By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra
But the good news is about 50 years from now if we know how to muddle our way through till then…!!!
It would surprise many non-experts to know that India’s population is set to decline to about a billion people by 2100 after it climbs in the next three decades to about 1.6 billion. The same phenomena will be happening in China and other countries. Says Sean Foley, a Brisbane based scientist working on forest ecosystems, that this will ‘hopefully’ not be the result of a Malthusian disaster (Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century British philosopher, and economist, set down a theory that said food production will not be able to keep up with growth in the human population, resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity).
Today’s researched understanding suggests it will be a ‘demographic transition’ occurring as women become better educated, and better and more affordable contraception is made available for women and men alike.
This decline in India’s population is part of a predicted global trend. Says Sean, ‘Well it is a good thing if only the world can muddle through to when the population is significantly smaller. That will offer a chance for humans to survive beyond this century.”
A July 2020 paper from the Seattle-based Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation put together by a bunch of researchers including an Indian, Vishnu Nandakumar, suggests that the world population will peak in 2064, about 40 years from now, at 9.7 billion, just under the dreaded 10 billion mark. It will then dramatically drop by nearly 2 billion in the next 36 years to the century’s end.
What is significant is that India will have far outstripped China’s population by 2100 – with India at 1.09 billion, and China at a mere 732 million, which is one-half of its current population. The US would be at 330+ million. Interestingly the paper also suggests that meeting the Sustainable Development Goals targets for education and contraceptive ‘met need’ would result in a global population of 6.3 billion in 2100.
Huge declines in the number of workers are forecast in China and India, alongside steady increases in Nigeria, in those last decades of the century. By 2100, India is expected to still have the largest working-age population in the world, followed by Nigeria, China, and the USA.
The task is uphill for India over the next 40 years before such a decline in population begins. “What we have before us over the first 20 years of those 40 years is dreadful,” says a demographer who wishes to remain unnamed since he works for a government-owned research institution in the Capital. “Our per capita water availability annually has fallen to an alarming 1.1 million liters.” It was 4 million liters in 1950 when India hosted about 350 million people. Take just one household: the simple innocent act of consuming 30,000 liters in an urban middle-class home, adds up in a city like Chennai or Bangalore to an energy bill for the city’s source energy demand of about 250,000 units for every 10 billion liters—which is just 5 days of daily demand in both cities. Typically, this represents about 40 percent of the city’s daily energy demand.
It is easy to see: water is not about water. It is in truth about energy. The figure is nearly twice as much in the other two agglomerations of Mumbai and Delhi. Delhi has the dubious distinction of having one river dammed in the Himachal hills close to Renuka Tal for providing half a billion liters a day to this arid national capital – the only dam in the world built without agriculture being the primary purpose.
Studies at AltTech Foundation have shown that a household consuming 500 units a month costs the country a whopping 720,000 liters annually in embodied water use at the thermal plants across the country that are coal-fed and which devour 30,000 liters for every MWh (or 1000 units) generated. The math is mind-boggling if you consider the country has a daily peak load demand of about 80 billion units.
The embodied per capita water consumption in India today is at a precipitous 1 million liters. This is the entire annual renewable water availability of the country. If we had one monsoon failing, the scamper to get more groundwater will threaten further the already alarming state of groundwater systems across the swathe of Punjab, Haryana, UP, and Bihar, which account for over 60 percent of all groundwater drawn in the country.
Of UP’s 75 districts, 33 districts are running a high risk of arsenic in water for we are dredging up metals that have been buried for millions of years, with borewells gouging water at depths of half a kilometer in some parts. This has raised the ugly threat of cancer and other fatal diseases with increased arsenic, fluoride, nitrate, and iron content in water with deep aquifer exploitation.
Ask a kid in Nalagonda in Andhra or Raichur district in Karnataka to smile, and you will see a set of black teeth, a case of fluorosis. Ballia district in UP, no more than two hours from Varanasi, tops the list of the highest arsenic linked incidence of cancer. The holy, eternal city is not any better, with the PM’s constituency figuring third on that list of arsenic-borne diseases.
Puducherry, a small town of 800,000 has been reporting in recent years arsenic beyond acceptable norms on the coastal belt. The reason? The city is fed only by deep aquifers and borewells with no source of river water or surface water from reservoirs. The city administration is in a tither with 320 borewells owned by the Union Territory pumping away, with no effort to shore up the health of the watershed of the city.
The amiable and humble Chief Minister, Rangaswamy, is reported to have urged close confidantes and experts, “Find a way for me to reduce my energy bills. My city cannot afford to pay so much as energy bills.” Says Ashok Natarajan, a hands-on city water management authority who is currently touring the country’s AMRUT cities with a mission to train officers in the administration on how to manage their city waters more efficiently, “With a bit of common sense, commitment, and focus from both ministers and bureaucrats, cities can turn the crisis around. Decision-makers in the bureaucracy have to respond quicker to the gravity of the crisis.”
Asks Greg Chick, a Florida-based, self-styled water geek, with a touch of helpless exasperation, “How do we get through the osmotic membrane of un-understanding in just about anyone you know?”He sighs, “Ask a 5-star hotel guest, what would be his highest concern on priority, and you get ‘Internet’… Water sits 7th on a guest’s list of concerns.”
Bangalore, says AR Shiv Kumar who worked at the IISc’s State Council for S&T for 25 years directing the installation of thousands of rooftop harvest systems in the city’s estimated one million households of the middle and higher classes, “The city’s water supply situation is perilous. Barely a day’s water supply is in store. If a bunch of those heavy-duty pumps on the transmission and the Mains cough or splutter for even a day, there will be no water for the city.” Bangalore gets about 150 crore liters from the city water utility, loses about 60 crores in transmission, and offers about 100 crore liters to a Bangalore that needs 200 crore liters a day.
The story is not any less dismal in Chennai, which needs about the same 200 crore liters and gets as little as 50 crore liters of net grid water supply from the Metro Water Utility. The rest is gouged out of borewells. If the monsoons fail, and the three rainfed reservoirs to the north of Chennai don’t fill up, even the CM sweats under the collar for fear of a water crisis blowing up across the state capital. The 2019 water crisis in Chennai is still raw in people’s memory when water was bought at an astronomical Rs 500 to 700 for a thousand liters. The city continues insanely to have a flat 6-month flat tariff, leaving no incentive for water users to look at alternative options.
“Since water is ‘anyway so cheap’ and the government anyway has to provide us with it, why should we spend money on water solutions,” ask even some of these not-so-smart young IT professionals who must be good at their algorithms at work, but not so sharp in understanding the simpler equation of a city’s infrastructure, and their own personal need to build resilience and water security at home.
If you spent an idle moment looking at an Asian map, you will find something that will set you thinking. India doesn’t have the advantage that China has, of a far larger landmass. At nearly 9 million sq km, China has 2.5 times more land than India does. Across China, there is an unprecedented crisis in groundwater. The frenzied pace of the economy over the last twenty years as the country’s GDP reached 18 trillion dollars from 2 trillion has taken its toll on water. City administrators have responded, and how. Nearly 50 percent of urban China has taken to the use of water treatment systems for used-water that is recycled and supplied again as freshwater – a strategy that Singapore first demonstrated in 2008 on a small scale. Who said freshwater should be used only once? But that’s another story that this column’s space constraint won’t let me narrate now.
The story on the energy front is as grim. Is there an abiding solution, even if newspapers crow over the 500 GW of renewable solar energy that the country would get by 2030? India’s generation capacity today is at 400 GW, most of it coal-based, and another 100 GWp of solar generation. Beyond technologies and solutions and very good economics for most of these urban challenges, the one thing that seems beyond most people is that greater efficiency is about the only way to beat the challenge of deficiency, in water or energy.
You will now see the context of Sean Foley’s cryptic comment on how India, and the world, have to find some way of muddling through the next four decades before the population curve begins to sag.
About the Author
Dr. Hari Haran Chandra is a Trustee at INHAF, Prem Jain Memorial Trust, AltTech Foundation; and a Senior Fellow at the Indian Green Building Council.
WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, and Hyderabad; and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.
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