This is an authored article by Shraman Jha, CEO of Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF), which is dedicated to helping find solutions for water security in India. The article was published on United Nations World Environment Day 2023, celebrated worldwide on June 5th.
The start of a new financial year, and couple of months that follow is typically full of investment advice: what should we do with our money? Terms like SIPs, corpus building, and retirement planning are readily bandied about. A core principle that all financial gurus espouse is to save and invest before deciding how much you want to spend on consumption.
World Environment Day – Reflections
World Environment Day 2023, maybe an apt moment to reflect if we are applying the same principles to our planet- our only source of natural resources, like water. And very specifically, to the availability of freshwater. Are we endlessly drawing on the resources without ensuring that we are also replenishing them? Well, then, it would be like endlessly spending on your credit cards without making a payment. Sooner than later, the luxury of living on borrowed resources will run out. In the case of water, we are borrowing not just from future generations- but also from our own lifetimes.
Overdependence of groundwater in India
How is it that a large country like India, which is well endowed with rivers flowing through it and a good seasonal rainfall pattern, has any concern about water? 16 per cent of the world's population lives in India, but our country has only four per cent of the world's freshwater resources.
In India there is an overdependence on groundwater- and there has been relentless extraction in recent decades. The use of groundwater, aided by modern pumping and power systems, has grown exceptionally fast nationwide. For example, in the last five decades, the number of borewells in India has increased from one million to more than 20 million –more than the US and China combined!
The Central Groundwater Board of India (2022) estimates that about 14 per cent of groundwater blocks are over-exploited (meaning the rate at which water is extracted exceeds the rate at which the aquifer can recharge). Groundwater resources serve about 85% of the domestic water supply in rural areas, 45% in urban areas, and over 60% in irrigated agriculture.
Optimal use of water in agriculture
Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in India, accounting for around 80% of the total water use in the country. However, India has one of the lowest water productivity rates in the world, meaning that we use more than the required quantity of water to produce a unit of crop yield. With limited access to major irrigation works, much of these water needs are met by groundwater. Indeed, groundwater levels are dropping by more than a 1 metre a year in much of the fertile north Indian plains.
Climate change is primarily a water crisis
UN documents state that climate change is primarily a water crisis. This takes shape as we witness its impacts through floods, rising sea levels, shrinking ice caps, and droughts. But then, water is also a potent tool to combat climate change. Sustainable water management is, therefore, central to reducing carbon emissions and protecting ecosystems. Everyone has a role to play – individual and household-level actions are vital.
There is a strong silver lining, though. The consciousness around freshwater availability is rising within the government and the communities. Plans like the Jal Jeevan Mission, Atal Bhujal Yojna and MNREGA aim to “invest” in freshwater. The sustained messaging around “more crop per drop” has heightened the value of water.
So can we continue overdrawing without ensuring replenishment? Like in finance, the answer for groundwater is also a resounding “No”. The best investment we can make this year is making fresh water a sustainable cycle- to use wisely but not waste and exhaust.