By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The recent Supreme Court verdict granting Karnataka a larger share of the Cauvery water and reduced allocation for Tamil Nadu was justified. It upheld rest of 2007 recommendations of Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal that had failed to satisfy the two riparian States plus Kerala and Puducherry. It was pertinently pointed that increasing Karnataka’s share, the issue of drinking water had to be placed on a “higher pedestal”. However, it can’t be denied that TN’s scarcity conditions are acute and will put additional burden on the State.
Water has become a bone of contention and most of the States are suffering due to scarcity conditions prevailing in the country. It is a known fact that India will become ‘water stressed’ within another 3-4 years due to increasing water use compared to available resources. The recent Cape Town report has come out at such a time when Indian cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and States like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh suffer water shortages during summer months.
People fail to realise that the problem of water in the country is quite serious and a situation may emerge when scarcity conditions may be quite acute. While the crisis in western parts of India is quite well known, the eastern States are relatively better off. But the situation is destined to change with the growing pressure of population and increased farming activities. Moreover, rainfall has become erratic due to climate change, causing either drought like conditions or flooding.
There is a wrong perception that nature has provided India with abundance of water. This is based on the fact that the country has 4 per cent of the world’s annual renewable fresh water whereas it has only 2.5 per cent of the total land area. Since about 75 per cent of the total water requirement is for agricultural needs, hydrologists believe that the right parameter to judge the status of water availability would be the percentage the arable land area and not the total land area. As India has to manage around 16.5 per cent of the world’s human population and about 15 per cent of the world’s animal population, it can be said that the country today is actually water deficient.
Thus one can safely say that much before 2020, India would become a water stressed country. The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute predicted that the country would be a highly water stressed country from 2020 onwards. It may be pointed out that according to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a country or region is said to experience “water stress” when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. At levels between 1,700 and 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, periodic or limited water shortages can be expected. When a country is below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, the country then faces water scarcity.
Meanwhile, there are reports of fast depleting ground water in nearly 30 per cent of the assessed blocks in the country. The last assessment of the CGWB shows that 1034 of the 6584 blocks in the country are over-exploited – usually referred as ‘dark zones’. It means annual ground water consumption in those blocks is more than the annual ground water recharge. Besides, 934 blocks fall in different stages of criticality due to depletion without recharge.
The over exploited zones are mostly concentrated in western India in States of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi U.P., Rajasthan, Gujarat and also in southern States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Out of these, the most affected are Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
The recent Union Budget has come out with Rs 6000 crores plan aimed at efficient management of available water resource and strengthening mechanism through community participation. Half of the total cost of this Central scheme, named Atal Bhujal Yojana will be supported by the World Bank as loan while the remaining half will be funded by the government through budgetary support to deal with the alarming water crisis.
The other aspect of the problem is the issue of contamination, specially of arsenic and fluoride in different parts of the country. An alarming 75 per cent or more of India’s surface water is polluted, an assessment by Water Aid, an international organisation working for water sanitation and hygiene, pointed out.
The report, based on latest data from the Ministry of Urban Development (2013), census 2011 and Central Pollution Control Board, estimated that 75-80 per cent of water pollution by volume is from domestic sewerage, while untreated sewerage flowing into water bodies including rivers have almost doubled in recent years. While availability has become a problem, if this water becomes contaminated, it will have grave consequences on human health, specially for the poorer sections of the population.
Around 239 million people spread across 152 districts in 21 States drink water that contains unacceptable high levels of arsenic, in effect they are being slowly poisoned. The Water Resource Ministry’s reply to a question in Lok Sabha, revealed that 65 per cent of Assam’s population or about 21 million people have been drinking arsenic contaminated water while in Bihar it is 60 per cent and in Bengal 44 per cent of the total population that is dependent on this poisonous cocktail to quench their thirst. In terms of absolute numbers, UP has the largest number of people exposed to the risk with over 70 million people consuming the polluted water.
The WHO has warned that long-term intake of such water leads to arsenic poisoning or arsenicosis with cancer of bladder, kidney or lung or diseases of skin — colour changes and hard patches on palms or soles or blood vessels of legs and feet. Further evidence indicates possible association between intake of contaminated water and onset of diabetes, hypertension and reproductive disorders, as per a WHO document.
Are we to presume that our leaders are deliberately not acknowledging this threat and advising their constituents how best to combat the problem and making investments in the technology necessary for delivering arsenic-free water? What is the problem in setting up inexpensive community-run arsenic treatment plants that can ensure the long term environmental health and economic security of a village or a urban neighbourhood?
The situation is indeed quite alarming. The plans taken by the Centre have not been quite successful. At this juncture not just government support and more financial allocations are very much needed but simultaneously it is also imperative to spread awareness among the rural population regarding water and sanitation on a massive scale, the responsibility for which should be entrusted to NGOs with expertise and skill. They should also be given the task of training panchayat representatives as also teaching people in simple terms to change their age-old practices keeping in view the intrinsic relationship between water, sanitation and human health.
It needs to be emphasised here that the voluntary organisations are best suited for the job because of their grass root approach and also because the work can be accomplished by them at minimum cost and greater efficiency.
At the same time, there is need for a programme of epidemiological research on environmental health impacts in the country related to water, air, soil and ecology in order to create proper understanding of the problems. And the findings of this research have to be disseminated at the grass root level so that proper measures may be taken to safeguard human health.—INFA