I was born in Shillong and spent my first 10 years there. In Meghalaya, it rains incessantly. After all, Meghalaya is the abode of the clouds. We knew of Cherrapunji, or to refer to him by the correct name, Sohra. We were proud that Cherrapunji (as it was called then) had a world record for being the rainiest place in the world and we were mortified when it lost the record somewhere in Colombia. Pride was restored when we learned that Mawsynram, also in Meghalaya, now held the record. Information obtained at that early age is not always accurate. Depending on the metric (single-day rainfall, one-month rainfall, one-year rainfall, some measure of average rainfall), Cherrapunji, Mawsynram, and places in Colombia have records.
Our house had no running water. The water came from wells, occasionally treated with chlorine. Getting tap water for everyone is seen as a desirable goal and for rural India it is part of the Jal Jeevan Mission (National Rural Drinking Water Mission). The goal is also part of the SDGs. Although it is a desirable goal, we must accept that there is an implicit value judgment, a subjective premise in the proposition. The real target must be drinking water, which may or may not be delivered by taps. For example, I can get drinking water through streams in Meghalaya or wells in Kerala. That is not inferior to non-potable water from the taps. But don’t break my hair.
The houses in Meghalaya are built in a particular way, although modernization is gradually catching on. Near the roof, there were gutters that trapped the rain and funneled it into huge storage drums. That water was an important supplement to the well water. Our house was not special. Many houses in Meghalaya had the same design. Since March 22, the Jal Shakti Abhiyan has the motto ‘Catch the rain, where it falls, when it falls’. That’s what Meghalaya used to do. About five years ago, I visited Shillong and tracked down the old house, sold when we left Shillong. The house sits on a small mound. The house now has tap water. Wells and storage drums have disappeared. I was thirsty and asked for a glass of water. They gave me a bottle of branded bottled water, perhaps the only way now to ensure that the water is safe. (Tests show that not all brand-name bottled water is safe.) As for Cherrapunji, where it still rains incessantly, there is a shortage of drinking water.
India faces a water problem. In different documents, I have found three different statements. If you read them carefully, they are not identical. With its share of the world’s population, India has (1) 4% of the world’s water resources; (2) 4% of the world’s renewable water resources; (3) 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. Since 97.5% of the world’s water consists of salt water, the correct indicator should be fresh water. When calculating that 4%, there is a numerator and a denominator. What do I include in that denominator of fresh water in the world? Do I include water in glaciers, under the ice caps, in the atmosphere, and in soil too deep below the earth’s surface?
It seems to me that there is subjectivity in determining the denominator. It is worse for the numerator, the specific part of India. What percentage of mean annual precipitation do I include? Of the annual flow of the Himalayan rivers? Of groundwater potential? I have not found clear answers. Therefore, the 4% number appears to regurgitate mechanically. In a sense, this is certainly pedantic. Whether it is 4% or 5%, there is no denying that India has a water crisis. There is an aggregate water crisis and there is a distribution crisis, as the rains range from heavy Meghalaya to arid Rajasthan.
One would like to know the average annual water availability per capita. The Central Water Commission figure is 1,486 cubic meters for 2021. The World Bank says the figure is 1,100 cubic meters. This difference is too much and someone should reconcile definitions and data. Water stress occurs at less than 1,700 cubic meters and water scarcity at less than 1,000 cubic meters. In 1951 we had 5,177 cubic meters. By 2050, we are projected to have 1,235 cubic meters. There has been a population explosion, inefficient water harvesting, and inefficient use (as in agriculture). If any resource is undervalued, even if negative externalities are ignored, its use will be inefficient and excessive.
Everyone knows the big picture reform answer: decentralize, align policy design with watersheds, classify interstate issues, clearly define water rights (contrast surface water rights with groundwater rights) , break silos, renew environmental laws, develop local capacity, introduce water user associations, revitalize traditional structures, rework irrigation and cultivation patterns, and set an adequate price for water. The Jal Jeevan Mission is the retail extreme and its track record has been impressive, with a 2024 target for tap connections throughout rural India. The general overview template is that of the National Water Mission.
The author is the president of EAC-PM. Views are personal