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Friday, July 30, 2021

Getting all Indians tap water may be desirable. But what’s really needed is safe drinking water

Bibek Debroy writes: There’s no denying India’s water crisis, which can only be addressed with accurate data, big picture reforms.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: July 22, 2021 7:58:04 am
India faces a water problem

I was born in Shillong and spent the first 10 years of my life there. As most people know, in Meghalaya, it rains incessantly. After all, Meghalaya is the abode of clouds. At that very young age, we knew about Cherrapunjee, or to refer to it by the right name, Sohra. We were proud that it held the record for being the world’s rainiest place and were later mortified when it lost the record to some place in Colombia. Pride was regained when we learnt that Mawsynram, also in Meghalaya, then held the record. Information gleaned at that young age isn’t always accurate. Depending on the metric (single day’s rainfall, single month’s rainfall, single year’s rainfall, some measure of average rainfall), Cherrapunjee, Mawsynram and places in Colombia, all hold the records.

Our house had no tap water. Water came from wells, occasionally treated with chlorine. Getting everyone tap water is regarded as a desirable objective and for rural India, is part of the Jal Jeevan Mission (National Rural Drinking Water Mission), announced on August 15, 2019. The objective is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Though a desirable objective, we should accept that there is an implicit value judgement, a subjective premise in the proposition. The true objective should be safe drinking water, which may or may not be delivered through taps. For instance, I can get safe drinking water through streams in Meghalaya or wells in Kerala. That’s not inferior to unsafe water through taps. But let me not split hairs.

Houses in Meghalaya are constructed in a particular way, though modernisation is gradually making an assault. Near the roof, our house had channels that caught the rain and funnelled it into huge storage drums. That stored water was an important supplement to the water from the well. Many houses in Meghalaya had the same design. Since March 22, 2021, the Jal Shakti Abhiyan has the tag-line: “Catch the rain, where it falls, when it falls”. That’s what Meghalaya used to do. About five years ago, I visited Shillong and tracked down the old house, sold when we left Shillong. The house sits atop a small hillock. The house now has tap water. The wells and storage drums have disappeared. Having climbed the hill, I was thirsty and asked for a glass of water. I was given branded bottled water, perhaps the only means of ensuring now that water is safe. (Tests show that not all branded bottled water is safe.) As for Cherrapunjee, where it still rains incessantly, there is a shortage of drinking water.

India faces a water problem. In different documents, I have found three different statements. If you read them carefully, they are not identical. With its share of the world population, India has 4 per cent of the world’s water resources; 4 per cent of the world’s renewable water resources; and 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources. Since 97.5 per cent of the world’s water consists of salt water, the right indicator must be freshwater. In working out that 4 per cent, there is a numerator and a denominator. What do I include in that denominator of the world’s freshwater? Do I include water in glaciers, under polar ice caps, in the atmosphere and in soil too deep under the earth’s surface? I am no water expert, but it seems to me that there is subjectivity in determining the denominator. It is worse for the numerator, the India-specific part. What percentage of average annual rainfall do I include? What percentage of the annual flow of the Himalayan rivers? What percentage of groundwater potential? I haven’t found clear answers to these questions, even if they are subjective. Hence, the 4 per cent number seems to be mechanically regurgitated. At one level, this is certainly pedantic. Whether it is 4 per cent or 5 per cent, India does have a water crisis. There is no denying that. There is an aggregate water crisis and there is a distribution crisis, since rainfall ranges from copious Meghalaya to arid Rajasthan.

Pedantic tendencies notwithstanding, one would like to know the average annual per capita water availability. The Central Water Commission’s figure is 1,486 cubic metres for 2021. The World Bank says the figure is 1,100 cubic metres. This difference is too much and someone should reconcile definitions and data. Water stress occurs at less than 1,700 cubic metres and water scarcity at less than 1,000 cubic metres. In 1951, we had 5,177 cubic metres. Projections tell us by 2050, we will have 1,235 cubic metres. Stated simply, there has been a population explosion, inefficient collection of water and its inefficient use (such as in agriculture). If any resource is under-priced, even if one ignores negative externalities, its use will be inefficient and excessive. It shouldn’t be surprising that cities have run out of groundwater and that tankers thrive. Parts of the country with an abundance of rivers and lakes are water-stressed, and are compounded by quality issues, arsenic contamination being an extreme example. Everyone knows the big picture reform answer — decentralise, align policy design to river basins, sort inter-state issues, clearly define water rights (contrast surface water rights with groundwater rights), break down silos, revamp environmental laws, develop local capacity, introduce water user associations, revive traditional structures, rework irrigation and cropping patterns and price water properly.

The Jal Jeevan Mission is the retail end and its track record has been impressive with a target of 2024 for tap connections everywhere in rural India. The big picture template is that of the National Water Mission.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 22, 2021 under the title ‘The problem of water’. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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