?
Well, it’s not that hard to speculate, is it? We already have a glaring example to learn from. We have foreign companies pumping out water from underneath Indian soil, selling it back to Indians as glorified bottled water, and then walking away with the profits!
Is the urban water crisis a sign that the ubiquitous natural resource, which is as of now packaged as a profit-making product only in bits and pieces, could someday become completely commodified?
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