What can we do about India’s water crisis? – Part 1/5

(A version of this story appeared in Firstpost on Dec 02, 2018)

Of late, I’ve been asked one question above any other: “Is it possible to fix India’s water crisis?”.

My answer has been, “Yes, it’s possible.”

But is it probable?

That is a different story.

The story so far…

In the course of the past few pieces, we’ve travelled a long way: From Mesopotamia, to the fast fading forests of India, to the dams, tanks and the disappearing channels, to Day Zero. Thousands of years in one sentence.

We’ve learnt that water and forests and geography and community are intimately linked in a delicate equilibrium. Touch one, and the others react. Cut the forests, water flow decreases, and tanks silt up. Draw water up through borewells, and the motivation to desilt tanks, or adhere to community-agreed rules and responsibilities falls. Neglect community-driven tank maintenance, and water storage falls. But in India, we haven’t just disturbed one element, we’ve shaken up every part of this equilibrium.

Washing clothes

Remember, India has a highly seasonal water supply. Water demand has both exploded, as the economy and population have grown, and become more constant through the year. To stretch out the seasonal water over this ever-increasing ask requires plentiful water storage – which India does not have. We saw that creating storage, or even maintaining what existed earlier, is politically problematic. Creating large-scale storage – dams and reservoirs – runs into environmental and civil society hurdles. Somebody’s home gets submerged, and that somebody (with friends) protests. Small scale storage – our tanks – are falling by the wayside – eaten up as cities expand, and the need for centrally located land skyrockets. Underground storage – our aquifers – is falling prey to the borewell, as mountains of water are sucked out, powered by free electricity doled out by governments running on shorter-than-geological-timescales.

Sewage in Vaigai, Madurai; Photograph by Mridula Ramesh

Climate Change has India’s water in its sights. Warmer temperatures cause a greater fraction of water in reservoirs to evaporate, reducing storage. Climate change increases the volatility of India’s water supply, by increasing both spatial and temporal availability of rainfall: drier regions will likely get drier, and wet regions will get wetter. The incidence of intense rainfall events – the kind that leads to flooding (especially when coupled with unwise urban planning) – is set to increase. Given that most Indian farms are rainfed and many city neighbourhoods look to run out of water entirely, only underscores the need to manage our water better NOW.

Yet, most of us are strangers to the vocabulary of water management– measure, price, pressure, leaks or STP. We discovered this in our survey in Madurai, in talking to 1000+ households, that over 80% of respondents did not know what “sewage treatment” meant or was.

Sundaram Climate Institute Survey of 1000+ households in 2018. % of responses.

Nearly half of the households did not have a working rainwater harvesting system. And many families openly laughed when we asked about metering.

Sundaram Climate Institute Survey of 1000+ households in 2018. % of responses.

We know what we must do to solve India’s water crisis. But, for the most part, this has been a non-starter.


This answer has political roots. Effective water management requires the altering several pieces of the existing equilibrium. Doing this takes time, and tremendous amounts of political capital as the changes will pointedly and immediately hurt powerful interests who benefit from the current equilibrium. The benefits, on the other hand, come late, are dispersed (diffusely and unequally) making water management a difficult political sell.

Interestingly, our current set of elections provide good case studies in what can be done, what has been done and what can go wrong. We will consider two of the states that recently went to elections as two case studies: First, Madhya Pradesh, and second, Telangana, to see if water management indeed translates to electoral victory.

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