India’s impending water crisis – an expert view

In the coming years, India will be threatened with severe water scarcity issues. We spoke to Mr Suresh Prabhu, region expert and former Union Minister in India, to discover how decision makers, industry, and consumers should approach these challenges.

Q: How is water scarcity related to the impact of climate change and demographic pressures in India?

A: India is one of the most susceptible countries in terms of water resources because we get almost 85% of the rain during the monsoon season. That means about 15 days per year, to take a good quality monsoon, and the number of hours for which you get that rain may not be more than 350. Natural water available to India is only four per cent of global water resources, while we have 17% of the world’s population and rising, so as you will appreciate, the water situation in India is an extreme one. To compound the problem, water availability in terms of space and time is extremely variable. When we consider the demand for water in all spheres of society, this matter assumes very serious proportions – availability of water is the most critical part of India’s socio-economic activity.

Q: When will water scarcity escalate to the point of crisis?

A: I think that today we are almost at that point. Things may escalate at any time. Today’s situation is as alarming as it could be – there is really no point in saying that we have to wait and see – the trigger is already here. But as the years advance, the availability of water itself will be under stress due to climate change; the rainfall patterns, which are already changing, will put reserves under stress; natural disasters will increase; and all of these in parallel will put us indisputably at crisis point.

Q: Is there significant public awareness of the risks posed by water shortages?

A: I think we need to create more public awareness of these risks. In fact, in my capacity as parliamentary minister, I have personally organised 5,000 meetings looking at water issues, and thereby in my humble way raised a great deal of political awareness, but we need to do much more.

I am currently working on the very interesting idea of creating a network to discuss water, energy, and environmental issues at all district levels. Such solutions are helpful in creating awareness, but also in providing a platform to work on these issues in a meaningful way.

Q: What are the risks water shortages pose to power generation, and specifically coal-powered plants?

A: Water reserves in India are quite low. Without reserves, you can’t do power generation, unless of course you are using river water. But reserves for power generation have become extremely contentious due to the probable necessity of submerging land that is extremely rich in terms of biodiversity. Displacement of people is another associated issue that can cause enormous political upheaval.

All in all, then, reserves are a very risky proposition. Thermal power plants, particularly coal-based facilities, are going to face serious challenges for these reasons. So changing the energy mix is a must, not only because of carbon emissions and so on, but also due to water availability.

Q: Is desalination a possible alternative for water security?

A: Desalination is definitely a very good option because of India’s 7,800 km coastline. But desalination using fossil-fuel-based power will not be the solution. Desalination using renewable energy will give the best results for India with the least cost, and I think there is a huge opportunity waiting to be exploited there, in India and elsewhere.

Q: How are the government, as well as investors and utilities, responding to the risks related to water availability?

A: Governments are obviously trying to address these challenges by way of making water one of their principal strategic areas. India’s 12th 5-year plan, which will be unveiled in April 2012, actually talks about water as a major challenge for India’s economy, India’s social issues and India’s development at large. Of course, there are many policy challenges – water pricing is one of them and I don’t see that the government has released any significant and comprehensive strategies for this, but it’s one of the most important topics. Investors see great potential in water now. Water is seen as the next big investment area. When there are challenges, they have to be solved, so this is what people are working towards.

Q: Besides optimising water use at the plant level, how should power utility companies be responding to the problem?

A: I think water and power utilities alike must establish how to use less water. So this is a technological challenge. Some power companies are considering the issue, but I believe a great opportunity in this area in terms of technological innovation will emerge very soon.

Mr. Suresh P. Prabhu, former Union Minister for Industry, Power, Environment & Forest, Chemical & Fertilizers and Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises. Member of United Nations Commission for Biodiversity & land use change and several energy, environment & water-related forums. Chair of the Global Water Partnership.

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