Restore flow, rivers are self-purifying

We need to go back to the drawing board of Jackie King, the South African who won the World Water Prize 2019 

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 28 October 2019
Bhoothathankettu Barriage Dam, Kerala. Photo: Getty Images

The 2019 World Water Prize was awarded to South African Jackie King for her work to establish the need for ecological flows in rivers. In our world of today, this is a critical issue — how to establish the rights of our rivers in an age of growing demand for water and growing risks for climate change insecurity?

We must understand that the issue of river flow is really about the politics of power. The question of rights of the river become much more complicated and much more political when water is scarce and rights are contested.

In India and many other countries, water was allocated to farmers — who needed it to grow our food. But now cities and industries are growing, new users of water. The fight is over the re-allocation of this resource between the old and the new users. Re-allocation creates tensions and even leads to bloodshed in some cases.

It is also important to understand our difference with the rest of the world. In the already developed world, for instance in countries of Europe, water moved to cities and industries because people and livelihoods also moved. But in India, millions still work on the land; they continue to need water for their livelihoods.

The problem also is that cities and industries take water, but return waste and pollution. They destroy the river, and in this way, the available and scarce resource of water is further diminished. So, in this fight, the river then has no rights — there is no water for flow. But there is then an additional problem. Because the river has no water, it cannot assimilate the waste of humans. It cannot clean itself. It dies many deaths.

And, all this is happening in an age of climate change. The fact is today we need to re-think everything we know and understand about water management. Today when it rains, it does not pour; it is a deluge. In the monsoon season of 2019, we have seen over 1,000 instances of heavy and extreme rain events; many places have had 1,000-3,000 per cent more rain in a single day, as compared to their average.

So, there is flood. But worse, after the flood, there is drought because regions, cities, villages do not have the capacity to hold the rain, the drainage systems, ponds and tanks have been destroyed; the streams have been filled up. In this way, we have flood at the time of drought. This is not the new normal. This is completely abnormal. And remember, climate change impacts are only just beginning. Global temperatures will rise further.

We will even have to re-think the role of dams in this extreme rain age. Dams were built to hold water; modulate the flow. But now this holding of water is becoming the biggest risk as dam managers have no option but to release the water when there is such high rainfall — all unpredicted and this then makes the flood, a deluge. It destroys lives; massively. 

So, this is where we need to go back to the drawing board of Jackie King so that we begin to face the reality of deciding the rights of rivers. This is where the opportunity lies as well because if we give the river its rights to water; we will learn to do more with less.

Firstly, agriculture will have to be much more wise with its water use. But this does not only mean using drip irrigation. It also means that we will have to change our diets so that we eat food that uses less water and that we do not grow our meat using the industrial farming methods of the rich countries. This requires government to prioritise the procurement of crops that are water prudent like millets as against rice.

Secondly, cities will have to learn to take water from rivers and return water and not waste. This is where there is huge opportunity to do excreta management, which is affordable and so sustainable. This is where cities need to be told that they have to recycle and reuse every drop of the sewage they generate. In fact, cities should be asked to take their drinking water downstream of their sewage discharge points. It will make them clean up their waste. Return water to the hydrological cycle. Add to our water security.

Thirdly, and most critically, we must realise that the only way we can cope with extreme and variable rain is to harvest every drop and to build deliberately for drainage. Every waterbody and every drain must be deepened and protected to store the flood water. India has extraordinary and diverse traditions of building water storage systems. These structures must become our new temples — every drain, every ditch and every waterbody must be protected so that the flood water can be used to recharge groundwater and this can be used in the coming season of drought.

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