25/03/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

India's Water Paradox: Turning Challenges Into Opportunities

A dog scavenges in the polluted waters of the Ganga river at Sangam in Allahabad on April 14, 2013.   AFP PHOTO/ SANJAY KANOJIA        (Photo credit should read Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
A dog scavenges in the polluted waters of the Ganga river at Sangam in Allahabad on April 14, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

Economics is largely a subject of paradoxes. Two that come across as most intriguing in my opinion are the Paradox of Value propounded by Adam Smith and Giffen's Paradox of Sir Robert Giffen. While the former deals with why diamonds are priced higher than water despite water being more useful, the latter deals with how the Law of Demand is subverted when a rise in income makes people reduce the consumption of goods, despite a fall in price. If we were to draw an analogy with the prevailing water dynamics in India, we will be surprised at how these economic theories are turned on their heads.

"Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink."

--The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Adam Smith's postulation of diamonds being valued more than water is based on the premise of greater the availability, lesser the value.

India is a littoral country with nine major river systems spanning 81% of her geographical area (a total catchment area of 25.3 lakh sq km). With an estimated utilisation flow of 690 BCM against the total potential 1869 BCM from rivers, and underground water resources at 433 BCM, the total annual utilisable water resources as per data from Central Water Commission stand at 1123 BCM. This translates to per capita water availability of 1720.29 cum per annum.

Desecration of water bodies

The statistics above validate Smith's premise so far. However, availability of water from rivers (which sustain over 75% of the population) is threatened when you account for the rampant pollution of the rivers due to untreated domestic sewerage and industry effluents. Let's take the holy Ganga as a case in point. In many ways, this river encapsulates the water challenges facing contemporary India.

"Keeping effluents out of water bodies need not rely on advanced technology. Nature can show us the way."

Around 118 towns collectively generate over 3,636 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage while the treatment capacity of the existing 55 sewage treatment plants (STPs) is hardly 1,027 MLD. Add to this the effluents from tanneries and chemical industries which constitute 20% of the total pollutants. With these factors, the prognosis made by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) of India's river basins facing the risk of becoming water-scarce by 2050 seems like an ominous possibility.

Between a bagful of diamonds and a pail of water, what would you choose given this scenario? Diamonds are likely to be the new Giffen's goods in the face of depleting water sources.

Demand set to rise

The total water demand is forecasted to increase to 833 BCM by 2025 from 680 BCM in 2000, and to 900 BCM by 2050 (a doubling of per capita domestic and industrial demand per person) according to an IWMI Report. Though the demand for irrigational needs is likely to come down from 88% to 70% of the total demand, the industrial demand is set to increase from 6% to 18%, mirroring India's transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. This increased demand is expected to be a strain on our rivers.

Augmenting water infrastructure to mitigate river pollution

Keeping effluents out of water bodies need not rely on advanced technology. Nature can show us the way. The lack of infrastructure which is at the root of many of our water challenges maybe turned to an advantage. Implementation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) in the 100 Smart Cities programme -- and other urban regeneration and development initiatives -- would enable India to leapfrog traditional approaches to urban drainage management unlike countries in the developed world which are beset with legacy assets in the form of miles of sewers and concrete channels to manage surface water.

To prevent unprecedented levels of urban run-off polluting their rivers, many world cities are looking to implement SuDS. The systems usually slow water down before it enters rivers, and include reed beds to filter out pollutants at source and land to store water in natural contours, allowing run-off to soak into the ground or evaporate.

ganges pollution clean

Getting creative with wastewater

With advanced treatment any wastewater stream can become a sustainable source of water. If wastewater is treated to a standard suitable for irrigation it can augment rivers like the Ganga as a water source for farmers. If treated to an even higher standard, reused water can augment public water supplies.

With the Government identifying 118 towns across the banks of the Ganga for the provision of new wastewater treatment works, there is an opportunity for policy makers in India to use them as resource recovery plants, not centres for waste disposal. Another area where challenge becomes opportunity is in using advanced treatment to unlock wastewater's potential as a nutrient source for farmers in the form of a renewable alternative to untreated sewage fertilizer.

Respecting water

The United Nations World Water Day (which was observed on the 22nd of this month) with its emphasis on sustainable development, is a reminder for us to reflect on our self-created paradox of poisoning rivers which are our life source. With ambitious projects like Namami Gange, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to sow the seeds of sustainable progress and to develop a world-class approach to water management.