A side effect of India’s population growth and economic expansion is the increased pressure they put on the nation’s water, food and energy supplies. Analyst Michael Kugelman talks to DW’s Srinivas Mazumdaru about the challenges.
With over 1.2 billion people, India is second only to China in terms of population. And the South Asian nation’s population is expected to surpass that of China in the next two decades. This development has inevitably led to a growing demand for natural resources. But it hasn’t been the only factor.
Increased prosperity on the back of two decades of rapid economic growth has also played a role in boosting demand. Since launching market-oriented reforms in the early 1990s, India has witnessed high economic growth rates, and the country continues to be among the fastest-growing major economies in the world.
The rapid economic expansion has also led to a widening of the supply-demand mismatch in the areas of water, food and energy. For two years, the Washington-based Wilson Center and Circle of Blue have studied the issues India faces and their implications, and recently published a report as part of a reporting project.
In a DW interview, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and co-author of the report, explains that in order to overcome natural resource challenges, India needs to focus less on finding new-fangled sources of supply, and more on using existing resources more judiciously.
What challenges is India facing in terms of securing adequate water supplies?
Michael Kugelman: On the supply side, India is not facing outright scarcity, but there are considerable shortages. This is because, in part, supply simply can’t keep up with the twin pressures of population growth and economic expansion. India’s population simply continues to grow and it will leapfrog China to become the world’s most populous country within the next 15 years.
And while economic growth has slowed a bit in recent years, it continues to be strong overall – and industries need water. This includes India’s agricultural industry, which remains a key economic player even as the country has experienced heavy urbanization.
There are also governance factors that constrain access to adequate water supplies. Urbanization has caused many rurally based water storage facilities – such as acquifers and ponds – to become dilapidated. Maintenance regimes simply aren’t very strong. Meanwhile, there is the problem of wastage. Poorly functioning transmission lines, for example, lead large percentages of water to simply be lost.
Why have successive Indian governments failed to rein in excessive water consumption in the country and ensure sustainable supplies?
It is certainly not from lack of trying. Water policy has been a relatively front-burner issue in the context of development plans. One reason for the lack of success is that the government simply has not been able to keep up with demand, which is so high given rising population growth and a robust economy.
Another explanation is that governments have emphasized a focus on supply-side solutions – such as generating more supply by building large dams and the like – while de-emphasizing the equally critical issue of water governance.
In effect, even as new supplies have been generated, they have continued to be wasted and used inefficiently. Take agriculture, for example. Here, the Indian state – for years – has provided subsidized, unlimited water to farmers for irrigation. While this helps farmers and boosts their yields, it also wastes a whole lot of water. Irrigation pumps oftentimes continue to stay on even when farmers aren’t actually doing any farming.
This is not a recipe for success. No matter how much more water you make available, you’re not going to ease long-standing water insecurity if water is not used more judiciously.
While some say that water in India should be priced, others argue against it, claiming that it is a basic need. In this context, what do you believe could be done to ensure a balance between increased efficiency and equitable distribution?
The key is to strike the right balance between revenue-generating measures and populist policies that keep prices down for the poor. Essentially, a formula needs to be developed that enables India to take in enough revenue so that water infrastructure can be properly maintained. This will entail some level of pricing.
On the other hand, the poor should not have to pay high prices for water. One way of addressing this conundrum is to develop a pricing system by which costs are determined by income level, so that as incomes go down, water prices go down too.
In reality, such a system may be hard to enforce, much less establish. But this would ensure that enough revenue comes in to the water sector even as the poor are not burdened with prohibitively high costs.
What are the key issues in terms of food security?
Generally speaking, on a macro level, India is not a food-scarce nation – and in fact it is largely not even food-short. Thanks to subsidized irrigation policies, farmers always have enough water in hand, which leads to plentiful grain yields. The problem, however, lies in the governance side. Many of these surplus grains end up rotting because bad roads cause delivery trucks to take too long to get the grains to market. And in other cases, poorly climatized food warehouses cause foodstuffs to go bad.
Hundreds of millions of Indians continue to lack access to electricity, and the country is blighted by frequent power outages. What are the reasons behind this?
The chief reason is the same reason for India’s water shortages: Insatiable demand, sparked by population growth and economic growth. India does its best to meet this demand, but there are challenges galore.
India is tapping into its plentiful coal reserves, but bad transport routes and often poorly functioning freight railroads make it difficult to transfer coal (once extracted) to places elsewhere in the country. India also has ample hydro capacity, but there is opposition from civil society groups to large dam construction.
India has also sought to extract indigenous gas resources, but the amounts are finite and they are fast running out of supply. Renewables are also being tapped into – especially solar and wind – but here there is not enough scale to ease the country’s energy burden in any big way. India tries to make up for the difference by importing hydrocarbons from abroad. But still, given demand, it is not enough.
There are also the usual problems of waste and theft; energy is lost because of poor transmission lines, and in some cases people outright steal energy by hooking wires.
Additionally, the entire energy infrastructure is ageing. And there’s not enough money to cover all the maintenance needs. This is one reason for the huge blackouts a few years ago -the combination of immense demand and ageing electricity lines.
What measures should the government take to rectify this situation?
The government needs to act on energy as it should with water – focus less on finding new-fangled sources of supply, and more on using existing resources more judiciously. Crack down on energy theft; find new revenue sources to allow the energy sector to repair its ageing infrastructure; and figure out incentives to get people to pay for energy.
Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.