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DRYING UP

The UN World Water Development Report 2018 paints an alarming picture of India’s plight by 2050, a result both of climate change and population growth

A new report released by Unesco makes grim reading. It shows that the water crisis will be intensifying across India by 2050. Central India is staring at deepening water scarcity that means withdrawal of 40 per cent of the renewable surface water resources. A silver lining is that the UN has lauded India’s efforts in finding nature-based solutions to global water crisis. The efforts by local communities in India to improve water availability have been lauded in a UN report that highlights the importance of finding nature-based solutions to meet global water challenges.

With five billion people at risk of having difficulty accessing adequate water by 2050, finding nature-based solutions is becoming increasingly important, the UN World Water Development Report 2018 says. The report, released at the world’s largest water-related event in Brazil, gave examples of nature-based solutions such as China’s rainwater recycling, India’s forest regeneration and Ukraine’s artificial wetlands. “We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change,” says Audrey Azoulay, head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in the foreword of the UN World Water Development Report 2018. “If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050,” she added.

Activities centred on the construction of small-scale water harvesting structures combined with the regeneration of forests and soils, particularly in upper catchments, helped improve the recharge of groundwater resources.

The report notes that the global demand for water has been increasing and will continue to grow significantly over the next two decades due to population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns. It cites the example of efforts undertaken by a non-governmental organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan that supported local communities to undertake landscape-scale restoration of local water cycles and water resources in the state when it was facing one of the worst droughts in its history in 1986.

The Sangh worked over the years alongside local communities to regenerate soils and forests in the region by setting up water harvesting structures. This led to a 30 per cent increase in forest cover, groundwater levels rose by several metres and cropland productivity improved. “The case study of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India, presents an excellent example of the way in which low- cost community-led landscape approaches can improve both groundwater recharge and surface water availability through combining the management of soil, vegetation and structural (physical) interventions,” the report says.

The UN report also lauded the leadership provided by women, who customarily take responsibility for providing their families with safe freshwater. Activities centred on the construction of small-scale water harvesting structures combined with the regeneration of forests and soils, particularly in upper catchments, helped improve the recharge of groundwater resources. The impact of these efforts was significant, with groundwater levels rising by an estimated six metres; productive farmland increasing from 20 to 80 per cent of the catchment and crucial forest cover, including in farmlands, which helps to maintain the integrity and water-retaining capacity of the soil, increasing by 33 per cent. “These innovative water solutions improved water security in rural India,” the report says.

“Goal 6” of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015 seeks to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all and, also access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. Due to climate change, wetter regions are becoming wetter, and drier regions are becoming even drier. At present, an estimated 3.6 billion people, nearly half the global population, live in areas potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8 billion to 5.7 billion by 2050.

The report notes that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at disposal. The already stressed ground water resources will face even greater pressure in north India. SK Sarkar, who heads the water resources division at policy think-tank TERI, says that groundwater depletion was extremely severe in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Not only this, he feared that the ground water depletion carried with it the risk of soil salinity. South and central India will experience high levels of risk from poor water quality in its river basins by 2050. The UNESCO report says that over 2 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water but almost twice that number of people does not have access to safe sanitation.

The demand for water is expected to increase by almost one-third by 2050 compared to 2010 levels. Contamination is not only a problem with surface water resources but also groundwater. There is growing evidence to show that because of dumping of faecal matter in the ground — either because of open defecation or soak-pits toilets with improper disposal of faecal matter — leads to contamination of groundwater aquifers with E-coli bacteria, according to experts. China, India, United States, Russia and Pakistan are the largest consumers of water at present and they will continue to be top water guzzlers in 2050. The report attributed the water scarcity to population growth and climate change, which were not just fuelling water scarcity but also flooding in areas that are not historically flood-prone.

According to the report, the number of people exposed to flood risk surged from 1.2 billion today to 1.6 billion in 2050, and assets valued at US $45 trillion will also be at risk. The report recommends nature-based solution that mimic nature, citing the example of small-scale water harvesting structure in Rajasthan that quenched the water demand of 1,000 villages. Another example of this is the underground taming of floods for irrigation (UTFI) project that is being piloted in Ganga river basin. UTFI is a way of managing both flooding and drought because the method entails channelizing excess flow during the wet season for the recharge of aquifers, thus curbing flooding downstream. A greater recharge of groundwater helps to meet needs during a dry spell. As the global population expands and the planet warms, demand for water is rising, while the quality and reliability of our water supply is declining.
– PTI Feature