Indian States With More People Than U.S. May Face Water Cutbacks

Jul 17, 2014 8:15 am ET

July 17 (Bloomberg) -- A swathe of India with more people than the U.S. may need to restrict water usage by March as monsoon rains come late and with below-average amounts, an official said.

Cutbacks on water use if imposed would affect about 333 million residents across six states from the Rajasthan desert region to Maharashtra where Mumbai is and Andhra Pradesh on the Bay of Bengal. The U.S. population is almost 319 million.

“We have to worry about next summer. Reservoirs are holding water storage that’s below the 10-year average at the moment,” Ashwin Pandya, chairman of India’s Central Water Commission, said in an interview in New Delhi. “We’ve advised states to reconsider planting water-intensive crops such as paddy (rice) and sugarcane to minimize losses.”

India, the world’s second-largest sugar producer and third- biggest economy in Asia, last month recorded the lowest June rainfall since 2009, and forecasts for an El Nino pattern signal more weather risks ahead. The monsoon, which lasts from June to September and accounts for 70 percent of India’s annual rain, is so far 36 percent below a 50-year average.

The water commission monitors flows across 85 major Indian reservoirs, inter-state river disputes and advises state governments. It’s recommended crop-pattern changes in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan states, parts of Gujarat and sugarcane-producing Maharashtra and Karnataka, Pandya said.

‘Be Judicious’

“We’re asking them to de-silt lakes, reserve water for drinking and to be judicious when using it for irrigation,” Pandya said yesterday. The situation may be comparable to the drought of 2009, which affected 334 districts across 14 Indian states. About 17,365 farmers committed suicide that year, according to newspaper reports.

In California, where the U.S.’s most populous state has suffered three years of record low rainfall, reservoirs are 45 percent below normal and farmers have fallowed an estimated half-million acres of the nation’s most productive land.

An estimated 833 million people of the 1.23 billion in India depend on agriculture for their livelihood; the sector accounts for 14 percent of the economy. Farmers in India, the world’s second-largest rice and cotton producer, accelerated planting with a revival in monsoon rains this week, according to the meteorological department.

India’s largest reservoirs, though, held only 24 percent or 36.49 billion cubic meters of their total capacity as of July 10, according to the Central Water Commission.

The most populous nations are China with about 1.36 billion people, followed by India, the U.S., Indonesia and Brazil, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.