In Retrospect

Ticking Time Bomb

Chennai received rains on June 20 after six parched months while Bihar has witnessed over 140 deaths due to blistering heat waves – our climate is changing in irrevocable ways as we stand grossly ill-equipped

142 people have lost their lives in Bihar (and counting) under varying spells of ambushing heat waves, Chennai's water reserves ran dry (until rains on Thursday, June 20) as residents survived 40°C temperatures without basic hydration and finally, till June 10, over 44 per cent of India was writhing under varying degrees of drought. These facts are painful, pointing to an even grimmer future. What we are today terming a crisis, may in fact, not be so – it could instead be little glimpses into our tomorrow that will be marked by increased surface temperature, inadequate availability of water and decay of agriculture as the sustaining thread of life.

India is expected to be among the worst sufferers of Climate Change. Given its growing population, high urban density and peninsular landscape, as icecaps begin shrinking and ocean waters start rising, India will be among the first major powers to witness a backlash. In fact, the omens are already in sight. Monsoon in South Asia, once known for a vivacity that blessed the region with productivity, has been declining. The last five years have survived below average rainfall, with this year witnessing the second worst pre-monsoon in 65 years – an important precursor to both the Chennai crisis and the Bihar heat waves.

Yet, none of this was unanticipated. Parts of the western world have been bellowing on the dangers of rising temperature and our very own NITI Aayog published an extensive report last year, warning India of its impending water woes. It said, succinctly, that India is encountering its 'worst' water crisis and demand for potable water would comfortably outdo its availability across the country by 2030. In fact, for the metropolises, 2020 is the deadline. Sadly, all has fallen on deaf ears. Even now, the ruling AIADMK government dismisses the intensity of Chennai's water crisis, insisting that it is grossly exaggerated.

In India, as of now, nearly 600 million people already suffer from acute water shortages and 2,00,000 die every year due to inadequate access. Compounding this crisis is the tragedy of rising temperature. This year has been among the worst for India. Touching 48°C, the National Capital Territory recorded its highest temperature in history for the month of June. Arid Rajasthan's Churu witnessed temperatures as high as 50.8°C while most other parts of northern and western India were stuck in the forbidden forties. Compound this rising temperature with the absence of potable water and further, with drought. With 44 per cent of its land under drought, India recorded an 11 percentage point growth in aridity, a report by Drought Early Warning System said. The magnitude of the crisis is unthinkable; yet, our actions are shamefully mismatched.

Countdown to crisis

India houses close to 16 per cent of the world's population but has access to only 4 per cent of its natural water sources – here, arrives the first bump. We simply have never had enough to sustain the population that we have grown to accommodate. World Bank data shows that 35 per cent of our farmlands are irrigated, leaving 65 per cent of our farmers at the mercy of rains, which are at the least predictable. Planning and implementation in our country have been warped in stages of paperwork and corruption, ultimately leading to substandard production. Take this: we have 4,525 large and small dams but we have managed to create only 213 per capita cubic metres of storage – compare this with Russia, which has 6,103 per capita cubic metre storage, Australia, which has 1,964 per capita cubic metre storage and China, which has 1,111 per capita cubic metre storage.

Our reliance on river systems has been extensive and unchecked, causing the drying up of several small tributaries and the contamination of water bodies. Unsupervised disposal of sewerage and chemical wastes has caused massive damage to India's water sources, which, though rich, have now become practically useless. A greater problem is that of subsidies. The environmental cost of subsidies has been argued for often, but rarely cognized with due seriousness. India provides massive electricity subsidies for irrigation and this has compounded the wastage of water on farmlands. What's even worse, India's perennial dependence on water-intensive crops refuses to die. The government continues to subsidise water-guzzling crops such as rice, wheat and sugarcane by providing greater support in MSPs and therefore, encouraging farmers to opt for these crops rather than millets or maize which have proven to be more conducive to environmental well-being. 90 per cent of water drawn is spent on agriculture (household is at second with 9 per cent and industrial use is third with 2 per cent) but its contribution to GDP is only 15 per cent – the unbalance is all too evident and painful. Maharashtra is the greatest example of this tragedy where sugarcane and cotton, two most water-intensive crops are grown rampantly, pushing the region into a cycle of drought, debt and impoverishment. Though cotton can be grown in drought conditions, it intrinsically remains a water-intensive crop. Punjab and Haryana, the two other states facing an acute water shortage are heavily dependent on wheat that requires approximately 900 litres of water to produce 1 kg of grain.

In households too, subsidised water availability has led to substantial misuse. Only some weeks ago, news channels flashed how Virat Kohli's residence in Gurugram was fined after his domestic helps were caught washing their cars with piped water. While he faced some criticism, he isn't alone. Both, the upper-class's apathy and lower-class's lack of awareness have formed the bedrock for India's water crisis.

Temporary crisis or permanent condition?

Though rains have provided relief to Chennai and are expected to head towards Bihar soon, the problem stands far from resolved. India needs to step up. First, with the cognizance that this perhaps isn't only a crisis. Rising temperatures and water deficiency could well be the hallmarks of our tomorrow. We may be at a crucial brink where we ought to begin building a society that can withstand the pressures of depleting water and rising temperature. For one, subsidies on electricity must be checked. Misuse of water in irrigated lands or industries has to be brought to an end, while further contamination of existing water resources simply cannot be allowed. India also must make a paradigmatic shift in its cropping patterns – we must journey from water-intensive towards water-conservative crops to save our resources. Millets, maize, etc., have to find their place in our essential diet. Construction of dams that are feasible and sturdy is essential. We could take several cues from China which successfully turned its fate after the revolution of 1949. The Huang He River was known as the 'river of sorrow' for its extensive flooding – but the Chinese cleverly built a nexus of canals that would drain out excess water and also prevent droughts. India has, so far, failed to produce any such engineering marvel.

Heat waves too can no longer be treated as passing instances. The 20 warmest years ever recorded have been in the last 22 years. Further, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report of 2018 insisted that global temperatures have risen by 1 degree above pre-industrial levels and is expected to touch 1.5 degrees by 2030-2050 – in India that growth is, on average, at 2 degrees. It is widely projected that heat waves will only increase in frequency, providing shorter recovery periods, and will worsen with time. The absence of pre-monsoon showers, a combination of dry and hot winds blowing from the north-west, along with repeated El Nino years have culminated in Bihar's crisis. Together, they lead to loss of working hours, lower agricultural yields and greater casualties. But, sadly, heat waves are not considered natural disasters in India despite the high mortality and suffering, families receive no compensation for death. The National Crime Records Bureau has said that heat wave is the third most common natural cause of death.

The Bihar government has now issued a notification against the felling of trees but, in Patna, more than 2,500 trees have been felled in 2.5 years. Moving forward, our urban planning must acquaint itself with rising temperatures. Ahmedabad has a Heat Plan to combat a heat exigency but we must now equip our cities to avoid an emergency. Los Angeles has a cool pavement programme where pavements are coated with a grey sludge that absorbs less heat than asbestos with thermometer readings showing a visible drop in temperatures. Other cities, such as Stuttgart and Beijing, have opted for innovation to overcome their own climatic challenges. India too must walk the path of innovation to redesign its cities and make them more conducive to rising temperatures.

Deepa Mehta's Leila, an adaptation of Prayaag Akbar's eponymous novel, portrays a 2047 India, which isn't even called India, that witnesses stark divide between the rich and poor with wars manifesting from water. The skies are pouring black rains, the taps are running black water and people are killing each other for a single drop of water – it seems too unrealistic, only that it is not. The next world war will be fought over water and between the rich and the poor – as resources become limited, our society will become more divided, rebellious and ruthless.

(Data sourced from World Bank, NITI Aayog, Ministry of Water Resources (GoI), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, World Resources Institute, National Crime Records Bureau, Drought Early Warning System)

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