India is on the verge of facing a severe water crisis. On the one hand there is a continuous exponential rise of the population of the country and on the other hand there is a gradual decrease in per capita availability of water. This has been leading to unprecedented levels of water scarcity in different parts of the country every now and then. According to a NITI Aayog Report published in 2018, currently about 600 million people are facing “extreme water stress”. By 2030 India’s water demand is projected to rise to nearly double of the available supply. According to Central Ground Water Board, the primary factors responsible for the current water stress faced by nearly one fifth of the Urban Local Bodies of India include: excessive ground water extraction, failed monsoon and unplanned development.
The Hindukush Himalayan (HKH) Region, also known as “The Water Tower of Asia” is a vital lifeline for about 1.9 billion downstream and 240 million Mountain dwelling populace of eight nations belonging to South and South East Asia. Recent research observations have shown that the ecology of this strategically important region is under threat from the perspective of water, Energy and Food Security primarily due to two factors, the accelerated rate of melting of the Himalayan glaciers and the rapid drying up of the Mountain springs located in this region.
This article gives a brief overview of the importance of the HKH region and highlights the threats that this region is facing especially in India. Also, the mitigation measures adopted by the government at the Central and state levels of the country have been discussed along with the challenges in their execution. The article concludes with a set of suggestions to overcome these challenges.
Known as the “Water Tower of Asia” the Hindukush-Himalayas, which is the source of ten of the major river systems of Asia including: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra which serves as a vital regional lifeline for not only the 50.3 million people living in the eleven mountain states of India but also to sustain the livelihood of about 240 million mountain dwellers and 1.9 billion downstream populace of six other South Asian Countries and Myanmar. Recent Research observations have found out that climate changes triggered by various factors has been causing a rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers in recent times. This in fact is a cause of concern as the meltdown rate of the glaciers which is more than what has been observed in the last 10,000 years may very soon lead to water as well as food shortage not only in India but also in other South Asian Countries as well, especially in Pakistan and Nepal who are largely dependent on the Himalayan rivers for their sustenance.
The Himalayas and its Importance
The Hindukush Himalayan region is more than 2000 km in extent (from East to West) and traverses eight different countries belonging to South and South-East Asia, starting from Afghanistan and extending up to Myanmar. It houses around 15,000 glaciers, which in turn constitutes about 600 billion tonnes of ice. This fact practically makes these glaciers the “Third Pole” of Earth. The region also serves as a source of some of the largest river systems of Asia, which includes: The Indus, The Ganges and Brahmaputra-Mekong. These rivers are responsible for sustaining around 20% of the population of the world. The Hindukush-Himalaya Region (HHR) therefore serves as an important strategic asset for not only Asia but the entire world at large.
The issues and concerns associated with the Indian Himalayan region (IHR) that is adding to water related distress situation in India
From different research studies conducted on the IHR the following major issues are manifest:
Firstly increased levels of pollution in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the effects of aerosols and black carbon coupled with other factors like changes in temperature, influence of monsoon and westerlies, elevation etc. are responsible for causing an accelerated retreat of the Himalayan glaciers in recent times.
Secondly, the Himalayan springs are found to be drying up very quickly. These springs, along with springs of other mountain ranges like the Aravallis, Western and Eastern Ghats etc. sustain the livelihood of around 15% of India’s population. A recent report from NITI Aayog highlights that about 30 % of the springs that are crucial to the water security of people in the Indian Himalayan Region are drying up and about 50% of the remaining springs have been found to have reduced discharge.
Thirdly there has been a rising instance of water insecurity in the IHR since the past few years. A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Develeopment (ICMOD) have highlighted that this water insecurity is caused by factors such as: poor governance, inadequate urban planning, inefficient handling of peak tourist seasons among many others.
Fourthly studies have shown that the glacial retreat caused by melting of ice due to global warming have contributed to the increased risk of “outburst floods”, due to “expansion of pro-glacial lakes”, which in turn is gradually affecting the agriculture of the region thereby imperiling the food security in the region.
Projections and Estimates of Future Crisis
Studies conducted on the Hindukush-Himalayan region have not only identified the issues that are plaguing the region but have also given a grim projection of the future.
Firstly, the increased glacial melts could destabilize the major Himalayan rivers by changing their stream flow. It is estimated that, till the year 2050, the flow of Indus river will be increasing due to accelerated rates of glacial meltdown. However, after the year 2050 the flow of the Indus is projected to decline due to absence of glacial waters to feed the river. “Pre-monsoon flows” of rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra which are mainly “monsoon-fed” rivers will also decline due to absence of glacial waters. This in turn will affect agriculture. Not only this, there is also another concern that due to less availability of surface water the rate of ground water extraction will increase which will again add to water distress.
Not only this, it is also estimated that the Hindukush-Himalayan region is about to lose around 36% of its glaciers by the year 2100, even if the rates of carbon emission are rapidly cut and global warming is limited to 2°C in accordance with the 2016 Paris Climate Change Deal.
Also, glacial wastage acts like a “buffer” against the hydrological impacts brought about by a changing climate. A Study conducted by the National Research Council Committee on Himalayan Glaciers, Hydrology, Climate Change and Implication on Water Security indicates that if the wastage of the glaciers continue at the present pace, it would lead to significant change in the “seasonal and temporal streamflow” in some river basins, especially those that are located at areas of high altitude.
Steps Taken by the Government to Mitigate the Crisis
The new formed Jal Shakti Ministry, under the Narendra Modi led Union Government have recently released a “framework document” that chalks out a framework policy to rejuvenate the Himalayan springs.
The document emphasizes the urgent need to revive the Himalayan springs on the one hand and to ensure “sustainable and equitable use of augmented ground water resources ” in the Himalayan region. The document has also highlighted the need for “community participation” in the initiatives of systematic mapping and revival of the springs.
A pilot project has been proposed for the creation of an inventory of springs in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand and to rejuvenate those springs and the Jal Shakti Ministry has been made the nodal agency for the execution of this project.
Various state Governments including Meghalaya, Sikkim etc. have also launched initiatives in their own individual capacity to map and revive the springs in their respective states
Although the steps that have been taken at the national and state levels to mitigate the impending water crisis are appreciable but their implementation is marred with several challenges like lack of inter-governmental engagements in dealing with climate change, incapability of the present institutional mechanism to deal with the conflicting demands for the limited water resources, political disputes regarding river water sharing, lack of government support for local water managers etc.
Conclusion and Way Forward
The surface water from the Himalayan rivers can serve as a lifeline and buffer against the impending water crisis the country is about to face. It is therefore imperative that the Himalayan ecosystem should restored as soon as possible.
In order to do this “The Third Pole”, that is the Himalayan glaciers need to be saved from further meltdown and degradation. This can be done by controlling and limiting the global warming to less than 2°C in accordance with the agreement made under the Paris Climate deal in the year 2016. For this the Green House Gas emissions should be minimized, and alternate renewable sources of energy needs to be tapped into for meeting our power requirements. India is committed to increase its renewable energy capacity through its Intended Nationally Determined Target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. Prime Minister Modi in UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019 announced a revision of the target to 450 GW. Also, a thorough identification of the sources of black carbon, which is one of the primary reasons for the acceleration of meltdown of the glaciers, and their removal along with encouraging the use of eco-friendly alternative fuels is extremely crucial.
Also, the process of rejuvenation of the Himalayan springs should be taken up in mission mode. For a proper execution of the rejuvenation process, first a comprehensive and thorough mapping of the locations of all the Springs in the Indian Himalayan Region needs to be undertaken. This can be achieved through partnership between the government entities, private entities and the local community. Once the mapping has been done the local hydrogeology needs to be studied and then the process of rejuvenation should be undertaken. All these steps are essential to ensure the sustainability of the rejuvenation process.
The institutional mechanisms for the management of water resources and redressal of water sharing related disputes also needs to be strengthened
Last but not the least, these water distress mitigation efforts should be looked at from the broader perspective of a nexus between water, energy and food security. This means that these three sectors are not mutually exclusive entities but are interrelated with each other. Thus, any action taken in any one of these three sectors will have repercussions in the remaining two sectors.