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On Water Day

On Water Day
In the words of the noted writer Thomas Fuller, "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry." On the occasion of World Water Day, which falls on March 22, it is imperative to understand the state of this precious source of life in India. Two days earlier, the Uttarakhand High Court passed an order, in which it declared the Ganga and Yamuna "living" entities, bestowing on them same legal rights as a person. In other words, anyone polluting the river or harming it anyway can be penalised the way a court can punish someone hurting a human being. Whether this order does anything to spur authorities into cleaning up some of India's most important rivers, which suffer from rampant pollution, remains to be seen.

Earlier this month, the court had criticised the Central and state governments for doing "nothing concrete" to clean the river. In February, the National Green Tribunal had criticised the Centre for "wasting public money" in the name of the Namami Gange Project.

"Not a single drop of River Ganga has been cleaned so far," the tribunal had said. India's water troubles, however, extend far beyond the pitiable state of these rivers in its northern plains.

Following two consecutive years of deficient rainfall, 2016 was witness to normal monsoons. Unfortunately, it is has done little to adequately recharge our water bodies. Earlier this month, the government said that water levels in India's 91 major reservoirs were at 41% (less than half) of their storage capacity. What's worse, as per the Indian Meteorological Department, India is expected to experience a hotter than average summer this year, following 2016—the warmest year on record since 1901.

These figures, however, only present the current state of affairs. One look at the long-term trends, and it is evident that a steady decline in reservoir levels is a scary reality. In the past ten years, the average live storage as a percentage of capacity at full reservoir level has hovered between 25-33%. This is a significant drop from the 60% average between 2001-02 and 2004-05. Experts have attributed this decline to excessive ground water extraction.

"In many parts of India, groundwater levels are falling, some by more than 1m a year. A lack of proper wastewater treatment from domestic, industrial and mining sources have meant that groundwater is being progressively contaminated, increasing the potential health risks to humans and ecosystems. Intensive groundwater extractions will continue at least over the medium term," suggest researchers associated with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. On the occasion of World Water Day last year, a major international charity WaterAid released a report on the water situation in India. The report unequivocally stated that India has the greatest number of people living without access to safe water.

Approximately 76 million people in India are without access to clean and safe water. Poor access to safe water has adverse health effects. India's water problem is down poor management of water resources. Approximately 85% of our water comes from our aquifers. But over pumping water for agriculture and industry has sucked too much of this resource from the ground. Water is being pumped out faster than it can be recharged by rain or surface water run-off.

India's escalating water crisis is primarily down to short-sighted considerations that have engulfed its politics and agriculture. In Maharashtra's sugar belt, which includes the drought-stricken Marathwada region, sugarcane production is a dominant feature. For those unfamiliar with agricultural practices, sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop. The crop consumes over 70% of irrigated water while occupying just 4% of the State's farmland. Despite the discrepancy and dire water situation, successive State governments have bailed out the sugar industry on numerous occasions with subsidies and loan waivers, instead of incentivising the production of other sustainable crops.

Fortunately, the ruling BJP government has recently decided to make drip irrigation compulsory for all sugarcane farms across the state, moving away from flood irrigation. For the uninitiated, drip irrigation is a farming technique in which water flows through a filter into special drip pipes, with emitters located at different spacing. The government has also enforced a five-year ban on the sanctioning of new sugar mills. It is a similar case in Punjab. Groundwater, which is rapidly depleting, irrigates nearly 73% of Punjab's agricultural land. For a long time, experts have argued for a shift from water-intensive crops like paddy and wheat to less-water-consuming ones like maize, pulses and other vegetables.

Rice reportedly takes up more than 80% of the gross cropped irrigated area in Punjab. Even though the state contributes a significant percentage of rice and wheat to the national food grain kitty, it has come at an enormous cost to its groundwater resources. With groundwater levels falling by 40-50 cm annually, the time has come to reshape government policy. Poor regulation on water use, skewed price incentives, and massive farm subsidies (including free electricity for irrigation) have encouraged excessive exploitation of groundwater through borewells to water farmland.

Problems, however, extend beyond the agricultural sector. "While the farm sector is an obvious candidate for urgent water reforms, non-farm use of water also suffers from unplanned usage and waste. A majority of India's households are dependent on ground water for their day to day water requirements. According to the 2011 census, less than half the households with access to water supply in their premises depend on treated tap water.

This means that a majority of India's households are using private means (such as bore-wells) to extract groundwater without any regulation or concern for conservation. Unplanned urbanisation will only accentuate this problem. The fast depletion of ground-water resources will also increase the risks of contamination, as several experts have warned," says a recent analysis in Mint, a leading business daily.
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