Evaporating resources

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Just put these simple facts together and you will see what a deadly cocktail we are heading towards. Population is growing. Even more so, urban population is growing which consumes several times more water than the rural population. At the same time, industry is growing which also needs water. Add to that the high amounts of water that will be needed to bring additional hectares of agricultural lands under irrigation. Clearly we are heading towards a major water supply crunch.

But wait a minute. Put on to this scenario high rates of pollution coming from modern farms, factories and towns and cities, which effectively -- and increasingly -- reduces the quantity of clean water available.

Then superimpose on all this a regulatory mayhem. Very few effective controls on polluting activities and or on control of groundwater extraction. What you then see emerging is a water disaster of the first order.

Well, you may ask, how big a disaster. The answer is: Nobody knows. The country's hydrological database is almost non-existent. Nobody knows what is the latest and projected 'water balance' -- figures on water supply, demand and availability -- in any of the river basins. For the country as a whole, there are some figures. The authorities have calculated that the "ultimate" potential of utilisable surface flow (that is, water from rivers and ponds) is 69 million-hectare-metres (mham) and utilisable groundwater is 45 mham .

Thus, a total of 114 mham of utilisable water is available. Nearly 50 per cent of the utilisable surface water and nearly 30 per cent of the utilisable groundwater is being used currently. This shows that lots and lots of water is still available to exploit. But how true is this picture?

Says A Vaidyanathan, one of India's leading water economists, "These estimates seem overly optimistic. The assessment of sustainable surface flow is not based on detailed investigation and are at best notional. The estimate of unutilised groundwater potential also has to be reconciled with the widespread and progressive decline in groundwater table."

Water balance data would make most sense on a river basin basis because it is river basins that represent an ecological unit which is utilised by human societies. Adds Vaidyanathan, "We know that we are using a small fraction of our rainfall. But when we look at the fraction of surface and groundwater that is being used in some basins, then it is already very high and many rivers do not even have minimum acceptable flows."

A group of Indian and Dutch social scientists met recently in the Netherlands under the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternative Development to discuss the emerging water scarcity and ways to deal it. Studies presented on one basin after another revealed a picture of growing mayhem and conflicts. Uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater, uncontrolled pollution, more and more water being taken from reservoirs for urban areas and industry at the expense of agriculture, and less and less clean water available for drinking purposes by villages living downstream of towns and industrial clusters. This is true whether you take the Yamuna basin which sits astride Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, the Sabarmati basin in Gujarat or the Noyyal and Bhawani basins in Tamil Nadu.

The picture that emerges in this "water rich country" is indeed frightening. And even more worrisome is that nobody is doing anything about it. "We need a massive water literacy campaign," says Vaidyanathan.

Let us take the case of the Yamuna basin. The river starts in the Himalayan mountains and passes through Haryana where it picks up huge quantities of urban sewage and agricultural runoff full of pesticides and fertilisers. Just before Delhi, the river gets dammed and during several months of the year, there is no water in the river. All that the river gets while passing by Delhi is the industrial and domestic sewage from the capital city. After Delhi, the river receives water from a few other polluted streams and slowly flows by cities like Agra -- by when the water becomes totally unusable. For the people of Agra, life is a living hell.

A city like Delhi no longer survives with water available in the Yamuna basin in which it is located. There is constant political pressure on neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana to provide more and more water to the city. The city's planners are hoping that dams like Tehri will come up in other river basins and supply water to the city. And if a minimum flow was to be ensured in the Yamuna, then the water available for human use in the basin will be even less.

If one were to place blame for this state of affairs on anyone, then more than the scientists and bureaucrats who deal with water issues, the blame would have to be put on the politicians of the country. They have shown no interest in the dealing with the emerging water crisis. In fact, their populism -- "competitive populism" as Madhu Dandavate calls it -- is the key cause of the problem. They just want to exploit more and more water sources and then give it away to the public for free. And political parties indulge themselves in distributing this natural largesse. So there is no demand management and there is no proper pricing policy for water -- neither for farmers nor for industrialists or urban households. Even when the country is facing a water crunch everybody is squandering water. There are no efforts being made either to control over exploitation or to control pollution. It is clear that unless there is a combination of good politics, good economics and good science together with mass public participation in the management of water, millions of Indians are going to die an unknown death either because of a shortage of water or a profusion of polluted water. Only the country's civil society can now prevent that from happening. Water literacy is indeed the need of the hour.

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