5 ways to fix South Asia’s water crisis
Groundwater is a precious resource that is under threat in many cities. Vanita Suneja of WaterAid reports on what is being done to prevent South Asia running out of underground water.
Major capital cities in South Asia – Dhaka, Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul and Kathmandu – are showing groundwater stress with the water table receding at an alarming rate. In Islamabad, the water table fell to 30 feet below the surface in 2016, compared to 5 feet in 2012. Recently the Supreme Court of India expressed concern on the over-exploited and critical situation of groundwater in Delhi and asked the authorities to present a plan of action. Excessive pumping in Kabul has caused thousands of wells to go dry and the water table is falling at 1.5 meters per year.
Groundwater is a precious resource, allowing easy access to water in a decentralised manner at multiple locations. It is more resilient to climate change and less prone to pollution compared to the surface water (rivers and reservoirs). It is one of the critical factors responsible for making food sufficiency possible for millions of people in South Asia. South Asia accounts for nearly half of global groundwater used for irrigation.
Groundwater is also one of the key resources for piped drinking water in the cities and rural areas of South Asia – 80% of drinking water in India; 97% in Bangladesh; 80% of rural domestic water supply in Sri Lanka.
The complex tapestry of groundwater woven within soil and rocks in underground aquifers is not visible. So, unlike surface water, where diminishing quantity or quality can easily be seen, issues related to groundwater emerge only when the crisis is already upon us. But that is often too late, as replenishment of groundwater takes a long time.
Over-extraction of groundwater not only affects availability for direct human consumption, it also damages wetlands and rivers and undermines ecosystem structure and services. Over-extraction also affects the quality of groundwater, by increasing the possibility of geogenic sources of contamination such as arsenic and fluoride. Around one quarter of the population in Bangladesh are exposed to drinking water contaminated with arsenic due to tapping into shallow aquifers. Salinity and arsenic affect 60% of underground supply across the Ganges’ Indo-Gangetic Basin, which supports a large population in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, making its water unsuitable for drinking or irrigation.
In recent years, issues of groundwater governance have gained traction in South Asia. The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (WASA), which currently provides 78% of Dhaka’s drinking water from groundwater, has plans to double the share of surface water from 22 % to 43% by 2019, and so take pressure off groundwater extraction.
Balancing groundwater usage with other sources is important when planning cities and human settlements. In the 21 major cities of India that are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people, it is important to focus not only on increasing groundwater recharge (the replenishment of aquifers) but also to develop and manage other sources of surface water, reuse waste water and pay attention to rain water harvesting. In Delhi, a very recent plan of action will renovate 200 lakes, treat wastewater for reuse, and concrete the canal bringing water from nearby states to reduce leakage. Pakistan passed its first ever national water policy in April 2018, recommending the creation of a Groundwater Authority as a regulatory body. The Government of India framed a model groundwater bill in 2017, including state control over groundwater extraction.
However, groundwater management requires ingenious solutions at various levels, including citizens’ engagement. Food labels comes with expiry dates and quality contents – so should aquifers. They should be publicly labelled with expiry dates, quality contents, and always be in the public imagination to encourage effective citizen engagement.
Five key challenges across South Asia need to be tackled by governments to create a robust groundwater management regime.
Robust data: The current assessment methodology in India uses a very small sample size of observation wells, which makes it ineffective for monitoring and management. Pakistan only recently mapped for the first time the groundwater in the Upper Indus basin.
As most groundwater usage is for agriculture, and a large population in South Asia depends on farming, the second biggest challenge is to find a suitable mix of solutions to change the cropping pattern in water-stressed agricultural areas, through incentives, pricing or regulation.
The third challenge is to enforce a regulatory framework on the extraction of water on private property by land owners. The large number of users and decentralized extraction makes any regulation hard to implement.
The fourth challenge is achieving integrated water resource management by seeking a balance between surface water and groundwater usage, and strengthening rainwater harvesting.
The fifth and the most important challenge is about triggering effective citizen engagement for participatory local governance of groundwater.
In 2015, the international community, including the governments of South Asia, committed themselves to end poverty by 2030 and leave no one behind. One of the key elements of that promise is to ensure water security. Water is the basic right and lifeline for sanitation, hygiene, food security, health, nutrition, inequality and livelihoods. It is also a key ingredient for resilient cities and human settlements. The ministers meeting at the UN’s High-Level Panel Forum in New York this week have a unique opportunity to come together and review the progress on the SDG goal on water and sanitation (goal 6) and the goal on resilient cities and human settlements (goal 11). While discussing and reviewing goals 6 and 11 at the HLPF, member states should pay due attention to groundwater management. But in the end, action and responsibility lie at national and local level for good governance of the respective water resources.