India’s systemic water crisis: Political and economic risks loom large

India’s systemic water crisis: Political and economic risks loom large

An ongoing Karnataka-Tamil Nadu dispute over the Cauvery river is indicative of a broader water crisis facing India. Political and economic risks linked to water scarcity will continue to affect the country unless action is taken.  

On 9 September, protesters took to the streets of Bengaluru to oppose a Supreme Court judgement ordering the state of Karnataka to distribute water from its section of the Cauvery river to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Protests continued for several days, forcing the closure of offices, colleges, public transport systems, banks, restaurants and shops, and reached a violent crescendo on 12 September when buses owned by a Tamil Nadu-based company were set on fire throughout the city. Karnataka’s politicians have also complained about the judgement and the state continues to postpone  its implementation.

Most media reportage has, with good reason, emphasised the long history of water politics between the two states as an important context for understanding the current stand-off. If these events represent the latest manifestation of a long-held inter-state rivalry, however, they are also suggestive of a broader trend. The Cauvery river dispute points towards the political and economic risks posed by a systemic water crisis affecting India more generally.  

A systemic crisis

India currently faces a systemic crisis relating to the supply, use and retention of water, of which acute eruptions such as that now unfolding on the Cauvery river are logical outcomes. It is a crisis caused by the interaction of environmental and human factors.   

Generally, India receives sufficient levels of rainfall over the course of a year to provide for its large, and expanding, population. However, such rainfall comes almost exclusively during the monsoon season – lasting approximately three months – and is focused on particular geographical regions. This puts an emphasis on the need for water to be stored effectively and sustainably throughout the year. In this regard, the country suffers from major problems of mismanagement and wastage.

The issues are complex and multi-dimensional, but one core aspect is the country’s reliance on a flawed system of groundwater storage. An underdeveloped reservoir infrastructure and high levels of pollution within surface water mean that India relies heavily on groundwater. But the storage is plagued by a problematic – albeit well intentioned – policy framework focused on supporting farmers to protect the nation’s food security. Many Indian states subsidise the provision of electricity and diesel to farmers and guarantee them free access to water. If this helps with the irrigation of crops, it also makes extensive use of water pumps cheap, leading to overuse and the widespread depletion of the groundwater table. The problem has been exacerbated by the efforts of some states – including Karnataka – to promote more high water intensity crops on the basis of commercial competitiveness.   

Low levels of groundwater storage are a major factor that make many parts of India – including the two states currently at odds – highly susceptible to periods of drought as has been experienced over the past year.  

Risks for repeat high

The systemic nature of India’s water crisis means that episodes like the Cauvery river dispute are unlikely to be isolated occurrences. Indeed, with many predicting that climate change will lead to increasing fluctuations in weather patterns, the risk of acute crises in the availability of water is likely to persist.

There have already been reports of disputes between states in other areas of the country, including in Punjab where landowners have (apparently with state government support) used bulldozers to block a canal intended to carry water neighbouring Haryana. There is also the potential for international conflicts over water. India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads over the rights to the waters of the Indus Valley since their independence in 1947. Notwithstanding the existence of an Indus Waters Treaty, many predict future conflict between the two nations over access to rivers, including in Kashmir. The Himalayan region, extending across eight countries and supporting ten river systems, is also identified as key zone of potential contestation.  

The risk of political crises aside, there are clear indications that India’s chronic water stress also has direct economic implications. Some reports have claimed that Coca-Cola Co. scrapped a $24 million expansion in Uttar Pradesh state due to delays in water extraction permits, following farmers’ protests about the potential impact on water supply. The report suggests that ‘water risk’ is increasingly becoming a ‘systemic and material’ dimension of investment decisions in India: in the two days following an announcement that monsoon forecasts had been lowered, the value of the country’s stock dropped by 1.5-trillion-rupees (US$23 billion).  

Solutions in sight?

India is, of course, not the only country facing the risk of water scarcity. In the face of the dual challenges of rising population and climate change, the water question is a global one. The World Economic Forum’s annual ‘Global Risks Report’ consistently includes water crisis among the top risks to global economic prosperity. As outlined above, however, a dangerous combination of environmental and human factors makes India particularly susceptible to the problem, and makes concerted action imperative.

There are signs that the government is become more alert to the challenges facing it. The Modi administration has outlined plans for a $165 billion water-diversion scheme for drought-prone areas. The scheme would involve the construction of 15,000 kilometres of artificial waterways, linking 37 rivers, with the capacity to relocate 174 cubic kilometres of water.

Major projects such as this would no doubt help the situation, but it would also seem that impressive infrastructural solutions should be accompanied by a range of additional measures to address the issues at the heart of the water mismanagement problem. For many areas, this might include action on land use management, as well as innovative solutions to address agricultural practices without undermining the food security agenda that the existing policy framework seeks to protect.

About Author

Joe Francombe

Joe Francombe is a GRI Analyst focusing on South Asia, with a particular interest in India and its diplomatic relations. He holds an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Cambridge, where he now is studying for a PhD. He also has experience as an industry adviser on international trade policy.