A God we must not fail

2020 is our make-or-break decade to ensure water security. We need to make water our single-biggest obsession as we know the solutions too

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 16 March 2020
A God we must not fail

I dare to say that I do not believe there would be water wars; or that cities would run out of water; or that we wouldn’t have any water to drink. I say this while acknowledging that we have a dire and crippling crisis of water shortage in the country and it is getting worse day by day. The fact is that we have new water guzzlers like the booming cities and the industries. But at the same time, available water is increasingly getting polluted. Now climate change is adding to this crisis. Rain is now more uncertain and more extreme, leading to more droughts and more floods.

I say this because water is a replenishable resource — it snows and rains each year. More importantly, other than in the case of agriculture, we don’t consume water. We use and discharge. Therefore, it can be treated and then re-used and recycled. So, this is where we can bring in change in the future.

But this means getting the policy and practice of water management right. The good news is water literacy has grown. Let’s take a quick trip down the policy memory lane to understand how much we have learnt. Till the late 1980s, water management was largely confined to the issue of irrigation projects—building of dams and canals to store and then supply water to long distances. But then came the period of severe drought spells of the late 1980s. It became clear that it was not enough to only plan for augmenting water through large projects. This was also when the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published its report, Dying Wisdom, which documented technologies for rainwater harvesting in diverse agro-ecological regions of India. Our slogan for that period was: “Rain is decentralised, so is the demand for water.” So, capture rain where and when it falls.

There was a paradigm shift in policy. In the droughts of late 1990s, state governments launched massive programmes to capture rainwater by building ponds, digging tanks and constructing check dams on streams. By the mid-2000s, these efforts coalesced into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)—investing local labour into building rural water assets. By this time, it was also understood that groundwater—considered a “minor” resource—was the “major” source of water for both drinking and irrigation purposes in the country. It was also understood that in spite of the investment in irrigation infrastructure, over 50 per cent of agriculture was still rainfed and so farm-level water conservation was critical for productivity.

In the decade of 2010s, the crisis of urban drought hit homes. But again, policy evolved as it learnt that augmenting water supply was only one part of the challenge—cities were increasingly dependent on long distance sources; pumping and piping this water meant both loss in distribution as well as high costs of electricity and this, in turn, made the available water expensive and more inequitable in access. As water supply dried up, people turned to groundwater and without recharge—ponds and tanks had been gobbled up by real estate or simply through neglect—meant declining water levels.

More importantly water supply was linked to pollution—more the water supplied the more is wastewater generation. This, without adequate treatment leads to pollution of rivers and waterbodies, which in turn destroys available water and increases the cost of cleaning up drinking water. CSE’s report, Excreta Matters, detailed how this unaffordable paradigm of water-sewage management needed change.

A few years later, research revealed that bulk of urban residents are not even connected to the underground sewerage network, which is capital- and resource-intensive. Instead, they depend on on-site sewage “disposal” systems, where household toilets are connected to septic tanks or just holding tanks or even to open drains in the vicinity. The “Shit-Flow-Diagrams” in different cities of India revealed that in spite of all the claims of sewage treatment plants being built, wastewater was not treated. In most cases, this infrastructure was not designed to fit the city sanitation system and so remained underutilised. Rivers remained polluted. In all this, new solutions emerged—if affordable water supply was critical, then cities needed to cut the length of their distribution pipelines, which meant increased focus on local water systems like ponds, tanks and rainwater harvesting. Then, if cities needed to ensure affordable sanitation for all and affordable treatment of wastewater, then on-site systems could be re-engineered so that waste was collected from each household, transported and treated. There was no need to build long distance pipelines for supply of water or even longer distance pipelines for taking back the wastewater for treatment. But most importantly, we have learnt that if this urban-industrial wastewater is treated for reuse then water is not lost. More importantly, our rivers are not lost.

So, this is where we are in our understanding of water management. We know what to do. But the question is, why we are not getting our act together. Why is water scarcity growing; why is it that villages are “reached” with water supply and then the “slip”—get added back to the list of water scarce habitations.

This is where the real challenge remains—ensuring sustainability of the water supply systems. Today, the problem is that water asset created is not durable—the pond gets filled; the tank is encroached upon and the watershed critical for the drainage is destroyed. The problem lies in the fact that land and water bureaucracies are fractured—somebody owns the pond; another agency the drain and yet another the catchment. Water security requires this to change. This means giving much greater control over the water structures to the local community—deepening democracy and devolution of powers—is then the answer to water mismanagement.

With this, we need to do much more to invest in the future systems of urban India. It is often said that agriculture is the bulk user of water in our country. But, there is absolutely no data on how much is used in agriculture and how much water is now consumed in cities and excreted as wastewater. So, management of local sources of water; recharge of groundwater and reuse of every drop of wastewater has to be the agenda for water-wise cities. Then we need to do all we can to minimise our use of water. We need to be much more efficient with every drop. This means doing everything from investing in water efficient irrigation, appliances and changing diets so that the crops we eat are water-prudent. So this is the opportunity—the decade to put all we have learnt into practice and to turn around the water story of India. It is possible. We just have to make it our single biggest obsession. Water, remember, is about livelihood. It is about food and nutrition. It is about economic growth.

This decade is our make or break phase. This is also because in this decade we will see the revenge of nature as climate change impacts get aggravated. We need then to scale up our work to invest in water systems and to make them durable, not just to withstand another rain, but another deluge. We need to speed up our work, because climate change will make sure that we have more rain, but in fewer rainy days. This means doing much more to capture the rain, when and where it falls. It is about a new worship—this is a God we must not fail.

This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 March, 2020)

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