How Much Water Do We Really Need?: Sustainability of Water Systems in India

Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri

The theme for World Water Day 2021 is valuing water and the talk focuses on the ways to value water by revising our water demands. It is time to think about the water consumption routine. We need to realise that we are withdrawing a huge amount of water from our water resources which hampers the ecological integrity of the water systems. Sustainability of water is not just reducing the amount of water we use but also improving the water quality, reducing the level of pollution and also the appropriate use of wetlands.

In light of this, the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and India Water Portal organised a #WebPolicyTalk – The State of the Environment #PlanetTalks with Dr Simi Mehta on “How Much Water Do We Really Need?: Sustainability of Water Systems in India” by Shripad Dharmadhikary, Founder-coordinator, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Barwani. The talk focuses on sustainability through the withdrawal of water from the water systems. 


Shripad Dharmadikary begins by talking about “using the last drop of water”. He made us ponder if the unused river water that mixes with the sea is really the wasted water. The habit of using the last drop of water comes with major implications like a lot of rivers have stopped flowing, a large number of lives have been affected due to the loss of fish and the loss of access to water, a huge loss of aquatic life and biodiversity.

We have been withdrawing water more than the recharge level and this leads us to the unsustainability of water.  Unsustainability is directly linked to the withdrawal of water and withdrawal of water is linked to the usage of water and our water needs, therefore it is crucial to review the water demands.

He highlights that India has 17% of the world’s population but just has 4% of the water resources of the world. This again directs us to the discussion on the demand and supply side of the water to study the sustainability of water. In 1999, the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development projected that the water demand in 2050 would be 1180 Billion Cubic Metre. The projection of water demand for 2050 was made because they believed that the population would stabilise by then. 

Mr Dharmadikary further highlighted that there is no study done by NITI Aayog on the water needs of the citizens, instead, the institute quotes other think tanks on the research done by some private institutions. He suggested that there are reports which project a lower water demand by the year 2050, so taking the assumptions the reports made policies could be designed to make the assumptions come true and make the actual demand of water equal to the projected demand. 

He discussed some ways suggested by various studies to practice efficient use of water like change in cropping pattern in states. For instance, the agriculture pattern in Punjab could be more focused on other crops rather than cultivating rice because of the high dependency on the groundwater irrigation system. He suggested that the cropping pattern should be aligned as per the suitability of the ecosystem and not on the human needs and desires. As this has many benefits, it reduces the use of natural resources, promotes local food security and nutrition security. The other way could be using a different irrigation pattern. Thereafter, it is important to analyse the usage of saved water through these measures, if the water is used for the same purposes like cultivating more rice then it is not adding to the sustainability but if it could be directed towards ecological needs, it adds up to the sustainability of water. 

Mr Dharmadikary concludes by emphasising that it has been a long time since a deep report on water demand estimation was made, it would be better if a new study is done keeping sustainability in focus. Sustainability can be achieved by having low demand for water therefore policy objectives should be the same. Ecology and equity centric demand scenarios should be made to achieve sustainability.  

One of the first discussants, Dr Indira Khurana, Senior Expert, Water Sector, shared that there are two crucial reports stating the figures on the availability of water in our country and they have a vast difference in the figures, therefore we need to evaluate the exact amount of water our country has. One should focus on the sanctity of maintaining the environment flows and question the projects which need bigger infrastructure where deforesting and logging is required. She further highlighted the non-usage of agro-ecological based cultivation and micro-irrigation facilities.

The second discussant, Prof Ajit Seshadri, Head of Environment, the Vigyan Vijay Foundation, shared his insights on the urban water issue and emphasised the usage of wastewater. He shared a community initiative of sourcing “naala paani”, of Vasant Vihar in Delhi, which has been operating since the year 1998 and suggested that in the whole country this initiative should be simulated. He further said that a lot of decentralized initiatives should be implemented. He concluded by saying that it is crucial to study the treatment of water after it is used and disposed of instead of always focusing on the sources of water for urban water management. 

Shripad Dharmadikary then discussed the Composite Water Management Index formed by NITI Aayog where the index, ratings are provided to states based on their water management practices. Though he praises the concept as water is a state subject in India, therefore the states have a lot of data on water, but criticizes the parameters chosen to develop the water management index. He suggests that there should be many more indices on sustainability and the equity of water. He concludes by suggesting certain policies like we should do a comprehensive exercise of relooking at the people’s needs and demands with a specific objective of minimising the demand and prioritising leaving as much water as possible for the ecosystems.

Acknowledgement: Gouri Goyal is a research intern at IMPRI and is pursuing Masters of Applied Economics and Econometrics from Monash University, Australia.

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Picture Courtesy: The Financial Express



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