Water

Value your local water system

Bengaluru floods should draw our attention to how the same tragic story of loss of waterbodies in almost all Indian cities. But will it? 

 
By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 13 September 2022
Value your local water system editorial by Sunita Narain; illustration: Ritika Bohra

The high-tech city of Bengaluru has been brought to its knees — incessant rains have drowned the city. Its residents have had to leave their luxury homes and cars in lowly tractors; offices remain closed; and livelihood and economic losses have been massive. This is the revenge of nature that I speak about but, it seems, to little avail.

We should have known the following by now: One, this kind of devastation, from floods to droughts and extreme heat or cold waves, is not going to go away. This is the result of the changing climate and is happening because of the emissions we humans have pumped into the atmosphere to satiate our need for energy for economic growth.

Two, flooding will increase, particularly in the South-Asian region, as a warming planet means that the atmosphere can hold more moisture. This in turn will add to the extreme rain events we are already witnessing — extensive floods have submerged two-thirds of our neighbour, Pakistan.

Three, and this one is most critical, climate change is not the only reason we are in this situation. We have also deliberately and mercilessly destroyed our waterbodies that would have been the channels and sponges for this excess water and stored it in underground aquifers for later use.

We know all this. So, why do we not act? We know that we are not doing enough to rein in the runaway greenhouse gas emissions. We know that we need to hold countries accountable for their emissions and for reparations to be paid in terms of losses and damages for the horrendous and heart-breaking human losses we are seeing in our world today.

But this still does not answer why we do not act to fix what we can to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. We are so wrapped up in the new-fangled science of adaptation that we do not consider what is under our noses; all that we need to do is invest in our local waterbodies so that our cities can cope with these, now more-frequent, extreme rain events.

The fact is, we do not act because we really do not need to. Our cities get their water supply from sources which are disconnected from the local waterbodies. We really do not have any necessity to invest in rainwater harvesting or in protecting our lakes, ponds or their catchment systems. We have successfully disengaged from our local environment. Our lakes are only useful for recreation — as part of the beautification of our cities. So, when the next infrastructure project comes along or a builder plans for residential or commercial complexes, this water’s land is considered to be available and vacant.

This is why the mega city of Hyderabad has built its new airport on the catchment of its most important waterbody; this is why more than 100 lakes in Ahmedabad have been lost — built over and vandalised. Every city, literally, has the same tragic story of loss of its waterbodies. This is also because every city has turned its back on its source of water — it is either not sufficient, too polluted or just not grand enough to depend upon. And now, cities are on the march to look for their water supply from as far as they can go.

In 2012, we published Excreta Matters, in which we documented the water-waste tale of 71 cities in the country. We explained how each city neglects its local water source and then is in search of its supply from faraway lands. Bengaluru, which had its own river (the Arkavathi) and its extensive network of lakes — all connected for water recharge and flood management — had moved past this.

It now sources its water supply from the Cauvery, 100 km away and 1,000 metres below the level of the city. This water has to be pumped up and transported over a long distance. Delhi, with the Yamuna at its doorstep, is dependent on the water of Tehri dam, 300 km away. Hyderabad’s waterbodies, river Musi, Hussain Sagar, Osman Sagar and even Himayat Sagar, are either polluted or dry. So, it brings water from the Manjira, Singur IV and Nagarjuna Sagar dams, all 80-120 km away.

This long-distance transport of water means that the cost of electricity for pumping goes up; water losses are high; and the end cost of the supplied water is exorbitant. It adds to the inequity in supply.

Cities also struggle to recover costs of water supply from their residents and end up with no funds to invest in taking back the sewage that is discharged from homes. This adds to the pollution of local water sources. The fact is in this situation where water is supplied, there is no necessity for cities to revive their waterbodies.

Now, climate change with its extreme rain is once again teaching us that there is value in the local water system which cannot be written off. It is not notional. It is real. Let’s hope we learn this now or the future will only be worse.

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