The water picture
At the edge of water scarcity, India must push for effective water conservation and management in order to achieve comprehensive water security
A week's delay in monsoon was sufficient to give India a reality check of the precarious position it stands at when it comes to water. Water conservation has long been a topic of discussion owing to its essentiality in our lives. As being the most inseparable commodity, absence of water will mark doomsday for humans and that concern has alone been a deterrent for us to underscore water security and management. But the question is, have we?
As India met one of the worst water crises in decades, Chennai emerged as a glaring example of the near-dystopia we are headed towards. It earmarked the mismanagement and wasteful utilisation of water demonstrated by the government and society alike along with minimal inputs on conservation. It rather not be an exaggeration to state that Chennai took water for granted. Categorising it as just another resource, rapid groundwater extraction and drying up of water reservoirs in and around the city took place even as the state had particularly discussed rainwater harvesting back during the Jayalalithaa era. An audit report surfaced recently stated that nearly 40 per cent of buildings having rainwater harvesting structures were not collecting water while most of the buildings simply did not have one. And, similar has been the state of conscience across India towards a technique which has the potential to provide surplus water for our daily needs on an individual basis.
Then there is the picture of mismanagement which, essentially, has been the driver for a depleting groundwater table in almost the entire country. Around 70 per cent of the agricultural water requirement is satisfied with groundwater being pumped out through heavily subsidised electricity and utilised for farm practices such as irrigation. For instance, in Chennai basin, about 79 per cent of water is set aside for agriculture and livestock farming while the remaining 21 per cent is utilised for domestic and industrial purposes. Besides gravely extracting groundwater, utilising the same for water-intensive crops has been a bane for India in terms of water management. Paddy and sugarcane alone take away almost 60 per cent of the country's irrigation water allowing India to export handsomely. But as we expand our exports, our groundwater table declines and we put our farmers, who have keenly indulged in increasing production for mutual benefit, at risk. Managing water as a resource on the agricultural front remains a dire need if the country has to further prevent groundwater decline. Our exorbitant farm bill in terms of water and our unsustainable approach towards its utilisation has brought us face-to-face with the impending water-crisis.
Under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, the central government has sprung into action this monsoon, targeting identified water-stressed areas and focussing on rainwater harvesting and water conservation besides renovation of traditional water bodies, reuse of water, watershed development and intensive afforestation. Though water management is a responsibility of the government–prime reason fuelling our wasteful approach towards water–and we have no part to play in its grand projects of desalination plants and wastewater treatment plants, yet ways in which we can contribute towards it are plentiful. The start, however, is to understand that under business as usual, we will end up exploiting water beyond a point of no return.
Rainwater harvesting is perhaps the start of efforts from our end towards ensuring optimum water security and management. Individually, we can push for the same in our houses, societies, communities–RWAs as we like to call it at urban centres–and set up a system to catch rainwater and store it. Rainwater harvesting is not just water-collection at rooftops to be stored and used later but rather open spaces where rainwater can collect and then percolate into the ground as well; more than 60 per cent of India's water requirement is met by groundwater itself. It would be a massive plus for cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata which get copious rains during monsoon which would then be able to collect more than what is required during the rain spell, that too on an individual basis.
On the policy front, providing farmers with monetary incentives for saving water and power is the start. While there remains a dire need to draft legislation on groundwater management, water information system and area-wise water auditing grab priority because without the real picture of our problem we cannot realise the magnitude of efforts required. At least 1 million ha of paddy cultivation has to shift away from Punjab-Haryana belt to eastern India which enjoys higher rainfall by discouraging paddy procurement and simultaneously providing income-support on per ha basis for less water-intensive crops such as maize or soybean.
A shift in crop-pattern, sustainable management of water reservoirs, ample groundwater recharging and rainwater harvesting at large can secure water for our country's future. Backed by focussed policies, society and government working in a cohesive fashion can insulate India from perils of water scarcity, provided we start doing what's necessary, and now!