Monday, July 23, 2012

Thirst in the Land of Malhaar

When man searches for signs of life in outer space, what does he look for? He looks for the existence of water. The presence of water on a planet indicates that it is capable of supporting life. We recognise that life means water, and water means life.
70% of the surface of our planet Earth is covered in water. Which is why it is called the blue planet. But the  bulk of this water is salty. In fact 97% is salt water in the form of oceans and seas. Barely 3% is sweet water. And 70% of this 3% of sweet water is in the form of icebergs and polar caps. In other words, less than 1% of all the water on earth is actually available for the use of 7 billion human beings, and all animal and plant life which consumes fresh water.

India is considered a water adequate country. Which means that we get enough… as much as we would need.  But despite that, every year large parts of the country, including those that receive abundant rainfall, experience severe water scarcity. According to some estimates a woman living in rural India, on an average, walks 1,400 kms every year in order to access water. Even in urban areas, supply of municipal water for as little as few minutes in a day is not uncommon. Often fights break out, occasionally leading to murders and deaths over disputes over water. Tanker culture is now common in many parts of the country. People's lives revolve around the supply of water.

Why does this happen? Where does all our water go, when we receive enough of it?

Traditionally, as Indians we knew how to conserve and harvest our water. Every part of the country had traditional methods of harvesting and storing water. This meant that the water which falls from the skies in the form of rain was blocked and channeled into some structure in which it could be stored and utilized for the rest of the year. These structures were different in different parts of the country depending on the climatic conditions and the local topography. From the eris and uranis (traditional tanks) of Tamil Nadu, to the johads of the Rajasthan desert, to the lakes and rivers in different parts of the country, people in both rural areas and city worked to take care of their water needs. This collective work meant, for example, that tanks were kept clean, their walls repaired, their catchment areas kept clear of encroachments.  As a result, we had a direct connection with our water.

In Gandhiji's family home in Porbander, the roof would be meticulously cleaned each year before the monsoon and the rain water falling on the roof would be channeled into a tank below which took care of the drinking water needs of the family for the entire year. Gandhiji's family was by no means an exception. This is how rain scarce Saurashtra took care of its drinking water needs.

With the coming of the British, the ownership and control of water went away from the hands of the common person into the hands of the administration. The collective ownership and use of water was replaced by a centralized ownership of water by the government. Lakes and tanks were to be maintained by the public works department - not by the public - and people were taxed or otherwise forced to pay for the use of water. That is seen as a key turning point by experts.  Thousands of lakes and tanks silted up, were overgrown by weeds and fell into disuse. In urban areas land occupied by water bodies were put to other use. This trend has only accelerated after independence and vast quantities of land on which water bodies existed have been reclaimed for use for construction of various kinds. Delhi, for example, at one time had 800 lakes. Less than ten survive today. The situation is no different in other cities. The flip side of our refusal to conserve water, and our endless hunger for the land on which our water bodies existed, is flooding. Since the lakes and tanks and wells which acted as containers to hold our rainfall are now part of our concrete jungle, the rain water increasingly often floods and threatens our cities…in some cases submerging them as happened on 26th July 2006 in Mumbai. Such stories can only increase.

So, how do our cities receive their supply of water?  The great metros of India, pull their water from lakes and rivers from the rural districts around them, with pipelines traveling hundreds of kilometres away. Mumbai, the city I live in, receives more than 200 cms of rainfall every year and suffers from extensive water logging and even flooding in every monsoon. But, Mumbai does not harvest its own water. It wastes it. And then using our economic and political clout we pull our water from  the Vaitarna and Bhatsa rivers and the Tansa dam all of which are over a hundred kilometres away. This results in depriving the people who live around these rivers of their own water which they have used for centuries. In what can only described as a cruel mockery, the people of Shahpur who live on the banks of the Bhatsa river that supplies 52% of the water to Mumbai city are themselves dependent on tankers for their own water needs! And then we complain about migration into cities!

The rural areas in our country, especially those not close to perennial rivers have tried to meet their water needs by digging tube wells. Since this is unregulated in most parts of the country, anyone who has the resources can drill a hole on their land and access the water below freely, although the water being so pulled is not just the water below that particular piece of land but also the water which is part of the water table which is common for miles around. There is competition among farmers to dig deeper tube wells as the water table goes lower and lower due to overexploitation of the ground water. In some villages in Andhra there are more tube wells than residents and in one village a farmer is known as borewell Reddy because he has drilled over sixty tube wells - all of which are now dry! As a result of this crazy drilling of tube wells, the ground water levels have been falling dramatically and nearly a third of the regions of this country are now ground water stressed and with large parts now coming under what is called a dark zone, where the ground water has fallen to dangerously low levels.

If one form of our disrespect for water is our refusal to harvest rainwater, the other is the way we pollute our water bodies. We use our rivers as open drains both for municipal sewage as also for industrial effluents. Many of India's rivers are now clinically dead in large stretches! This means that the dissolved oxygen levels in these rivers - which shows how much life the water is capable of sustaining - is zero. The Yamuna has officially been declared as dead for 800 kilometres — all the way from Delhi through Agra and Mathura to Etawah! The dissolved oxygen levels in the water in Delhi is zero! The coliform level permissible for drinking water purposes is 50 per litre, and for bathing purposes it is 500 per litre but the Yamuna waters in Delhi have a choliform level running into crores. The reason is that the Yamuna in Delhi consists almost exclusively of the sewage discharge of the city! It is the sewage discharge of Delhi which flows into the holy city of Vrindavan and which is drunk which such reverence by the devout. The condition of the holy Ganga in Kanpur is no different. Despite billions of rupees spent on cleaning the Ganga, its waters continue to be despoiled by domestic sewage and industrial effluent.

The effect of industrial effluent is even more insidious than domestic sewage. We use our  river as drainage systems thus exposing our precious water to toxins including heavy metals like lead and mercury which when consumed by humans damage the central nervous system. The Bombay High Court is presently seized of a writ petition concerning the pollution by industries of the Vaitarna river which supplies over a quarter of Mumbai's water. River water is not only used for drinking water purposes, but also it is used for agriculture.  Research conducted by Delhi based NGO Toxics Link has shown that several vegetables have levels of lead far above permissible limits. Likewise mercury contamination in fish is widespread. The rivers as they flow also recharge the ground water in their basin areas, and hence the toxins and pollutants in them pollute not only the river water but also the open wells and tube wells along their route. This pollution whether by municipalities or by industries is completely illegal and in violation of the Water Act and yet it goes on year after year in broad daylight!

The most dangerous form of this pollution is what is known as deep well injection - where industries in order to save expenditure on effluent treatment plants - instead inject the pollutants deep into the earth's crust - where they pollute the acquifers which contain pure water way below the earth's surface - which has collected over several thousands of years.
We urgently need to stop polluting our water, stop wasting rainwater and work towards harvesting it. Fortunately, both in rural areas and in the cities there are many examples of this being done successfully. Anna Hazare's work in Ralegan Siddhi, the work of the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan and hundreds of others all involve preventing rain water to run off so that it seeps into the soil and recharges the ground water. None of this is rocket science nor is it new. Instead it relies largely on traditional wisdom. The key ingredient in community rain water harvesting is creating and building communities. If a couple of rich farmers are allowed to sink deep tube wells and drain the watershed then rain water harvesting cannot work. In villages like Hiwre Bazaar, the panchayats have banned the use of tube well in agriculture. This along with intelligent rain water harvesting has made drought prone Hiware Bazaar a rare village where there are over 50 agriculturists with small land holdings who are millionaires!

In cities too, in the rare instances where housing societies have got together to harvest their rain water, they have drastically cut down on their need for municipal water supply. In a housing society not 50 metres from where I live, the harvesting of rain water has reduced the usage of municipal water by 40%. Even buildings barely ten metres from the sea, the intelligent use of rain water harvesting can ensure sweet water. In Chennai, in 2003, an IAS officer, Santha Sheela Nair backed by the then AIADMK government had made rain water harvesting compulsory and prevented the water crisis from spiraling out of control. All these examples tell us that the solutions are simple and are at hand. All we need to do is to stop dithering and start acting on them. Our problem above all is that water appears to us to be infinite and at any rate all of us have access to at least some water as of now. But this water will not be around forever. A famous experiment conducted on the behaviour of frogs tells us much about the habits of humans. A frog was placed in a container of boiling water. The frog sensed danger and  immediately  jumped out to save its life. Then a frog was placed in a container of water at room temperature and a flame was lit below so that the temperature of water rose only gradually. Since the temperature change was slow, the frog was unable to sense the danger…till the water was boiling and it was too late…the frog was boiled alive.

In many ways, our behaviour with respect to water resembles that of the frog. Since in lesser or greater quantity all of us do have access to water (without which we cannot survive) we do not adequately respect water or realize the danger we face in this regard.

We need to urgently recognize the danger we face. The spectre of drought facing us this year should act as a wake up call for all of us Indians - in villages and in cities - to act - to work towards respecting water and towards conserving it and harvesting it… from today! 

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