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Update 2015/11/14; Posted 2015/11/20
Water scarcity

This story is brought to you in part by Idénergie


At the end of November, 190 countries from around the world are meeting in Paris for the 21st Climate change conference; the first was held in 1995 in Berlin. While some measure of improvement has been achieved towards a global collaboration to curb our global greenhouse gas emissions, it is clearly not enough. Scientists have now warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. That threshold is estimated as a temperature rise of 2 C above pre-industrial levels, and on current emissions trajectories we are heading for a rise of about 5C.

Global warming is already having a measurable effect on the Earth's water cycle, altering the amount, distribution, timing, and quality of available water. As heads of state quibble over gas emisssion percentages, the world is slowly and inexorably running out of water.

Today we look at India. According to the IMF’s latest world economic outlook India has now overtaken China as the fastest growing major economy in the world; its GDP forecast for 2015 has been revised up significantly from 6.4percent to 7.5percent. While not among the world's 36 most water stressed countries, India's expected population growth, increasing urbanization and economic expansion threatens its future stability, as its water resources are increasingly depleted to fuel this new growth. Inequity in water availability has already resulted in several inter and intra-state disputes, and unless mitigating measures are taken now, these conflicts will only escalate. All the while climate change is undermining what water resources remain


With a population of 1,236,344,631, India is the second most populous nation in the world after China with 1,355,692,576. As home to 16 percent of the world’s population, it has only 2.5 percent of the world's land area and 4 percent of the world’s water resources at its disposal. In comparison, Canada, with 2.8 percent of the world's population, or 34,482,779 people, has 6.7 percent of world's land area and 7 percent of the world's water resources. And where India population density is 382 persons per square kilometre, Canada's is one thousand times less or 3.87 persons per square kilometre.

To make matters worse, the UN estimates that India’s urban population will rise to 50percent of the total population by 2050. This would mean 840 million people in the most water-starved parts of the country compared with 320 million today. The demand for water has also been increasing at a high pace in the past few decades. The current consumption in the country is approximately 581 trillion liters with irrigation requirements accounting for a staggering 89 percent followed by domestic use at 7 percent and industrial use at 4 percent.


As much as 55 percent of India’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources, which is also a cause of concern. Unbridled exploitation by farmers has led groundwater levels to plummet dangerously across large swathes of the countryside. High extraction rates, fluctuating water tables, groundwater pollution, saline intrusions are affecting the entire water supply spectrum: drinking water, irrigation, industrial needs. Furthermore, access to groundwater wells is unhindered; there are no legal and financial checks to ensure a sustainable use of water.

Using India as an example, the UN World Water Development Report 2015 explains the complex relationship between access to water and economic development. Between 1960 and 2000 India’s mechanised tube wells ( a tube well is a type of water well in which a long 100–200 millimetres (3.9–7.9 in) wide stainless steel tube or pipe is bored into an underground aquifer) increased from one million to 19 million. And while food grain yields have more than tripled since 1950 alleviating poverty, 54 percent of India’s landmass in 2015 faces high to extremely high water stress due to unregulated water withdrawal and intensified farming.

There is also a regional disparity in availability of water across the country due to uneven rainfall.

Most Indian cities, including Chennai and Mumbai, depend on rainfall for their yearly water supply. Chennai has been suffering from water shortage for decades. The requirement for the city and the adjacent areas is around 1,470 million liters per day, which includes commercial and industrial demand. But the city gets a daily supply of only 600 million liters per day from sources such as lakes and reservoirs, which are dependent on the erratic monsoon.

The Indian River Systems can be divided into four categories – the Himalayan, the rivers traversing the Deccan Plateau, the Coastal and those in the inland drainage basin. The Himalayan rivers are perennial as they are fed by melting glaciers every summer. During the monsoon, these rivers assume alarming proportions. Swollen with rainwater, they often inundate villages and towns in their path. The Gangetic basin is the largest river system in India, draining almost a quarter of the country.

The rivers of the Indian peninsular plateau are mainly fed by rain. During summer, their flow is greatly reduced, and some of the tributaries even dry up, only to be revived in the monsoon. The summer monsoons roar onto the subcontinent from the southwest. The winds carry moisture from the Indian Ocean and bring heavy rains from June to September. The torrential rainstorms often cause violent landslides. Monsoon rains have swept away entire villages. Despite the potential for destruction, many Indian people welcome the summer monsoons. Farmers depend on the rains to irrigate their land. In addition, the monsoons provide water power that generates electricity.

River Pollution
According to the Encyclopedia of Earth, most of the Indian rivers and their tributaries, Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna, Sone, Cauvery Damodar and Brahmaputra are grossly polluted due to the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents directly into the rivers. These wastes usually contain a wide variety of organic and inorganic pollutants including solvents, oils, grease, plastics, plasticizers, phenols, heavy metals, pesticides and suspended solids.

The Ganges River alone receives the sewage of 29 class I cities situated on its banks and the industrial effluents of about 300 small, medium, and big industrial units throughout its whole course of approximately 2525 kms.

Similarly many other rivers were surveyed during past two decades with respect to their pollutional status. In addition to domestic and industrial discharge into the rivers, there were continued surface run-off of agricultural effluents, mines and even from cremation on the river banks. According to a report, over 32 thousand dead bodies were cremated at the major burning Ghats (Ghats refer to the areas in holy river-side cities like Varanasi and Haridwar where stairs exist to reach the Ganges) per year in Varanasi alone in the year 1984.

Melting Glaciers
Tibet's 46,000 glaciers directly supply water to 1.3 billion people through at least five major rivers: the Brahmaputra, Indus, Yangtze, Salween and the Yellow River. In all, 40 percent of world's population is said to depend on these rivers. But 82 percent of the ice has retreated. China's glaciers, mostly in Tibet, have retreated by about 7,600km sq, nearly 18 percent, in the last 65 years.

Urban Infrastructure
In a 2012 report looking at water needs for the next five years, the Planning Commission of India said that, in cities with a population of over 100,000, only 73 percent of people were getting sufficient water, and nearly half the water supply was lost in distribution, as old, rusty water pipes fractured and broke.

Members of an expert panel set up by the government to suggest ways to improve urban drinking water supplies have called for clear and effective policy, arguing that official agencies rarely try to preserve precious water sources. In a report, the panel said city officials, planners, builders and developers had ruthlessly destroyed water bodies in and around cities, despite their important role in re-charging groundwater and ensuring water security.

Many of India’s urban slums have no piped water, only getting a delivery by public tanker on alternate days. So as soon as the tanker arrives, people rush with buckets and other containers to grab their share.

Frequent quarrels erupt between neighbours trying to get water from the tanker, with everyone wanting as much as possible. Those who lose out have to fetch water from far-off public hand-pumps, overhead tanks or wells.

The issue of river water sharing is far more contentious in South Asia given the geographical proximity of the countries. South Asia as a region shares two of the major river systems of the world, the Indus system and the Ganga-Brahmaputra system. The countries in this part of the world have been witnessing constant antagonism amongst each other on issues relating to river water sharing. This in turn has made way for several agreements on water sharing among the states which have proved to be successful as well as unsuccessful at various occasions.

What next?
While this paints an alarming picture of the water in India, to a greater or lesser degree, countries around the world are facing the same deterioration of the quality and quantity of their water resources. Despite its relatively vast water resources, even Canada is starting to see water shortages in the West, as the snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains recede ever more. With climate change, water levels in the Great Lakes are also on a declining trend, and bue-green algae is infesting more Canadian lakes every year.

From India to Canada and all across our blue planet, climate change and human activity are playing havock with the same moving water. Unless we manage it in a flexible, efficient and sustainable manner on a global scale, unless we define the real cost of water and value it as we did oil in its hey day, we will be waging a losing battle.

Some people call water the oil of the 21st century. While this description may not be exact, one thing is clear: the availability of water will be a key driver in the development of the world’s economy and government policies in the next decade.

Source information
The water sector in India - KPMG
Imminent water crisis in India - Arlington Institute
3 Maps Explain India's Growing Water Risks - World Resources Insitute
Water Politics - Excellent aggregate information site
India Water Tool 2. 0- Interactivde map tool

India groundwater map

India rain map

India rivers map

Water Stress
India  water stress map

Projected demand 2025
India water demand 2025

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