How India’s water has been epically mismanaged
It has rained non-stop all this week in my hometown of Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.
Right outside where I live, beside the estuary where the Mandovi river meets the Arabian Sea at Aguada Bay, the landscape is drenched and utterly dreamy: Sky and sea blurring into each other with sublime effect.
This, of course, is the magnificent south-west monsoon, the dramatic weather event that plays out in spectacular style from June to September each year. It is the basis of our civilization, the backbone of our food security, and the wellspring of our culture.
Here, we are blessed with an average of just over three metres of annual rainfall, and almost all of it will come down from the heavens in this season.
But even as every patch of exposed earth explodes green, and innumerable rivulets become charged with rainwater to feed the state’s 11 rivers, there’s the troubling realization that none of it is going to be enough.
This is because by the end of the year many parts of Goa will be right back into water shortage.
Our situation is already pretty bad, but it’s far more dangerous right across the border in Maharashtra and Karnataka, where many districts have suffered drought conditions for several years. These are all facets of the increasingly grave, interlinked water crisis that threatens the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of South Asians.
The immediate problem is not the monsoon itself. As multiple scientists from three countries (led by Steven Clemens of Brown University) describe in “Remote and local drivers of Pleistocene South Asian summer monsoon precipitation: A test for future predictions,” their research article published in Science last month: “South Asian precipitation amount and extreme variability are predicted to increase due to thermodynamic effects of increased 21st century greenhouse gases.”
Put more simply, the fact of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will actually result in more and heavier rainfall from the south-west monsoon for the time being, with the caveat that all this increased precipitation will arrive in more intense bursts of extreme weather.
We can see that this is already happening: Each rainy season of the past five years has been accompanied by devastating storms that have wrought immense damage in multiple locations (including Goa just weeks ago).
But if it isn’t due to diminished rainfall, how is it that India -- and more broadly, South Asia -- still has such an entrenched water crisis?
Like so many other problems in our part of the world, it’s due almost entirely to incompetence and epic mismanagement by an entire generation of elites that has wilfully destroyed the age-old water-harvesting systems that sustained their forbears, while installing unsustainably short-sighted and rapacious practices that have brought us -- perhaps irredeemably -- to the brink of disaster.
This is the story of Mumbai and Bangalore, but also Karachi and Dhaka, and my once-idyllic Panjim as well: Polluted wells, concretized wetlands, paved-over lakes, encroached rivers and streams, and absurdly inadequate drainage. When it rains it floods, but the water table still doesn’t get replenished.
All the while, borewells go deeper, buildings rise higher, and urbanization proceeds unstoppably.
It’s a regional issue, but it also has to be acknowledged that no country in the world has depleted its groundwater more carelessly than India.
The scale of dependence is staggering: Each year the country uses more groundwater than China and the US combined.
The results of this overuse are wholly predictable. According to the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), nearly 30% of India’s land mass is currently undergoing desertification (defined as “a type of land degradation in which a relatively dry land region becomes increasingly arid, typically losing its bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife”).
Taken as a whole, the CSE’s predictions are absolutely horrifying: 26 of 29 states are experiencing enough desertification to be worried, and eight of them already have an emergency because between 40% and 70% of their land mass is threatened. These are Rajasthan, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Nagaland, Tripura, and Goa.
Yes, it’s the sorry truth. My famously lush and riparian Goa, with its three metres of rainfall each and every year, still shows up on this list of states that are turning to desert. It’s maddening: We waste more than we use, and both are more than what we receive from the skies.
It’s what Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about in 1970: “Long as I remember the rain been coming down / Clouds of mystery pouring confusion on the ground / Good men through the ages trying to find the sun / And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”
John Fogerty didn’t suggest an answer to his question, but we know who the culprit is.
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.