Day Zero in urban India: Its now, it's real
Comprehending South Africa’s calamity, India must step-up and take cognizance of the looming water crisis that is posing an imminent threat to the health and safety of our country’s citizens, writes Piyush Ohrie.
Lakhs of viewers in India would have seen their cricket team win the T20 series in Cape Town on February 24. But, very few could have felt the prevailing problem plaguing the South African city.
Considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the City of Table Mountains today has lost its glory and is in dire straits facing an acute water shortage. The crisis of water deficit is being encountered by almost all residents of the city that hosts four million people. In a cruel twist of fate, a resident who on an average consumed 450 litres of water per day is now forced to use 50 litres per day – a bare requisite for survival. There is now hope that the situation may improve with a sizeable amount of winter rainfall during the month of June. If the rains do not fill the reservoirs then all the taps in the city, including hospitals, may run out of water. This catastrophe has been termed as "Day Zero" and preparations are being undertaken to avoid the furious revenge of nature.
It indeed is the revenge of nature on mankind as tragedy struck Cape Town where such a situation was unthinkable five years ago. With 27 inches of rainfall, 2013 was the wettest year for Cape Town filling all its reservoirs. However, things began to go downhill since then, with the subsequent years registering far fewer rains. In 2017, the city received only six inches of rainfall and from having a surplus of water it became water deficient. Irrespective of rich or poor, all residents today are being forced to use a minimum amount of water.
Day Zero may be a term that was coined internationally but its familiarity with the national context highlights the warning signs. Just two years ago, in the spring season of 2016, eight districts of Marathwada ran entirely out of water due to years of drought. In that situation of emergency, its residents were ultimately supplied water through a special train.
This year, the falling water levels in the Narmada are not only affecting the farmers of Gujarat but in Ahmedabad too, the citizens were asked to use less water during Holi. This situation has arrived even before the summers have peaked. India may be growing economically and one of the most visible aspects of its growth can be witnessed in its metros. Yet, in the path of development, the water bodies are being allowed to die a slow death.
The rising, aspirational and dynamic India of today is often measured by the meteoric rise of Bengaluru and Gurugram. The cities which in the early -1980's were considered to be sleepy towns are now leaders in start-ups, foreign direct investments and job creations. In line with their growth, the population residing in these metros has also risen greatly. While Bengaluru's population is over 10 million, Gurugram is estimated to be two million. However, there is also another side to this growth story. Hailed as the Garden City and City of Lakes, Bengaluru has been listed among the cities that may face a massive water shortage in the future. This is despite the fact that there is the Cauvery River – a major source of water supply to the city. The plight of the Bellandur Lake that has caught fire several times has been touted as a major man-made disaster burgeoning in urban India.
In a survey that was recently concluded by public authorities, it was revealed that there are only 40 ponds left in Gurugram. This was a huge drop from over 600 ponds that abound the city in the 1950's. Not only was there a reduction of water bodies but there was also over-exploitation of groundwater reserves. In 1974, where the groundwater in Gurugram could be traced at six meters below the ground level, today it has fallen down to levels of 40 meters.
Around 40 per cent of Gurugrammers still depend on groundwater for their water supply. Water scarcity in large parts of the city has resulted in the growth of the tanker mafia – with water being sold to the residents at exorbitant rates. Most of the residents complain that they are forced to pay an amount ranging from Rs 1500 to Rs 2000 to the private water tankers. Taking cognizance of their cities being on the brink of a major economic disaster, citizens along with the governments have begun to take preventive measures. In Bengaluru, proactive citizens have formed a group called Bengaluru Water Warriors to revive the water bodies.
Acknowledging that groundwater reserves in Gurugram have been adversely affected due to the growing population, Chief Minister ML Khattar said that not only will old ponds be revived but, if required, new water bodies will also be created.
Even as new metropolises seem to be faltering in ensuring sustainable development, challenges are galore for Delhi and Mumbai for conserving the vital water resource. According to a study, the non-revenue water loss in Mumbai is 900 million litres per day. This loss is more than the water supply of another big city, Pune that is 750 million litres per day. A study by South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) points out that 40 per cent of the Yamuna floodplains is lost. The total river zone area in Delhi is 9700 hectares, of which, 1600 hectares houses the Yamuna River the rest 8100 hectares are river zone areas. As Delhi further expands, this large area of 8100 hectares is vulnerable to encroachment, highlights the study. The degradation of the Yamuna, over the years, has resulted in the overexploitation of groundwater reserves in the National Capital.
A report by the Central Ground Water Board (CWGB) and reports by the state governments on groundwater that were tabled in the Lok Sabha reveal that after Punjab and Rajasthan, Delhi is the most overexploited groundwater state in India. Not only Delhi but all the four major metros of India today have a river as their source of water supply. Yet, low water yields have prevented the river water from being harnessed effectively.
"Our countrymen stopped finding solutions to the challenges of improving women's health and river health. All the river sources in the financial capital Mumbai, political capital Delhi and historic capital Varanasi have been reduced to sewers. It's not that we do not have a solution to deal with our water problems. It is also that these technologies are expensive. Yet, short-term thinking, vested interests and dependence on traditional practices is resulting in prolonging the problem," says Rajendra Singh, popularly known as waterman, who was conferred with the Magsaysay Award and Stockholm Water Prize for water conservation.
"The sad truth is that we are a reactionary state and not a proactive state. We only act when our neck is deep under water. We all know that there is water crisis that is affecting our cities. We all know that it is not only water deficit but also the availability of clean drinking water that is an issue but what are we doing about it. Water management today is such a complicated issue that it is not even considered as an electoral issue," says Manu Bhatnagar, urban environment planner who heads natural heritage division of Indian national trust for art and cultural heritage (INTACH).
Scepticism, cynicism and inaction may be witnessed on the large-scale preservation of water in the context of urban India. Yet, one life is enough to create a positive change. At the age of only 70, the extraordinary life of Dhrubajyoti Ghosh ended on February 16, 2018. A true ecologist at heart, Ghosh took the initiative and moved beyond his role of being an environment officer in the Bengal government to preserve the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW). What started as a task turned into a sustained passion after an observation on how the sewer of the city can be turned into food for fishes by the microbes in the wetland. An untiring effort and commitment by Ghosh resulted in not only thousands of acres of EKW being preserved but also ensuring the progress of the area's fishermen.
Unplanned urbanisation, Climate Change and criminal wastage of water are some of the key factors that environmentalists cite in their warning of the impending water crisis disaster in urban India. The situation in Cape Town is enough for us to believe that the threat of Day Zero is now and real.
For a country that has worshipped water as a form of deity for centuries, the time has come to truly and meaningfully display our faith towards nature. Not only is there the massive challenge of providing water for all but also ensuring that the water is fit for consumption. Owing to industrialisation there are now complaints of harmful chemicals getting deposited in underground water. Consumption of this water is resulting in deadly diseases like cancer among the citizens. This problem has been reported from the cities in the outskirts of Delhi and Gurugram like Faridabad, Ghaziabad and areas of Mewat.
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