Water scarcity will get worse

Media reports today talk of drought and water scarcity as though they are the same thing. In fact they are very different. Droughts will come and go, but water scarcity will worsen steadily because of populist policies and poor governance. The poor will be the worst hit.

Drought is caused by monsoon failure. It is part of the cycle of nature, and comes and goes. By contrast, water scarcity is caused by human mismanagement, and will keep worsening until management improves. That in turn requires high-quality governments with the moral authority to enforce tough rules. But if, as is the case in India, politicians are widely regarded as rogues and opportunists, they will not have the moral authority to impose tough rules even if inclined to do so.

Increasing population, irrigation and industrialisation all raise the demand for water. The supply is fixed by nature. The Tata Energy Research Institute estimates that water demand will virtually double from 564 billion cubic metres (bcum) in 1997 to 1,048 bcum in 2047. This will not hit just semi- arid areas like Rajasthan or Saurashtra but create a 25 per cent shortfall in availability even in the Gangetic plain and western plains.

This implies horrendous pain even in bumper monsoons.

Now, other countries have tackled such problems. India’s water availability per head of 1,947 cubic metres (cum) is not high, yet it exceeds that of Belgium (1,228 cum), Czech Republic (1,554 cum) New Zealand (532 cum), and Singapore (193 cum). All these countries have much higher levels of income and industrialisation than India. All ensure adequate and safe water for their citizens (unlike India).

Israel’s water availability per head is only 184 cum, yet it is a huge agricultural success. It has rules, regulations and pricing systems which ensure that every drop of water is well utilised and recycled wherever possible. It has no populist subsidies or bankrupt delivery systems that encourage waste.

India, alas, has both. Rural electricity is highly subsidised or free, so farmers are encouraged to over-pump groundwater. Worse, they are induced to grow water- guzzling crops like rice and sugar cane that are environmentally disastrous: wherever water consumption exceeds rainfall, the water table falls fast.

Drinking water wells are the first run dry, hitting the poor the most. As the water table keeps falling, shallow tubewells run dry, hitting small farmers. Cheap centrifugal pumps can no longer work and expensive submersible pumps are needed. Ultimately, only the deepest tubewells, owned by the richest farmers, have access to groundwater. This is truly a race to the bottom. Yet no political party has the guts to end this madness.

In Saurashtra, tubewell irrigation exhausted aquifers and led to the infiltration of sea water in coastal areas, ruining the aquifers permanently. Yet Gujarati politician say it is politically impossible to stop farmers from pumping in fragile areas.

Canal systems are collapsing all over the country because water rates are too low to even cover salaries of irrigation staff, leave alone pay for maintenance. Subsidised urban water has also led to collapsing urban systems; there is no money for maintenance.

Where canal water does get through, farmers at the canal head grow water-guzzling crops. So no water is left for farmers at the tail- end of canals. Cheap water is inevitably over-used, and has led to vast stretches of land turning water-logged and saline.

The late Prof VM Dandekar had pointed out that canal water in low-rainfall Maharashtra was being used for water-guzzling crops like sugar cane. If instead it was used for coarse grain, the same water could reach millions more of farmers. Alas, politics ensured that rich cane farmers got water and not poor coarse grain farmers.

Industries are increasingly dumping waste into rivers and canals, ruining drinking water, irrigation and fish production. We have a thousand laws to curb pollution, but governance has collapsed and so nothing serious happens to anybody important. Some years ago, a Birla plant polluted the local water supply and killed several villagers. An industrialist said to me with a snicker, “This will cost Birlaji a lot ofmoney”. He did not mean compensation to the villagers; he meant bribes to politicians and bureaucrats to thwart any serious action.Polluting industrialists flourish while poor villagers die.

Many expensive schemes have been mounted to clean the Ganga, and all have collapsed. The politicians and bureaucrats in charge have cleaned up, but the river remains as unclean as ever.

In sum, water scarcity is caused by populism and poor governance. Indian politicians say it is politically impossible to stop farmers from pumping water at will; politically impossible to charge enough for water and power to maintain systems and discourage waste; politically impossible to stop farmers from growing water-guzzling crops or even withdraw price support for such crops. Anti-pollution laws are politically easy, but enforcing is pathetic since the rules are used to demand bribes rather than jail polluters.

Why, unlike in other countries, are so many sensible policies regarded as political suicide? Because politicians are viewed as thieves and rogues. In another era, Jawaharlal Nehru could say his generation was condemned to blood, sweat and tears to build India. He presided over good governance, and used public money for investment rather than irrational subsidies. But today competition between political parties has become a competition for subsidies; no one side dares abolish free water and power for fear that the other will take political advantage of it.

In other democracies, parties compete by offering better governance rather than more subsidies. In India this does not happen because the legal, police and administrative structure makes good governance impossible (nobody is convicted for anything). Legal and administrative reform has been ignored. So politicians compete on the basis of patronage networks, sharing the spoils of bad governance instead of promoting good governance.

In this milieu, criminals flock into politics, and are welcomed because they have money and muscle. Governance atrophies further, while subsidies and reservations proliferate.

The lesson: water scarcity is, ultimately, a scarcity of governance. Ensure good governance and water will suddenly become available to all.

What do you think?