By Dhurjati Mukherjee
Prime Minister Modi’s radio broadcast on the last day of June exhorted people to start a mass movement to conserve water. He rightly pointed out the need to save every drop of water as only 8 per cent of water received from rainfall was being utilised in the country, urging all Indians to join hands in this endeavour.
“Come let us join water conservation and involve ourselves in making a list of making more and more innovative methods to motivate people to conserve water”, the Prime Minister said. He added that India’s challenge of water conservation of water was significant but could be met with concerted and joint action. The remarks came a day ahead of ‘water conservation campaign’ in 255 water stressed districts in the country.
The campaign —Jal Shakti Abhiyan – began on July 1 and would continue till end-November in 1593 water-stressed blocks, falling under 255 critical districts. Activities during the campaign are expected to include construction of rooftop rainwater harvesting infrastructure, check dams, trenches, ponds and watershed structures.
Obviously, there are expectations that the newly-created Jal Shakti Mantralaya would consolidate water policy and management, which till recently had been spread across seven ministries. According to one estimate, only around one in five rural households has piped water connection. Within this, there is noticeable regional disparity, with States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar lagging the national average in piped water connections.
Undoubtedly, the scale of the challenge is even more complex than Swaachh Bharat. Even as the focus is on rural households, the government cannot lose sight of the conditions prevailing in urban slums where people are largely dependent on hand pump, each one shared by many households.
Official data shows that coverage of village households with piped water has annually increased from 12 per cent in 2013-14 to 17 per cent in 2017-18 and may be a little over 18 per cent now, highlighting the need to seriously accelerate the programme. Thus, the challenge to achieve 100 per cent coverage of piped water supply by 2024 is indeed a massive task and entails lot of expenditure which has not been made available even in the current Budget. The project of increasing toilet coverage from just 33 per cent in October 2014 to around 99 per cent now may be statistically correct, but most of these toilets are non-functional as they do not have water connections.
Therefore, to ensure piped water to a large section of the population entails harnessing technology to augment water conservation. For example, Israel recycles around 94 per cent of water it uses. Thus, recycling can increase water availability even in times of rainfall deficiency. The government has not outlined whether recycling would be carried out and the technology that would be used for the purpose. Since India has very good relations with Israel, exploring technology tie-ups with that country should be explored.
Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to refer to an evaluation of 400 cities globally in 2018 with focus on mega cities facing high combined levels of water scarcity – recent and projected drought, wherein Chennai emerged in top position as the city facing the most severe water scarcity and drought. There are four Indian cities in the top 20 mega cities with populations above 10 million. Chennai aside, Kolkata ranks at number two, Mumbai at 11 and Delhi at 15. As is well known Chennai was exposed to devastating floods and experienced some of the wettest conditions in many years, resulting in some 1.8 million people being displaced, the loss of over 500 lives and economic damage over $3 billion. From too wet it has become too dry now in a matter of four years.
Large cities, mostly located along the banks of large rivers, are vulnerable because for the most part, the river systems are “vastly over allocated and mismanaged”. According to Alexis Morgan of WWF, drought to flooding is the “front edge of climate change”. In addition, is the loss of wetlands, specially in city like Kolkata and the looming crisis of floods and depleting water sources are evident. The world has lost 35 per cent of wetlands since 1970 and is losing these three times faster than forests, reports have noted.
It may be pertinent to examine certain actions towards conservation and judicious management of water. Here in India, not so educated people are in the habit of wasting water but this cannot be allowed to continue as the dimension of the crisis is growing. Let us examine the following: One, irrigated water is being used inefficiently. There is no reason that the rainfall deficit and water deficit regions of Maharashtra should produce sugar cane which uses 2500 litres of water for every kg of output. Similarly, the states of Punjab and Haryana where farmers get highly subsidised or free water, highly intensive rice cultivation has led to desertification. Crops like sugar cane and rice should only be grown in water surplus regions but populist ‘free water’ policies have achieved the opposite. Thus, large savings of water are needed, both in irrigation technology, recycling and management.
Two, groundwater storage is at least as great as surface water storage potential and is available at significantly lower costs, which needs to be explored in a bigger way. Three, appropriate design changes can significantly reduce water requirements for the industrial sector. For example, extensive use of recycling can reduce the amount of water needed to produce one tonne of steel by say 90-95 per cent.
Four, the cost of providing adequate potable water in a country like India is indeed quite high but the benefits include drastic reduction in water-borne diseases. Moreover, safe water is essential for the development of body and mind, specially of children.
Five, most countries still lack policies for integrated water management and India is no exception. There is need for all-round conservation methods such as water harvesting through an awareness generation mass movement about the impending crisis in the water sector. The movement should be more pronounced in water surplus States, highlighting the precarious situation in deficit States like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka etc., specially in the summer months.
India has not lost her water in an absolute sense but lost control over water. Collective wisdom is needed to evolve an ecological water resource policy. Together with mass forestation, mass water conservation through a peoples’ programme can only save the country from being water stressed. Further, given the looming environmental crisis, the water sector needs total attention. There is need for a scientific action plan wherein details of conservation, water harvesting and recycling should be enumerated and followed strictly by municipalities, panchayats and also the private sector.
Thus, the present endeavour of the government calls for concerted action by all stakeholders, including voluntary organisations and environmental groups as the challenge is indeed immense, not just for India but all populous countries across the globe. —INFA