By Sonia Luthra and Amrita Kundu
August 13, 2013
An Interview with Kirit S. Parikh
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Water touches every aspect of life, and in India uncertainty over access to and the availability of this basic resource may be reaching crisis levels. As India continues to undergo dramatic shifts caused by a growing economy and population, competing demands for this limited resource coming from households, industry, and agriculture have wide-ranging implications for the country’s future.
Should no action be taken, there could be dire consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that 97 million Indians lack access to safe water today, second only to China. As a result, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. Without change, the problem may get worse as India is projected to grow significantly in the coming decades and overtake China by 2028 to become the world’s most populous country.
For insights into what has led to India’s water crisis and what should be done to help alleviate it, NBR spoke with Kirit S. Parikh, chairman of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) and a former member of the Government of India’s Planning Commission in charge of water and energy issues. Dr. Parikh argues that the country’s water crisis has been caused by a combination of factors, including population growth, dwindling groundwater supplies from over-extraction by farmers, and insufficient investment in treatment facilities at the federal, state, and local levels. He highlights the roles of the central and state governments in addressing this issue and explains why tools like dams—although often opposed—are critical for ensuring the water storage and distribution needed to sustain India's growth trajectory.
What are the root causes of India’s water crisis?
India’s water crisis is rooted in three causes. The first is insufficient water per person as a result of population growth. The total amount of usable water has been estimated to be between 700 to 1,200 billion cubic meters (bcm). With a population of 1.2 billion according to the 2011 census, India has only 1,000 cubic meters of water per person, even using the higher estimate. A country is considered water-stressed if it has less than 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. For comparison, India had between 3,000 and 4,000 cubic meters per person in 1951, whereas the United States has nearly 8,000 cubic meters per person today.
The second cause is poor water quality resulting from insufficient and delayed investment in urban water-treatment facilities. Water in most rivers in India is largely not fit for drinking, and in many stretches not even fit for bathing. Despite the Ganga Action Plan, which was launched in 1984 to clean up the Ganges River in 25 years, much of the river remains polluted with a high coliform count at many places. The facilities created are also not properly maintained because adequate fees are not charged for the service. Moreover, industrial effluent standards are not enforced because the state pollution control boards have inadequate technical and human resources.