India's Water Politics

When Drought Leads to Discord

A man walks through the parched banks of Sukhana Lake in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, May 19, 2009. Ajay Verma / Reuters

From the San Francisco Bay area to Sao Paulo to Riyadh, water shortages increasingly cloud economic forecasts. But nowhere is the risk greater than in South Asia, where India, the largest economy and most important regional power, faces crippling shortages and a lack of consensus on what to do about them. In turn, water problems threaten to drag down India’s economic growth and slow its rise to regional power. Fortunately, by adopting some common-sense reforms, India’s government can work with the United States and other powers to provide water security for the sub-continent.  

India is in the middle of a devastating drought with consequences throughout the country’s politics. Nearly a quarter of the country’s population has been affected, prompting growing despair. In Marathwada, an agricultural region east of Mumbai, journalists have recorded 320 farmer suicides so far in 2016, with many blaming insufficient monsoon rains. More recently, members of India’s Lower House, the Lok Sabha, have criticized the government for its inadequate response to the crisis, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly taken New Delhi to task for being slow to address several inter-state water disputes, including a long-running row between Punjab and Haryana over a shared river.  These disputes have complicated the government’s response to drought and water scarcity.

India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of geographic, economic, and political factors. India is highly dependent on a few major river systems, especially the Ganges and its tributaries, for its water supply. For farmers and urban-dwellers far from major the water sources, obtaining water can be both difficult and expensive, leading many to depend on rapidly depleting groundwater reserves or outrageously expensive tanker trucks. At the same time, water is unevenly allocated between different uses. India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water draws, but less than 20 percent of the country’s GDP. This means that, even as India’s cities grow and its economy shifts to manufacturing and information technology,

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