Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

India in Crisis: The Decline of Available Freshwater

By Julia MalitsPublished November 9, 2015

Water is essential for life on Earth, and with the rising lack of access to fresh water, nations will fall into a humanitarian crisis that already exists in certain areas of the world. India is currently one of the lead developing countries in water pollution as a result of its growing population and economy. However, in order to maintain access to clean water for its citizens, the Indian government must curtail its water polluting activities.

By Julia Malits, 11/9/15

70% of Earth's surface is covered by water, yet only 2.5% of that figure is freshwater appropriate for human consumption. Even more so, 1% of the available freshwater is actually accessible, generating a strictly limited amount of water suitable for human use in a variety of ways. Given these circumstances, one would think that nations would utilize and save every ounce of freshwater available on the planet, both for future generations and ourselves. Remarkably, and with India in the lead, many developing countries are actively polluting their own waterways as their populations soar and their economies gain traction.

With its one billion-plus citizens, India might soon be on the verge of a freshwater shortage crisis, and with its unrelenting, unregulated water pollution, it has its government largely to blame. In a recent study, 13 of the two 20 top polluted cities around the world were found to exist in India. Likewise, a recent three-year analysis reviewed the water quality of 290 Indian rivers and found that 66% of the stretches had high levels of organic pollution. In 2011, a survey by the Central Pollution Control Board in India found that only 160 of the 8,000 towns examined had both sewage systems and sewage treatment plants. As a result, 80% of India's sewage is untreated and flows directly back into the country's rivers, polluting the central source of drinking water for millions of Indian citizens. And of the towns that do have treatment plants, severely outdated municipal facilities are not equipped to remove heavy mental traces, which thus seep into groundwater and fresh drinking water. These findings highlight the current status of water pollution and underscore the need for wide scale changes in a country as large and complex as India.
A number of factors are responsible for India's increasing levels of water pollution. India's rapid economic growth has spurred urbanization and industrialization at exponential rates that have outpaced waste management infrastructure and the allocation of physical space for waste disposal. As a result, the increased solid waste and wastewater output often wind up in rivers and freshwater bodies. Likewise, weak or non-existent enforcement of environmental laws lends to the continued degradation of India's rivers and freshwater bodies. Industries, both on large and small scales, dump untreated sewage and wastewater into nearby rivers and water bodies with essentially no legal consequences. The lack of enforcement stems from a deeper issue: the central government does not prioritize the environmental integrity of its country, failing to recognize the direct links between the environment, public health and the economy.

Likewise, a recent article noted three other significant contributors to India's water pollution. For one, improper agricultural practices allow agricultural runoff to finds its ways to surrounding fresh water bodies without any catch systems. Likewise, the withdrawal of water via irrigation canals disables the water from reaching the rivers downstream for other communities. In this way, riverbeds are dried up and the concentration of pollutants in the waters skyrocket. Lastly, religious and social practices are, collectively, a major culprit of water pollution. It is common practices to mass bathe and to dispose of the carcasses of cattle and animals in rivers. Similarly, religious Hindu practice involves cremating dead bodies and scattering their ashes on riverbanks, most famously, in the Ganges River. This is a time-honored ritual for many religious Indian citizens, and tackling this source of pollution goes at the heart of millions' cultural and religious values.

The extreme degradation of fresh waterways seriously threatens India's public health and exacerbates the crippling poverty that millions experience daily. According to a recent article, water pollution is known to lead to a number of vector-borne diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, jaundice, diarrhea as well as poor nutritional development in children. Given that India's annual consumption of freshwater is expected to double by 2050, water pollution must be curbed immediately in order to prevent a nationwide humanitarian crisis.