The Oblivion of Water Crisis
As summer draws in on major parts across the world, headlines are slowly moving their focus from Coronavirus to climate change : fires, heat waves and receding access to water. In 2019, pre-pandemic, India won the spotlight with delayed or deficient monsoons, droughts, farmer suicides and an un-official declaration of ‘water crisis’.
To address the matter of delayed monsoons, Hindu communities across India (with the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka leading the way), turned to the ritual of Varuna Yajna. Varuna is the Hindu God of oceans, clouds, rain and everything water. The ritual is elaborate and sometimes weirdly painful, with priests standing neck-deep in water for over four hours performing special prayers for the arrival of rains. They believe divine power always helps.
As Chennai grappled with its worst water crisis ever, Tamil Nadu’s Food & Consumer Protection Minister continued to express his faith in the ritual and its ability to change the city’s fate.
Of course praying is not the only solution that the government has come up with. Prime Minister Modi has set a deadline for piped water access. He says all homes in the countryside will have piped water by 2024. While that may sound promising, the source of this mega pipe project remains questionable. India receives 70% of its annual rainfall from monsoon rains during summer months — in the form of lakes or Himalayan glaciers melting into rivers. But the country manages to effectively utilize a mere 10–20% of that number due to lack of adequate rainwater harvesting resources. The upcoming Jal Shakti Abhiyan to ‘Catch The Rain’ proposes to address a small percentage of the losses. If it works or not, will require a non-partisan assessment.
Meanwhile, legacy agriculture practices continue to deplete ground-water resources leaving many cities dry for most parts of the year. India’s virtual water exports — goods that are either water-intensive to produce (clothes, rice, wheat) or contain water as a large portion of their body-mass (fruits) — amount to a net 95.4 billion cubic meters a year.
This makes India a bigger exporter of water than far better-endowed countries such as Brazil, Russia, the U.S. and Canada, and represents nearly four times the 25 billion cubic meters consumed by India’s households and industrial enterprises.
India’s 892 million rural population needs these exports — for financial and food security alike. Unless there are financial incentives, value chains creating duly compensating market forces for farmers to switch to alternate crops; the water race against time may soon be lost, creating significant wedges of inequities in a deeply divided society.