In June 2018, NITI Aayog, the policy think-tank arm of Government of India, published a report titled, “Composite Water Management Index” on the current state of water usage patterns and availability in India. The executive summary of the report starts by stating, “India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat”. Despite the geographical heterogeneity across India, water scarcity is a recurring issue. The report notes that about 600 million Indians are living in extreme water stress and about 200,000 people are dying every year due to the lack of access to clean water. At a federal level, access to river water has been a bone of contention between many states, with as many as seven inter-state disagreements on water usage until today. Notable among them, the dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the allocation of water from Cauvery saw violent protests in 2016.
Among the causes of plummeting water quantity and quality, the key ones include poor irrigation practices, water pollution, and rapid groundwater depletion. The problem of water scarcity has been aggravated by substandard agricultural practices. Irrigation accounts for up to 84% of water available in the country. About 50 percent of irrigation water comes from the ground column, thus rapidly depleting its levels. The most preferred form of irrigation is flood irrigation, which results in significant water loss. Efficient micro-irrigation techniques such as drip and sprinkler irrigation techniques are yet not widely-adopted in the country. A report from Indian Council of Food and Agriculture shows the penetration of micro-irrigation (which includes drip/sprinkler irrigation) in India is about 5.5 percent, as compared to Israel where the penetration rate is over 90 percent. The same report shows that states which have the higher adoption rate of micro-irrigation had higher savings on energy, irrigation, and fertilizers from 2013 to 2015. Although the government provides subsidies up to 50 percent to farmers to install micro-irrigation techniques, the implementation has not been effective. Clearly, the current state of water scarcity in India can be alleviated by efficient water management practices in the agricultural sector.
Although India has complexities which are quite unique, looking at global best practices can be a sensible way to start to address these problems. As mentioned previously, Israel is a champion in micro-irrigation usage. Not just irrigation, Israel is a world leader in the overall realm of water management. Due to its arid and semi-arid climatic conditions, Israel’s demand is way above its natural supply. However, today, Israel is a water surplus country. This has been possible through the adoption of cutting-edge innovation in water desalination, micro-irrigation, and transport systems. In addition to satisfying its domestic need, Israel also exports water technologies worth $2 billion per year.
Some of the Israeli technologies that hold the most potential to be translated in the Indian context include:
Transport and infrastructure: India loses about 40-60 percent of its water due to mismanagement, leakage, and losses during transportation. Adoption of technology has been limited and as a result, there is a significant prevalence of water theft and subsequent informal water networks. These issues have been successfully addressed by Israel in its domestic market, led by major companies such as Tahal Group and Mekorot (both are managed by the Government of Israel). These companies have developed impressive nationwide conveyance systems to disperse water across the country. In addition to the domestic market, these companies have contributed to complex water infrastructure projects in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In fact, Tahal group is already offering consulting and execution expertise on water infrastructure projects in multiple states of India.
Recycling: Almost 87 percent of Israel’s wastewater is recycled to use in irrigation and for other non-drinking purposes. Spain comes at second place recycling about 20 percent of its wastewater. In comparison, India recycles only 13 percent of its wastewater. The wastewater could have been reclaimed, purified and used for agricultural purposes. Half of Israel’s irrigation water comes from wastewater after being treated through one or two rounds of filtration (depending on the intended use), followed by UV disinfection. The water is then transported from the major treatment plants (such as Dan and Sorek plants) to far-flung farms across the country.
Desalination: Since freshwater is scarcely available in Israel, desalination of seawater and brackish water has emerged as a major way to fill the demand and supply gap. The initial plans for water desalination started in early 1999. Today, Israel can produce up to 130 billion gallons of desalinated fresh water through it’s five major plants, which includes the Sorek desalination plant, the largest desalination plant in the world. Considering the fact that India enjoys a long coastline of more than 7000 km and it’s over-reliance on groundwater, India must consider the option of replacing groundwater with desalinated seawater. Since the ecological and social conditions of India and Israel are not identical, both countries can co-innovate to develop a desalination policy that would not adversely affect the fragile ecosystem around the coastline.
Emerging technologies: Israel has been a pioneer of novel water technologies. Israeli companies have successfully managed to:
- Convert humidity into drinkable water (Watergen)
- Detect leakage in pipes in real time while automatically alerting the operators (Utilis and Takadu)
- Clean water from sludge, pollutants, and waste using bubbles (Mapal)
- Instantly analyze drinking water for possible contaminants (Lishtot)
To confront the issue of water scarcity, we need the concerted effort of multiple stakeholders, including the public, private, and non-profit sectors. While it may not be easy to replenish the shrinking freshwater resources, we should focus on reducing wastage, reclaiming the wastewater and provide institutional support to farmers to adopt micro-irrigation techniques. Israel is thus rightly poised to be a strategic partner to help India alleviate its water crisis.