Groundwater extinction

In a report published on June 14, 2018, NITI Aayog, a policy think-tank established by the Government of India, claimed that 21 Indian cities would run out of their supply of groundwater by 2020. The report, especially this statistic, went on to be widely cited as a figure representing the water crisis currently facing the country (including multiple reports on The Wire). However, it appears now that this claim may not in fact be accurate.

Joanna Slater, the India bureau chief of The Washington Post, reported through a series of tweets on June 28 that NITI Aayog’s claim could be the result of a questionable extrapolation of district-level data provided by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), a body under the Union ministry of water resources. The claim in the report itself is attributed to the World Bank, the World Resources Institute (WRI), Hindustan Times and The Hindu.

However, according to Slater’s follow-ups, the WRI wasn’t the source of the claim, whereas other news reports had attributed it to the World Bank. When Slater reached out to the organisation, it denied knowledge the claim’s provenance. After she reached out to Niti Aayog, it pointed its finger at the CGWB, and which in turn denied having claimed that the 21 cities would not have access to groundwater after 2020.

The eventual source turned out to be a CGWB report published in June 2017, a year before Niti Aayog’s report was out, and with data updated until March 2013. It provided data showing that Indian cities (gauged at the district-level) are using their respective supply of groundwater faster than the resource is being replenished; the ongoing crisis in the city of Chennai is proof that this is true. But the report doesn’t account for groundwater replenishment efforts after 2013 as well as contributions from “sources like lakes and reservoirs” (to use Slater’s words).

Slater and others have said that faulty claims are not the way to illustrate this crisis, even if the crisis itself may be real. One unintended side-effect is that such reports might give the impression that we are in more trouble than we really are, which in turn could leave people feeling helpless, despondent and unwilling to act further.

Second, at a time when both the state and central governments are being forced to pay attention to water issues, making a problem seem worse than it actually is could support solutions we don’t need at the expense of addressing problems that we ignored.

For example, the BBC published a report in February last year stating that Bengaluru would soon run out of drinking and bathing water because the lakes surrounding the city weren’t clean enough. However, S. Vishwanath, a noted proponent of the sustainable use of water in the city, rebutted on Citizen Matters focusing on four reasons the BBC’s claim diverted attention from actual problems (quoting verbatim):

  1. “Bengaluru never has depended on its lakes and tanks formally for its water supply since the commissioning of the Hesarghatta project in 1896
  2. Even if we imagine the population of the Bengaluru metropolitan area to be 2.5 crores, rainwater itself [comes up to] 109 litres per head per day
  3. Wastewater treatment and recycling is picking up, thanks to sustained pressure from civil society and courts
  4. Most … doomsday predictions actually don’t take into account that the groundwater table is pretty high in the city centre … due to the availability of Cauvery water and leakages getting recharged in the ground”

In similar vein, the Tamil Nadu state government plans to set up two more desalination plants to quench Chennai’s thirst. Given that the real problem in Chennai is that the city destroyed the rivers it banked on and paved over natural groundwater recharge basins, water-related crises in the future become opportunities for the government to usher in ‘development’ projects without addressing the underlying causes.

The Wire
June 29, 2019

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.