Surviving India's Water Crisis

October 31, 2019 Topic: Environment Region: Asia Tags: IndiaIsraelEnvironmentClimate ChangeWater

Surviving India's Water Crisis

Water scarcity has cost jobs, lives and it is estimated to hamper India’s growth story.


Earlier this year, another city ran out of water. This time it was Chennai, a metropolitan city in Southern India that is home to over ten million people. The city has been dependent on monsoon showers to fill up its reservoirs, which it primarily banks on to supply the ever-burgeoning population. However, Chennai is not the only dry city in India. India’s business capital Mumbai, it's information technology capital, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad, which houses the new Amazon India headquarters, all suffer from water scarcity. Unfortunately, the dire situation is not isolated to urban centers. India’s rural communities suffer from an acute water shortage that has had a severe impact on the country’s crops—so much that the leading cause for farmer suicides in India’s agrarian states has been a lack of access to water for agriculture. The water scarcity has already cost jobs, lives and it is estimated to hamper India’s growth story.

The country with one of the aridest land areas, Israel, offers solutions.


Since its founding, the balance of water in the state of Israel has been negative. More water is consumed in the country than the average amount of natural precipitation. That necessity has been the mother of Israel’s numerous inventions in water technology. The nation has been preoccupied with exploring new technological solutions for its water challenge since its founding.

Israel navigated through its persistent water shortage with innovation and technological solutions. However, these inventions were not limited to potable drinking water, but for purposes of agriculture and as a catalyst for peace.

Water for Drinking: Desalination

In the past two decades, desalination has acted as the central solution to Israel’s water shortage. The country’s limited natural water sources turned almost completely dry in the early 2000s, leaving the country in an increasing water deficit that threatened its survival. As a result of several emergency decisions taken by the Israeli government, five new Mediterranian desalination plants were built from 2003 to 2015. Now, they are all connected to the national water system. Sorek plant, the last to be built between the years 2013 and 2015, was the largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world at the time. Today, over 50 percent of water consumed in Israel for all purposes and over 75 percent of potable drinking water is desalinated. 

While desalination solutions alone cannot solve the country’s negative water balance, a significant increase in the water supply is a good place to start. Thinking forward, a combination of policies will be much efficient in overcoming water shortage for years ahead by simultaneously tackling the demand for water as well. Continuous educational programs to increase awareness of smart use of water as well as adapting water prices to encourage lower usage are only a part of the currently offered solutions. Even though much more is needed to be done in the field, the process of moving towards full dependency on desalination for water supply is a true revolution in the perception of water in Israel.

As for a city like Chennai, any resident could confirm that relying on water tankers to deliver water is not sustainable. The water shortage in Chennai has given rise to tank mafias and the truck driver’s strikes/protests don’t help the situation either. This reality has driven K. Saraswathi, chamber secretary-general of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, to lament “Buying water in tankers cannot be depended upon and is not sustainable.” “Small-capacity desalination plants along with a supply of tertiary treated water have to be taken up on war footing.” Without Chennai’s Nemmeli plant and Minjur plant, the situation would have been even more dreadful. Piped water cuts middlemen and wastage by getting the water to every household without the chaos and commotion that tags along with the dependence on water trucks. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an ambitious target of providing piped water supply to every household by 2024. While his track record with rural electrification and sanitation infrastructure development stand testament to his project successes, this target might be an over-ambitious one. To give credit where it is due, Modi has taken concrete measures to address this systemic challenge. Firstly, the Modi administration's decision to merge four ministries dedicated to water management into one ministry called Jal Shakti (water power) has cut red tape and streamline government efforts. Secondly, the National Institute for Transforming India has launched the Composite Water Management Index, a comprehensive scorecard to track progress and monitor water levels using data. Finally, Modi has appointed around two hundred and fifty officers to water-stressed rural communities around India to monitor the progress on ground zero. Addressing the scarcity of drinking water requires a coordinated effort from the government, private enterprise, and the consumer. Adding to India’s challenge of water production is the energy intensity.

Desalination may not be the silver bullet for piped water supply without success in campaigns of water conservation nor without addressing the energy intensity of the process. However, with no other sight of water in the region, this oasis may not be a mirage. Over seven million people of Israel depend on desalination for drinking water, Chennai’s ten million could just follow its lead. 

While desalination primarily solves the household water crisis, India’s water scarcity has a larger impact on its farmers, India’s backbone and the most vulnerable populace. 

Water for Agriculture: Drip Irrigation and Waste Water Recycling 

In 1959, the Israeli Simcha Blass and Kibbutz Hatzerim developed and patented the first practical surface drip irrigation emitter. In 2019, that technology is exported worldwide, from India to Africa and. This ordinary solution of watering through dripping techniques is not only incredibly simple and inexpensive but also extremely water efficient and allows agriculture to flourish even in areas where water is scarce. The Israeli desert could provide an excellent example of agriculture success in an area where water is probably the most scarce resource. 

Israel also leads a global example of wastewater recycling. Nearly 90 percent of its wastewater is treated and reused, mainly for agriculture purposes. For comparison, Spain—the next country in line—reuses only around 30 percent of its wastewater. Considering the significance and continuous development of both wastewater and irrigation technologies in the Israeli water market, the growing added value of water-tech solutions is significant in keeping the dry country further away from another significant water crisis.

In India, the lives of farmers impact election results, stock market performance, and the overall economy. The failure of monsoon affects crops, pushes the small farmers into debt, and finally to the sorrowful end of suicide. The simple solution of drip irrigation could save lives.

A leader in water management, desalination and recycling techniques, Israel has set a template for reusing wastewater for irrigation. The collaboration with Israeli agricultural technologies has helped in bringing the most advanced innovations to the India farmers at affordable prices through technology transfers leading to “Make in India.” The eleven-year-old Indo-Israeli Agriculture Project has led to growing cherry tomatoes in Haryana, rejuvenating mango orchards in Maharashtra and an increase in produce in other northern states. 

While only 30 percent of the wastewater generated is treated, the Indian government’s plan of meeting the sustainable development goals coupled with its “Make in India” vision gives it ample reason and opportunity to recycle and reuse. 

Industries such as power, textiles, dyeing units, tanneries, and refineries have immense potential for wastewater recycle and reuse. Industries can reduce their freshwater intake by adopting wastewater recycling, thereby, easing the burden on the municipalities. Municipalities gain by selling treated sewage to industries, which helps them in recovering their capital costs. Traditional sources of potable drinking water such as rivers and streams can be saved from getting polluted as minimal effluent and sewage is discharged to the ecosystem after proper treatment. 

Rivers and streams flow across borders and that delves into the issue of cross border disputes in Israel and intrastate water disputes in India.  

Water for Peace: Transnational & Subnational Diplomacy 

Conflicts over water access and water rights have characterized the relations between Israel and its neighbors for years, in an area where constantly decreasing water availability, as well as disagreements over water distribution, amplify existing tensions. While water distribution functions as a central source of conflict, innovative water technologies aside, solutions-oriented negotiations also function as crucial factors in regional cooperation and moderation of conflict. Regional cooperation in this field has been extensive in recent years and brought Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiation table. Examples for such cooperation could be found in regional projects such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Project, which was signed in 2013 between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, for the purpose of providing water solutions and stability for all three entities. The 2017 Israeli-Palestinian water-sharing agreement is another example of such cooperation, providing solutions to address the growing water shortage both in the West Bank and Gaza.

Achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement over water issues, in times where there were not any other direct negotiations (since 2014), proved the strength and constructive potential of water in conflict prevention. In the reality of political stalemate, it may be the dependence on water that drives conflicted parties to deliberate and reach breakthroughs, that might be a solid building block for future political negotiations. The question remains, whether political leaders will choose to build from the opportunities provided by past negotiations and take the connections created in the process to the next level.