In a previous issue, Doane Advisory Service reported on the urbanization of the world population that is expected to occur over the next 40 years. One country where the increase in the population of cities will be huge is in India. At present India has the second largest population in the world, behind only China. However, India’s population is rising much faster than the population in China. India is expected to move into first place by 2020. And at least some estimates show that more than 50 percent of India’s 1.46 billion people in 2025 will live in urban areas. This significant increase in both the total population and the share living in urban areas has the potential to cause serious problems for the country.

Three out of four countries in Asia and the Pacific are facing a serious lack of water and India is the worst among those, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank and the Asia Water Forum. Demand for water in India is increasing rapidly with solid industrial growth and more city dwellers. But India’s supply of water is dropping. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the problem with less glacial melt as the temperatures rise. The water shortage is due in part to mismanagement. Industrial and human waste have made much of India’s surface water supply practically useless. As a result, most of the country relies on pumping groundwater and the aquifers are being depleted.

Currently drinking water accounts for about 6 percent of total water demand. People living in cities typically use more water than those in rural areas due to flush toilets, washing machines and other devices that increase in use with rising incomes. India’s urban population is forecast to double between now and 2025 to more than 700 million. India’s urban population is projected to increase by another 300 million between 2025 and 2050. Clearly, urban demand for water will increase pretty dramatically in the future.

Over the last 50 years India has somewhat successfully focused on food self-sufficiency. In some years India is one of the world’s largest grain exporters. Much of the increase in food production is the result of irrigation. Agriculture uses about 90 percent of the water used by the country and about 80 percent of this water is pumped from underground aquifers. Electricity and fertilizers are subsidized, reducing production costs and encouraging farmers to irrigate more and produce more.

Several rivers in India are the result of melting ice and snow from the Himalayas. Glaciers in the Himalayas have been melting at a rate of 33 feet to 49 feet per year as a result of rising temperatures. This suggests that the river flow could decrease significantly in future years. About 75 percent of India’s rainfall occurs during the monsoon season from June through September. India has very little storage capacity, so little of this water is available in the dry season.

Most of the water used for cities, industry and agriculture comes from groundwater. There are virtually no restrictions on groundwater use so anyone can drill a well and pump as much water as they need. There is also no cost for the water and electricity is subsidized, so pumping is cheap. There are an estimated 20 plus million wells in India. Many industries pump water from underground aquifers and dump the polluted water into rivers and canals.

The information suggests that India faces a serious water problem even now and that the problem will get much worse over the next decade or so. Government officials have put forward a plan to divert water from rivers to dry areas, but accomplishing this will be extremely difficult. Costs are huge, there would be major environmental impacts, and other countries downriver would have to agree since they depend on the water in these rivers. Over time, farmers may have to reduce the amount of water used for irrigation as other demands for water increase. That could have major implications for world grain trade. With India’s population rising at about 15 million per year, the day of reckoning may not be too far into the future.