Looming water crisis: there is a way out

Dead fishes lying on the parched bed of the Chembarambakkam reservoir, in Chennai on May 18, 2019. PTI

Every year that there is a shortfall of rain in South India, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which share Cauvery river water, go into crisis mode. The dispute is primarily because the total water demand exceeds the total water available in the Cauvery basin. Each year, with less water available and demand rising, the dispute becomes fiercer. 

India, with 18% of the global population but only 4% of global fresh water, is already severely water-stressed. Water demand is increasing due to the growing population, thoughtless industrialisation and demand-driven water policies while water resources (quantity and quality) are dwindling due to environmental degradation and global warming. This double whammy threatens India’s water and food security.

Several states are already in water crisis. With this monsoon below normal, more states will come to suffer. Water crises are “discussed” in out-of-touch-with-reality legislatures, with Opposition legislators simply demanding water and government offering piped supply to villages and interlinking of rivers as solutions in a situation of steadily depleting water resources.

The reality is that perennial rivers are dying due to destruction of forest and green cover and sand-mining for tourism, trade and construction. Many rivers are seasonal, flowing only when there is rainfall. Much of the river flow is industrial effluent and municipal sewage, with the Yamuna a showpiece of a dead river.

Thoughtless urban expansion and rural neglect is destroying water-bodies, which are encroached by real estate mafia, or filled with building debris or municipal waste. Groundwater is exploited with abandon. Open wells are dry, and borewells are sunk ever deeper as water-mining exceeds groundwater recharge. Deforestation and green cover losses cause huge rainwater run-off, topsoil erosion and flood. Increasing urban paving also prevents recharge.

Water availability, which was 4,000 cu-m per capita per year in 1950 is now 1,000 cu-m, due to demand growth (domestic, agriculture, industry) and shrinking resources (deforestation, glacial melt, water-mining, sand-mining, urban expansion, pollution). These average figures conceal extreme water-stress, as rural women walk over 10 km per day for a 15-litre pot of polluted water, and we see rows of empty pots at urban water points, at the same time as wasteful, profligate or polluting use by urbanites and industries.

The Niti Aayog makes the ominous prediction that 21 Indian cities may go dry by 2020. Chennai is already in crisis. The crisis is serious in rural areas, which remain out of focus of governments located in urban areas and run by urban-centred people.

Bengaluru is typical of urban areas countrywide. Every metro/city/town demands more and more water from outside, instead of cutting loss and wastage, conserving water, harvesting rainwater and protecting water resources. A study shows that Bengaluru’s annual domestic water demand of 18.34 TMC (at a lavish 135 litres person per day) can be met from the annual rainwater yield of 14.80 TMC plus 16.04 TMC from treated domestic wastewater, leaving 12.5 TMC annually for industrial/commercial use.

These figures are quoted by people in the Sharavathi river basin who are agitating against the government’s plan to annually draw 30 TMC water from Linganamakki dam for Bengaluru.

The negative synergy of the following factors is not understood because of the demand-driven supply fixation of planners and legislators: #Reduced water in Sharavathi due to deforestation; #Less power generated at Linganamakki due to 30 TMC water withdrawal, and more power generation required to pump 30 TMC water over 400 km to Bengaluru, and; #Environmental destruction for pipeline construction exacerbating global warming with reduced rainfall state-wide.

In addition to Sharavathi water, there are also proposals to import water from Tungabhadra, Aganashini and Kali rivers, to supply water to Bengaluru, characterised by activists as a thirsty monster, a “monstroCITY”. However, the “monster” is demand-driven-supply, not Bengaluru or any other urban area.

Policy aggravation

The National Water Policy and the Karnataka State Water Policy negatively impact water quantity and quality due to: #Shift from government as service provider to service facilitator; #Commodifying water and encouraging water trading; #No control on wasteful use, #No control on pollution of surface or groundwater sources; #Demand-driven supply, for instance, long-distance mass-transport of water and linking of rivers.

Demand-driven supply, with no pretensions of demand-management, may be the most damaging. Planners have no consideration for the needs of people who live in the areas from which water is to be sourced and make no attempt at optimum utilisation of existing water sources (especially rainwater) in the area of water demand through integrated water resource management. 

The combination of demand-driven supply with commodification of water favours those who can afford to pay. It results in huge wastage or profligate use due to their arrogant “I pay, so I have unquestionable right to use water as I like and as much as I like” attitude. Apart from extreme weather events, global warming is predicted to cause reduced rainfall and desertification of peninsular India.

In the particular context of water, India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) is flawed because it remains explicitly committed to economic growth, which is responsible for the double whammy of increasing carbon emissions responsible for global warming on the one hand, and deforestation and river-bed sand-mining on the other. 

Radical, urgent reform of governance both at the state and national levels, and policy and legislation to protect, preserve and conserve water and water sources can have positive effect on survival of societies and people. People’s pressure groups can and should bring hard facts to the notice of those who wield political power. Only urgent and substantative changes in water politics, with appropriate ground-level implementation, can prevent large-scale social chaos.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)

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