A combination of climate change, bad policies and political apathy is steadily pushing India into a catastrophic water crisis that threatens stability in South Asia.

Recent studies document that glaciers feeding the Indian subcontinent’s rivers will recede rapidly, while rapid ground water depletion poses an existential challenge to agriculture.

The southwest monsoons remain the biggest source of water in the subcontinent. The monsoons lead to a combination of water sources supporting human habitats that includes glaciers, surface irrigation and ground water. But redundancy and surplus have gone missing from this once abundant system. Taking their place are galloping shortages.

Even the best-case scenarios are “scary,” water researcher Aditi Mukherji told Asia Times.

Terrible loss of glaciers

Mukherji is one of the editors of a landmark study that was published earlier this year. It predicts a terrible loss of the glaciers that dot the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment” says that even if urgent global action on climate change is able to limit global warning to 1.5 degrees centigrade, it will still lead to a loss of a third of the glaciers in the region by the year 2100.

If the temperatures rise by 2.7 degrees centigrade, then half the glaciers will be gone. And if the current rate of global warming continues and temperatures rise by 6 degrees centigrade, then two-thirds of the glaciers will melt away.

This has major implications for India, China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. While the nearly 250 million who live in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region will be most impacted from the outset, another 1.65 billion people who depend on the glacier-fed rivers are primarily at risk.

“Even if we look at the best case scenario, which means limiting global warming by 1.5C, we are looking at a 36% loss of glaciers,” said Mukherji, whose fellow  editors of this seminal study are Phillipus Wester, Arabinda Mishra and Arun Bhakta Shreshtha. The four work at the Integrated Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“We have also looked at the impact on water flows, and the Indus river will be the worst affected. The other two major rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, will have a limited impact since they are largely rain-fed,” she said. According to her, achieving a global target for reducing carbon emissions is nearly impossible. As a result, the loss of the glaciers is imminent and irreversible.

While the ICIMOD study used climate change data and thousands of reports, another study using spy satellite imagery confirms that the loss to the glaciers has already arrived at an alarming stage. The study, published in the journal Sciences Advance, says that the region is losing 8.3 billion tons of ice every year. The average annual loss of ice between 2000 and 2016 doubled due to climate change. “Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater to densely populated catchments in South Asia,” the study notes, painting a grim picture of the region’s ability to sustain habitats.

Bad irrigation policies

If glaciers melting by the year 2100 is bad news, the outlook is worse when it comes to ground water. Himanshu Thakkar, who leads the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in New Delhi, has been tracking water policies for decades. “Every study on the availability of water has now confirmed that ground water is the biggest source of water in the subcontinent. However, most governments are refusing to accept this as a reality. As a result, we have seen a succession of bad policies that has made matters worse,” he said.

Thakkar was part of a government committee in 2012 set up under the central planning commission, which used to design and implement India’s five-year development plans. Another study headed by noted water and development expert Mihir Shah concluded in 2016 that two-thirds of India’s irrigation needs depended exclusively on ground water.”However, since most of the finances are geared towards surface irrigation methods such as dams and canals, government agencies refuse to accept a scientific fact. As a result we have a slew of bad policies that have no bearing on reality,” Thakkar said.

Ironically, while India is facing one of its worst water crises and the southwest monsoons continue to be delayed, lawmakers who were recently elected in he general election don’t seem concerned. Most elected members  were absent during a scheduled discussion on the water crisis in the upper house on June 26. Meanwhile, satellite images show that water reservoirs in India lost between 83% and 92% of their capacity due to use and evaporation this year, and states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are staring at a calamity.

Equally to blame are the agencies that were set up to address the water challenges of the future. The Mihir Shah committee report recommended in 2016 that the Central Water Commission, the Central Groundwater Authority and other bodies needed to be recast immediately. However, little has been done to implement the committee’s recommendations.

Indian residents gather to collect drinking water in buckets from an Indian Army water tanker as the city faces water shortage in Shimla, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh on June 2, 2018. Helicopters doused forest fires raging near the drought-stricken Indian resort of Shimla on May 1 ore police were deployed to guard water tankers in the historic Himalayan town. Shimla's water shortage has been worsening for years but reached crisis point when supplies ran out last month, just as the population of 175,000 started growing by up to 100,000 for the summer season. / AFP PHOTO / -
Indian residents gather to collect drinking water in buckets from an Indian Army water tanker as the city faces water shortage in Shimla, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh on June 2, 2018. Photo: AFP

Federal government officials dealing with water supply and irrigation also blame a combination of politics, money and corruption for this mess. “In states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, the sugar lobby virtually dictates politics,” a senior official in the federal government told Asia Times. “The sugar mills have a vice-like grip on procurement prices, and connected to them is a host of shady co-operative banks. They combine to ensure policies that are inimical to a water-sustainable future.”

A study that was published in June last year by the federal government’s official think tank, the Niti Ayog, predicted that 21 Indian cities will run out of water by next year. Experts such as Thakkar have dissed the study for faulty methodology and argued that while India is facing a grave water crisis, the report is not credible. But the fact remains that as far as back as 2009, US space agency NASA pointed out that North India’s groundwater was “vanishing” at an alarming rate. In cities like Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, white collar workers are being sent home since the city has run out of water.

Impact on agriculture

Naturally, the impact on agriculture is massive. As Thakkar pointed out, there is no mapping of cropping patterns with the availability of water. So parts of India, like western Maharashtra, which are extremely prone to drought, grow a water-intensive crop like sugar cane.

Punjab, which has witnessed alarming depletion of ground water, largely cultivates paddy, which needs a lot of water. “Efforts to diversify cropping patterns have failed since there is no guarantee of income for farmers and states have failed to provide any structural incentives. Our agriculture is simply not sustainable,” says Thakkar.

Siraj Hussain, who served as the federal government’s top bureaucrat for agriculture, is now a senior fellow with ICRIER, one of India’s most respected think tanks. He has been tracking issues of agriculture and just published a study that has documented water requirements for various crops in different states.

“Due to the licensing system for sugar mills and preference for cooperatives, a large number of sugar factories have been set up in Maharashtra and even Tamil Nadu,” he said. “The government should ban any new factory there and existing factories should be given a stiff target of drip irrigation, say 75% for the area under each sugar factory.”

According to Hussain there are some small victories that need to be urgently scaled up to address the coming crisis. “The Prime Minister’s dedicated plan for farmers has shown that direct benefit transfers (DBT) work well. Farmers switching from sugar cane to other crops should be given assistance through DBT as income from sugarcane is higher.” This, he believes, can wean away farmers from water-intensive crops.

“In northwest India there is an emergency,” he says. To deal with it he recommends cutting quotas for procurement of unhusked rice in areas that are shown to have low groundwater. This would be feasible because the government, setting minimum support prices, is the biggest buyer, distributing rice through ration shops and other schemes.

Mapping cropping patterns in India is a herculean task and farmers shift to various crops depending on their market viability. Interventions by the state have been so inadequate that they continue to have no bearing on the actual availability of water. “We have just started mapping out aquifers and 70% of areas across India have witnessed an alarming fall of ground water,” Thakkar said.

With Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh at even higher risk than India, as population levels continue to rise the scale of the water crisis could plunge South Asia into war and chaos: desperate countries fighting over depleting resources.