India’s water woes demand immediate attention of the new Government
India’s water woes demand immediate attention of the new Government
Today, 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. By the year 2050, more than 3 billion people will face water shortages.
Water, the most powerful element on the planet is an essential and major component of all life on Earth—including man. Water is critical for future growth and sustenance of life but is in short supply. Yet how many of us really understand and respect this vital resource?
India, with its rapidly growing economy, large agricultural sector and large scale industrial growth—besides having the second largest population in the world—is under pressure. Demand for water has more than doubled, and millions of people are without access to fresh potable water. Over-extraction of groundwater for agriculture, poor management of water resources and pollution are the primary contributors.
Agriculture is the backbone of our economy and to meet the needs of a growing population grain production will need to increase. Food security is a top priority but our grain production is falling. Lack of irrigation water and erratic weather patterns are cited as the main reasons.
My first encounter with the ground realities and realisation of the serious water shortage that we have landed ourselves in was during a visit to Punjab a few years ago. I was shocked to see hundreds of acres of what were once the most fertile and productive fields in the country lying barren and lifeless. Standing crops in some fields were stunted and scanty—in Punjab, once known as the grain basket of India.
A fine white sheet of salt now covered some of the fields, almost like a shroud. Hundreds of tube wells lay dry. We stopped at the first village, and were informed that the wells were dry since the water tables had fallen, and farming had become difficult because saline water from the deeper wells had turned the fields infertile, making wheat farming almost impossible. The lakes and wells were dry too. Unable to drill any deeper for fresh water, many poor farmers had moved to cities and neighbouring areas in search of casual work.
Of all the water on Earth, 97 per cent is saline and unusable. Of the remaining three per cent, two per cent is locked in the polar caps and unavailable to us. Only one per cent of all the water on the planet is available to us for use and this one per cent has kept the planet alive and vibrant for millions of years via a balanced and sustainable hydrological cycle. But why are we suddenly running out of fresh water? In fact, this question—‘Water is limitless, how can it run out?’—is one posed by many farmers.
We need water to grow crops, fruits and for our daily requirements. Agricultural activities use up almost 80 per cent of fresh water available to us. Intensive farming to provide the needs of a rapidly growing population aided by subsidised power and a free water supply led to millions of farmers drilling deep wells to expand their harvest capacity. Over-exploitation and pumping of water outstripped the recharge rate of groundwater, leading to an alarming rate of depletion. As ground water levels fell, deeper wells were dug. Many wells ran dry; others started pumping salts and residue from the bottom, turning the land saline and unproductive. Decades of over extraction has led to depletion of groundwater all across India. More water was being pumped out than nature could recharge. The message is clear—water is running out. The urgent need of the time is conservation and prudent use.
Availability of fresh potable water is one of the greatest challenges that mankind faces today. Almost 2.6 billion freshwater resources and water bodies around the world are dwindling, many of which are completely drying up. With a population of over 1.25 billion, the situation in India is just as grim. The Himalayan glaciers—often called the third pole—are also receding. Glacial rivers are shrinking and many natural springs have dried up. Water shortage is also emerging as a major constraint on food productivity in India and across the world. There is an urgent need to conserve and manage our water supply.
There is no legal restriction on groundwater extraction, and the resource is available free of cost to anyone who can pump it out. Unsustainable use of water—such as outdated agricultural practices like traditional flooding of fields or furrow farming where more than 50 per cent of water is lost to evaporation—need to be replaced by modern technologies for efficient use of water. Overhead sprinkler systems or drip-irrigation systems need to be adopted. Many farmers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states have already adopted these new irrigation techniques but this needs to happen at a national level. In Rajasthan and even in parts of Gujarat and southern India, women walk miles to fetch potable water every day.
Water scarcity is a reality and already affecting food security in several Middle Eastern countries. With groundwater aquifers depleted, these countries have stopped farming wheat and are importing most of their grains from other countries. Export of grains and ‘water dependent’ produce is another dangerous trend. It takes almost 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of wheat; and so for every tonne of wheat that is exported, a country is actually exporting a thousand tonnes of water too.
Apart from scarcity, pollution is another serious issue that affects our water system and therefore our health. Nearly 76 per cent of the human body is water and the quality of water we drink determines our health and well being. Quality of drinking water has deteriorated as even the groundwater in India is contaminated in many places. The presence of heavy metals in our drinking water is way above the permissible levels, and is taking a toll on public health. Pollutants have entered our food chain and traces of these have been found even in mother’s milk. Mental diseases, skin diseases, allergies, liver and gastric tract ailments and even birth defects have been attributed to the presence of heavy metals polluting in our drinking water.
Most of the heavy metals enter our water from untreated effluents dumped directly into the rivers by industries and factories along their banks. Added to this are hundreds of tonnes of religious paraphernalia that are dumped into the river every day by devotees. Once declared a lifeline to millions, the Yamuna river passing through Delhi has become one of the most polluted rivers in the country. More than 22 drains carrying more than 3,500 million litres of waste water and untreated raw waste enter the Yamuna every day. There are legislations in place, but poorly enforced; and in many industrial areas the crime goes on in connivance with the authorities.
The result is visible: a severely polluted Yamuna. Almost 80 per cent of the foam covered water you see in the river Yamuna comes from our homes. Every summer as the rivers dry up, their sand banks are exposed; and farmers are quick to grow their summer crops of melons, unaware that the fertilisers and pesticides they use are entering the water system. Downstream, at Okhla, the water is processed, purified, and piped to our homes as drinking water. Note that our infrastructure does not have the capacity to remove heavy metals from the water. This is the water we drink.
The Prime Minister’s promise to clean the Ganga is a welcome sign of hope. It is still possible to reverse the river to its pristine blue, to restore it to a living river capable of sustaining a vibrant ecosystem.
Almost all our rivers are polluted and dying. I remember a boat ride on the river Danube in Europe. I was overwhelmed; the Danube, 2,850 km long, had been transformed from a black, stinking, lifeless river back into the ‘Blue Danube‘ through the united efforts of nine countries that it passes through; possible only through a united effort and cooperation between the governments and their citizens. My thoughts drifted to India and the state of our own rivers. Could we replicate this in our country?
We can, and a reversal is possible. We will need the collaborative efforts of citizens, the political will and accountability at all levels. Nature is resilient and the rivers will bounce back to their natural state—all they need is a chance. A united effort can restore the health of rivers.
We all need the environment for our survival. Development and progress are important, but cannot be at the cost of the environment. The flood plains of our rivers are also crucial to groundwater recharge, and must be maintained. They help in water filtration, apart for being a habitat for many aquatic species. Unfortunately, illegal construction and sand mining on the flood plains are fracturing the rivers’ ecosystems and ecology.
A more serious and dangerous activity is the unthinking construction of housing colonies on these flood plains. These are not only injurious to the river; they fracture nature’s hydrological cycle and our ground water regime. These constructions put human life at great risk. The city of Delhi falls in the sensitive seismic zone IV. Colonies and structures built on flood plains and flood zones, especially in seismic zone IV or above regions are exposing themselves to a great risk. In the event of an earthquake, liquefaction can take place and structures could sink into the liquefied soil.
There is no reason why we should have shortage of water in India. We receive among the highest amounts of rain fall in the world, yet are unable to harness the volume of water and manage to use only a small percentage. The rest washes away into gutters and through rivers to the sea, lost forever.
Most of our problems are man- made. Pollution due to poor waste management regulations and a lack of enforcement on industries that pump untreated chemical effluents directly into rivers need to be dealt with. Fertilisers and chemical pesticides are large contributors to the pollution of our fresh water. Strict legislation, management and conservation of water should become a top national priority. The attitude and lifestyles of India’s citizens need to change because their contribution towards water conservation could be a crucial game changer. Ignorance, lack of information and poverty in rural areas is one of the prime reasons for this crisis, while callous arrogance and disregard take front seats in most of our urban areas. There is urgent need for awareness and education. We have to understand that we are not the supreme commanders of the planet. We share the earth with millions of other species. We depend on them for our survival.
The challenges we face today are formidable: alarming depletion of groundwater, polluted rivers, a growing population, environmental issues and lack of effective waste management and a total disregard of nature and the environment. Apart from affecting grain production, agriculture and public health, the water crisis will have a direct affect on industrial growth and the country’s economy.
Every year the monsoons pour in over 4000 billion cubic metres of water onto India; more than 50 per cent of this is lost and drains away into rivers and the sea. We need to harness this resource. Groundwater recharge on a national level is crucial. Water bodies need to be revitalised, rivers lakes and ponds need to be dredged and de-silted to increase their holding capacities. This will help replenish and sustain the groundwater aquifers.
Dams are not a viable solution. They take decades to build at a huge cost and are not a viable long-term solution. Catching rain where it falls is the most effective solution. Pollution also needs to be checked on a war footing as polluted water is a direct threat to public health and welfare. Agricultural runoff, pesticides, detergents and chemicals from our homes, and industrial effluents need to be addressed, and their use minimised. In cities which have a river running through them, interceptor drains need to be built along the river banks to stop sewage drains from flowing directly into the rivers. Large interceptor drains would carry the city’s sewage to treatment plants and stilling ponds miles away from the city. Harmful chemicals and effluents could be removed before discharging the water into stilling ponds and finally the river.
Forests also need to be protected. Apart from acting as carbon sinks, forests produce water. Over 360 small and large rivers flow out of the Western Ghats, including the longest waterfall in India—all born of the forest. Mindless plundering and mining activities of these bio- diversity hotspots will directly affect the water cycle and lives of nearly 400 million people.
Individual efforts are crucial to water conservation. You could recycle bathing water, and install effective, eco- friendly toilet flushes which dispense minimal water for flushing. The Government has initiated water harvesting across the country and many colonies and have installed them as part of RWA initiatives. I carried out a survey recently and found most of them clogged up and ineffective. To be effective, these units need care and regular servicing, especially before the monsoons.
Comprehensive management of the water regime and water harvesting is crucial. This will help replenish our depleted aquifers and pave the way towards conservation of this vital resource. This will ensure a sustainable future for us all—and for the planet we call home.