granny often knows best. Whenever there was a sore throat or a toothache we went to her and grandma obligingly pulled out a potion from her treasure trove of remedies. Many of them even worked. Perhaps the time has now come to go back to grandma for some other solutions. As to how she managed water resources in her time?
On March 22, even as people observed World Water Day, the World Meteorological Organization of the un exploded a bombshell: India will soon come face to face with a water famine of immense magnitude. The scenario for the Asian continent was particularly dismal. But what may be true for the rest of Asia need not be correct for monsoonal India, depending on the wisdom that Indians display in averting the looming crisis.
India has immense water wealth. But galloping population growth and overuse and misuse of water resources by farmers, industrialists and urban citizens threatens to create a crisis that could severely retard economic growth and even lead to regional conflicts. All attempts to manage water in India have been based on the western model of groundwater exploitation, construction of large dams and the use of pipelines. This has led to the lowering of groundwater levels all over the country; in various parts of Tamil Nadu alone groundwater levels have fallen as much as 30 metres in the last decade. According to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, massive subsidies by some Asian governments have resulted in the overuse or waste of irrigation water. It estimates that India spends as much as us $1.2 billion in such subsidies every year. India receives abundant rainfall but only for three to four months in the year during the monsoons. Most of this drains into the sea. Future solutions will lie in good use of this rainwater, recycling and efficient use of water. These three measures can keep Indians going for a long time.
In grandma's time, elaborate community-based water management systems, including a vast network of artificial tanks, drains and checkdams, had been in vogue for centuries. These traditional water harvesting systems, unlike the current system based on mining of ground and surface water, were all based on the premise that water is a scarce resource.
Today most of the ponds have silted up or have been encroached upon for farmland and building projects. The downfall of community self-management systems coupled with increasing bureaucratic intervention in village affairs has hastened the demise of these traditional systems. Nevertheless, it is these very systems that can play an important role in saving India from a parched future. For example, in the mid-'70s, the people of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra harvested rainwater to enrich the region's groundwater reserves. And, people of the drought-struck village of Sukhomajri in Haryana used small water harvesting tanks to turn their village from a food importing settlement to a food exporting one. But one of the most potent examples of the benefits of water conservation come from further back in time: reservoirs inside Chittor fort could collect so much water that an army of about 50,000 people could live in the fort for nearly four years.
Besides, there is a large potential for recycling waste water in India. About 50 per cent of sewage water is used for irrigation. Treated water is sometimes used for fish farming. In Chennai, industries like the Madras Refineries and Madras Fertilizers use treated sewage water. This is significant as industry accounts for more that two-thirds of the water consumed in the water-starved city. Shortages have repeatedly forced industries to close down in Tamil Nadu. Madras Fertilizers had to close down for 80 days in 1985 and for 93 days in 1987. But by creating a sewage market the municipality can sell its sewage to water-thirsty industry. India should be creating a sewage market.
That the urban water sector is facing serious problems is well known. The rate of increase of the urban population is higher than the national average. Such an increase in the urban population is the direct fallout of the development policies that we have decided to pursue. What is bewildering is that despite consciously taking this path, the planners have significantly failed to formulate policies to take care of the fallout of their own choices. The financial demands of the urban water sector have risen to levels far beyond the government's capacity in the foreseeable future. Urban and industrial water use must become highly efficient and increases in the efficiency of agricultural water use will free up enormous amounts of water for urban and industrial water use and reduce destruction of rivers and groundwater aquifers.
The government, instead of preserving traditional water management systems, has looked to expensive and environmentally destructive dams in far off places to satisfy the increasing water demand. This has merely led to an increase in the size of the bureaucracy required to manage water.
Water must be harvested where it falls. Traditional water harvesting systems should be given due importance in overall planning. So should recycling and efficient use of water. In grandmother's time, water was a precious commodity, but easily available and her village was green. But will our modern politicians learn?