Day Zero in India Looming For Millions

June 6, 2019, 10:33 AM EDT

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Above: On June 6, 2018, residents use hoses to fill jerry cans with water from a distribution truck which arrives daily in the low-income eastern neighborhood of Sanjay camp in Delhi, India. Widespread severe to exceptional drought gripped much of the state of Karnataka in southwest India in the summer of 2018, leading to at least $3.65 billion in losses, primarily to agriculture. Image credit: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images.

In early 2018, a three-year drought pushed Cape Town, South Africa, within weeks of experiencing “Day Zero”—the day when the city would run out of water and the taps be shut off. Fortunately, extreme water conservation efforts and the arrival of timely rains pushed “Day Zero” back indefinitely. But in India, “Day Zero” has already arrived for over 100 million people, thanks to excessive groundwater pumping, an inefficient and wasteful water supply system and years of deficient rains. “Day Zero” is expected to arrive for millions more in India by 2020, when groundwater supplies are predicted to run out for 100 million people in the northern half of India.

India well
Figure 1. Villagers throw containers attached to ropes into a well to collect their daily supply of potable water after a tanker made its daily delivery at Shahapur, India, on May 13, 2016. El Niño brought a second consecutive year of deficient monsoon rains in India during 2015. The resulting severe drought during the first half of 2016 cost India $5 billion, making it the nation's most expensive drought on record, and left 330 million people—a quarter of the population—with acute shortages of water. Image credit: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images.

“Large parts of India have already been living with ‘Day Zero’ for a while now,” said Mridula Ramesh in a 2018 interview with Reuters. Mridula is author of the 2018 book, The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It. “Much of it is because of bad management. Most cities lose between a third and a fifth of their water from pilferage or leakage through antiquated pipes, and we don’t treat and reuse wastewater enough,” she said.

Over 12% of India’s population--163 million people of 1.3 billion--live under “Day Zero” conditions, with no access to clean water near their home, according to a 2018 WaterAid report. That is the most of any country in the world. With the taps dry, people are forced to dig ever-deeper wells or buy water.

Water storage on land
Figure 2. The annual average change in land-based water (as groundwater stored in aquifers, surface water in lakes and rivers, and ice in glaciers) as measured by the GRACE satellites between 2002 and 2017. Northern India has seen some of the world’s greatest losses of groundwater (over 2 cm/yr, or over a foot in 16 years) due to intensive pumping. In the Upper Ganges and Lower Indus aquifers that lie under India and Pakistan, the amount of water taken out is more than 50 times the amount that goes back in through natural rainfall and melting snow in the Upper Ganges, and 18 times in the Lower Indus. Image credit: Dr. Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

The number of people in India experiencing “Day Zero” is set to grow significantly by 2020, according to a startling report released in 2018 by Niti Ayog, India’s federal think tank. "Supply gaps are causing city dwellers to depend on privately extracted ground water, bringing down local water tables," the report says. "In fact, by 2020, 21 major cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru (formerly called Bangalore), and Hyderabad, are expected to reach zero groundwater levels, affecting access for 100 million people." Loss of groundwater supplies will force people in the affected cities to rely on rainwater harvesting and water piped from rivers--sources that are inadequate to meet the demand. Groundwater supplies 40% of India's water needs, including more than 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of domestic water use. India accounts for 12% of global groundwater use.

One of the most seriously affected cities is expected to be Bengaluru (population 12 million), India’s third largest city. A 2018 assessment by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, a public interest research and advocacy organisation, rated the city as one of the ten global cities most likely to hit Day Zero in the near future. According to an April 2019 interview in The Economic Times with Sharad Lele, distinguished fellow at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), one should not go to the extreme of saying Bangaluru is approaching “Day Zero”, when all taps will run dry, though. What is more likely to happen is that the poor will suffer the most. “It will be Day Zero for them,” he said.

The Niti Ayog report adds, “By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual ~6% loss in the country’s GDP.” Also in the report: “When water is available, it is likely to be contaminated (up to 70% of our water supply), resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths each year. India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.”

A late and subpar 2019 monsoon season will lead to high water stress in India

As explained in our previous post, Another Subpar Monsoon Season Likely for India in 2019, the monsoon is a week late this year and this year’s monsoon is predicted to bring only 94 – 96% of the usual summer rainfall to India. The summer monsoon is responsible for about 80% of India’s total yearly rainfall. To deal with the deepening water crisis, India’s newly elected Modi administration announced on May 31 the formation of a new water resources ministry with a full cabinet-level chief.

The Weather Channel becomes The Water Channel

Wednesday was the start of a temporary takeover of it's now the website for "The Water Channel", part of The Weather Channel Forecast: Change campaign to raise awareness about the issue of global clean water scarcity. In collaboration with this campaign, IBM will contribute a total market value of $1 million to two groups—charity: water and The Nature Conservancy—to help provide and protect clean water for those in need. 

The Water Channel website includes Bob Henson’s writeup on water scarcity and climate change, "Where Will All the Water Go?"

Bob Henson contributed to this post.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.

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