Running out of time

India’s Water Woes

By Poonam I Kaushish

India’s first major climate catastrophe is at our doorstep: Water. Groundwater levels in 21 major cities, including Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad will dry up completely by 2020 affecting 600 million people and 40% will have no access to drinking water by 2030, according to a Niti Aayog report. Almost two-thirds of our reservoirs are running below normal water levels and 200,000 die each year from unsafe water supplies. A “water apartheid” where only the wealthy could afford resources in the face of droughts and famine with tanker mafias ruling who gets water and at what price!
Undeniably, the search for water and its management has become the most harrowing task for 21st century India. Water-starved Chennai got some respite when a train with 50 wagons of 50,000 litres of water from Jolarpet arrived on Friday. The southern metropolis has been grappling with an acute water crisis over four months with a daily water deficit of over 200 million litres as the city’s four reservoirs have run dry. People are forced to wash utensils in dirty water, saving clean water to cook food.
In Capital Delhi’s blistering heat huddles of women with two buckets each wait in various colonies for water tankers every alternate day as they need 20 litres to sustain a family of four and farmers use toxic drain water to grow vegetables. In Andhra, only 34 out of 116 municipalities get regular water for an hour twice a week.
Maharashtra is facing a water emergency. Strangled by years of drought, rivers’ have dried up, water in dams and reservoirs has depleted and groundwater over-exploited. The State Government has deployed 6,597 water tankers to meet the drinking water needs of 5639 villages and 11,595 hamlets. Five other States too are on the verge of drought.
Ominous portends herald a future wherein clean drinking water runs out and people rely on unsafe water resulting in disease and deaths, higher infant mortality and mass migrations to already overpopulated and under-resourced cities.
Thanks to rampant unplanned urban development, deficient monsoon with lakes and inlets lost to encroachment and environmental degradation, dumping of sewage, industrial waste and construction debris and a shift from community-based water-use system to individual-oriented groundwater scheme, a tale that courses through the length and breadth of the country bringing it to its knees.
The failure to preserve natural aquifers and catchments is most evident in the rate of groundwater depletion. Confessed the Prime Minister only 8% of rainwater gets saved in the country.
Shockingly, 11 river basins including Ganga will be water deficit by 2025, threatening over a billion lives with the challenge getting graver by 2050 as demand will rise to 1,180 million cubic metres, 1.65 times the current levels even as fresh water resources dwindle. Think, India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% usable water, wastes more than it produces and spends billions on inane projects instead of focusing on water conservation.
The brand new Water Ministry Jal Shakti has launched a water conservation drive targeting over 250 of the most water-stressed districts, roughly a fourth of the country’s landmass. But the powers-that-be lackadaisical attitude can be gauged from the fact that a majority of Government buildings don’t have rainwater harvesting systems, notwithstanding it being discussed forever in Delhi’s policy corridors.
Worse, ten years ago North India was losing groundwater at a rate of 54 billion cubic metres per year, roughly equivalent to the water stored in the Alaskan glaciers. Ironically parts of India are in perpetual drought to keep taps flowing in major cities. According to the Standing Committee on Water Resources, the percentage of districts with overexploited groundwater levels increasing from three in 1995 to 15 by 2011.
Where will India get its water in the coming years and how the Government plans on providing piped water for every Indian by 2024, is anybody’s guess. As the Rs 4 trillion spent on dams and other engineering-heavy solutions haven’t borne results. Neither has the Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies’ scheme for improving and restoring traditional water bodies like talaabs, nallas, wells, catchment areas, tank storage capacity, ground water recharge increased water availability.
Rued a conservationist, “Governments do not believe in cost-effective, common sense solutions they are always looking at expensive mega projects and engineering solutions. Since the 1960s they have totally ignored and neglected lakhs of water bodies, the legacy of our ancestors. Unless we capture rainwater during the monsoon season, we will always run out.”
A farmer in Rajasthan’s Alwar district has shown the way forward. He restored water resources through construction of small-scale water harvesting structures. This brought water back in 1,000 drought-hit villages, revived five rivers which had gone dry, increased farm productivity by 20-80% and increased forest cover by 33%.
Two other success stories are in Uttarakhand where naulas or water temples have been revived and Kerala where horizontal wells surangas have been revitalized. Farmers need to look at growing crops which are not water guzzlers. In Maharashtra, 60% of the water is used for growing sugarcane when sugar is cheaper in the international market.
India could take a leaf from Jordan which has revived traditional land management system ‘Hima’ whereby land is set aside to allow it to naturally regenerate itself, resulting in increased economic growth through cultivation of indigenous plants and conservation of natural resources in the Zarqa river basin.
A way forward is restoring water-bodies, replenishing our natural dams — the aquifers and catchment areas which would stop the reliance on distant water sources along-with rainwater harvesting to sustain our surface and subsoil water. There should be an annual audit on water, where it is coming from and where is it going. The cropping pattern should be according to the availability of water and how many litres are spent growing crops per acre.
The need of the hour is a pragmatic competence and mission mode mindset wherein the long term focus should be on local water management, restoring local wetlands and water bodies, water re-use through systematic dual plumbing, decentralised waste water treatment plants supplying it as non-potable water and improving efficiency in irrigation.
Time now for the Centre to treat water as a national asset and go for durable long term solutions which needs national planning geared for local solutions. Let us keep our fingers crossed that the waters are not muddied further and our netas don’t leave us high and dry. Else, India will face a severe water crisis soon and have no water for its growing economy and people.
An out-of-the-box thinking whereby at least 50% of the entire water-related budget is allotted to demand-side water management; solid waste management to avoid contamination of resources by both biological and industrial sources; incentives to promote water use efficiency including tradable water permits and taking measures to prepare the Indian farming sector for factors like climate change.
In sum we need to wake up as the problem is deeper than just demand and supply of water, primarily it is about our broken relationship with water and land. The time to hope and look skyward that Lord Indra will oblige is far gone. Zabaani jama khurch will not slake India’s growing thirst! —— INFA