By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Water scarcity is fast becoming, or if not already emerged, as urban India’s number one problem with government data having revealed that residents in 21 or 22 of 32 major cities are facing daily shortage. In fact, with the surge in population and supply of renewable freshwater water dwindling, the entire country is in the midst of a severe crisis. According to reports, India will become a ‘water stressed country’ shortly while another section of experts believe this stage has already been reached.
The worst-affected city is probably Jamshedpur where the gap between demand and supply is a yawning 70 per cent. The crisis is also acute in Kanpur, Asansol, Dhanbad, Meerut, Faridabad, Visakhapatnam, Madurai and Hyderabad. Though not mentioned by the government, presently Chennai has also been affected by water scarcity in recent years. The figures further reveal that Greater Mumbai and Delhi, which have the highest water demand among all cities, the gap between demand and supply is comparatively less. The shortfall was estimated at 24 per cent and 17 per cent for Mumbai, both of which has increased significantly and may be around 30 and 25 per cent respectively at present.
In most cities, the spurt in population resulted in the demand for water. The data pointed out that if corrective steps are not taken, the situation may further aggravate. Meanwhile, it may be mentioned that most cities are recharging groundwater to tackle the water shortage.
According to Rajendra Singh, an expert on water management, the over exploitation of groundwater, unplanned construction, mindless destruction of environment in the name of development and no water management plan on the part of government has resulted in the current situation. Obviously, this precarious situation calls for the government to take urgent steps to prevent misuse of water resources and harp on conservation measures.
Per capita freshwater resources have greatly diminished and are no longer a sustainable resource for potable applications and also for agricultural and industrial use. In regions lacking freshwater resources or water-stressed by climate change, ‘wastewater’ has been reinvented as a water resource. Whatever we call wastewater today, it is still H2 O. It is only the remaining one per cent which renders as ‘wastewater’. The in-migration to the cities, which has expanded over a period of time, has aggravated the problem.
Take the example of Bengaluru whose population is around 0.5 million and by 2020, over 2 million IT professionals are expected to live there. The ground water level of the city has reached zero in many pockets and the city is dependent on private water tankers for its water supply. Question is how can the city, which is dependent on ground water for 40 per cent of its supply, meet the increased demand for water in future?
Another example may be Gurugram, which is hardly 30 km away from the Lutyens Delhi zone, but facing severe water crisis and is dependent on water tankers for daily water supply. As mentioned earlier, the cities in the South like Hyderabad, Chennai, Coimbatore, Vijaywada, and Kochi are moving towards acute water crisis. Climate change, early summer, deficit rain-fall, depleting water level, rising population and lack of water management policy is making it difficult for the urban local bodies to meet the increasing demand of water. According to a World Bank report, most of the cities are moving towards zero ground water level by 2020, which has already set the alarm bell ringing for policy makers and urban planners.
As per government estimate, our cities produce nearly 62,000 mld of sewage out of which only 18,883 mld sewage is treated. Rest of the untreated sewage goes directly to water bodies polluting our water resources. Domestic sewage accounts for 70 per cent of the contamination of rivers and ponds. The department of water and sanitation are among the top spenders, but if the sewerage water is treated and reused for industrial purpose, it will supply water to cities and also help save millions that we spend on cleaning our rivers every year. Countries like Singapore, which faces acute water crisis, have already set an example of how effective management can ensure safe water supply to people. With technology available, there is no reason why India cannot replicate this in its cities.
An important aspect is the need to generate public awareness which can go in a long way to save water. People need to be sensitised about the judicious use of water. Cutting wastage of water in showers, toilets, and sinks, which account for approximately 75 per cent of the water used in our daily lives can go a long way in saving water.
The other dimension 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.
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, this has 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. In response to a question in Lok Sabha, the Water Resource Ministry, 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 World Health Organization 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.
Sadly, our political leaders and bureaucrats are deliberately not acknowledging this threat and advising their constituents how best to combat the problem and make investments in 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 an urban neighbourhood?
The challenge and impending urban water crisis needs to be tackled with all urgency before the problem goes out of hand. Though the recently released Special Report of the IPCC has not clearly highlighted this aspect, it is clearly manifest that the increase in warming levels may need more water which would become scarcer with every passing year. It goes without saying that intervention of the Central and State governments is urgently called for to evolve a plan of action to tackle water crisis.—INFA