World Water Day: Water management, dead rivers seminal issues in India’s groundwater debate

We can revive India’s groundwater if we make dead rivers come alive and manage and conserve water

By R Sreenivasa Murthy
Published: Tuesday 22 March 2022
A rainwater harvesting system in Lake Dew Residency, Harlur Road, Bengaluru. Photo: R Sreenivasa Murthy

Greetings to all on World Water Day 2022. This year’s theme for World Water Day is “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible.”

Water is life and represents aquatic ecosystems. Water and the earth are abiotic but the life in them makes them what they are. We must recognise that water is the basis of life and it is the earth that sustains life in a bigger way. It is thus incumbent on us to take care of land and water resources, along with the biodiversity therein to ensure our own survival.

All three major sources of water — sea, aquifers and surface water — have a dynamic cycle among themselves through monsoonal clouds and precipitation. But humanity has put a spanner in the works.

We built dams to stop the flow of rivers and use the water in the reservoirs to meet our own irrigation and drinking water requirements.

We considered (and still consider) rivers as ‘water channels’, rather than living systems. In many cases, we either dried up rivers fully or stopped their flow to the sea.

We also released (and still do) untreated domestic / industrial sewage to pollute the surface and underground water resources.

Finally, we warmed up the globe and disturbed the regular cycles of monsoon and ignited untimely cyclones through disturbances.

Blue ‘miracles’

Humanity’s assault on the three sources of water continues unabated. This year’s theme for World Water Day is groundwater. But what exactly does it mean?

Groundwater is a key resource for the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030. But it is still weakly conceptualised in the Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s theme, I believe, has been chosen to:

  1. Inform about groundwater-related activities of UN entities and their partners
  2. Enhance knowledge exchange and collaboration
  3. Raise awareness about groundwater, making the invisible visible.

It may seem that the scenario regarding water, especially groundwater in today’s India is extremely gloomy. But probe a bit and there are exceptions to the norm.

Let me cite one from personal experience. Over last ten days, I have been busy helping my younger son get settled in his newly rented flat in Lake Dew Residency, Harlur Road, Bengaluru. This is a two-decade-old colony.

The most important invisible issue that we decline to discuss in the context of water in India is the burgeoning human population. Bengaluru, being the first Silicon Valley of India, attracts people from all over the country.   

The majority of the water for Bengaluru is transported by the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board from the Cauvery river, over 100 kilometres south of the city.

Cauvery water was originally drawn from a reservoir near the village of Thorekadanahalli. The energy required to transport the water over this distance consumes 75 per cent of the agency’s revenues.

Twenty per cent of the water supply for Bengaluru comes from the Arkavathy river. But the city still experiences water shortage frequently.

The quality of the water in the reservoir has also become compromised by the discharge of effluents into it.

Groundwater extraction has caused the water table to drop in the city from 90 to 300 metres (300 to 1,000 feet) below ground level (as compared to an average water table depth of about 30 metres (90 feet) two decades ago), according to Indian Institute of Science studies.  

The Lake Dew colony has a very good sewage drainage system due to which, sewage gets collected into an adjoining pond, where it gets treated.

Besides, all the houses in the colony are installed with rainwater harvesting systems. On March 22, I saw the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike vehicle collecting dry waste from all the houses of the colony.

Another ‘blue miracle’ which I saw recently was the ‘rebirth’ of the dead Palar river. For decades, the river, which originates in the Kangundi forests of Chittoor district, had never taken any water to the sea near Puducherry.

Sand mining had destroyed the Palar to a great extent. But heavy untimely rains in the month of November 2021 resulted in actual water flow for the first time in 30 years.

These rains immediately recharged the adjoining aquifers, raising visible ground water levels. Even today, after a good four months, there is a stream flow in the Palar. This is because of aquifer recharge and subterranean stream flow. Thus, last year’s floods brought the river’s dynamics back into play. 

Issues to address

Indians must ponder over the following water (and groundwater) issues. They must be made visible:

Indian states continue to quarrel over river waters.

More than 90 per cent of groundwater in India is used for irrigation of agriculture. The remainder — 24 billion cubic metres — supplies 85 per cent of the country’s drinking water.

Roughly 80 per cent of India’s 1.35 billion residents depend on groundwater for both drinking and irrigation. 

The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) may accelerate groundwater depletion.

Do we realise that the river-linking concept of India is the brainchild of engineers who felt that rivers are just water channels and should not be allowed to be ‘wasted’ by flowing into the sea?

Do we realise that river water flow data is insufficient to arrive at science-based decisions for river linking projects?

It is my wish that river ecologists and river linking proponents have an unbiased discussion to arrive at a proper solution based on science and factual issues. A myopic vision shall sure shot destroy the ground as well as surface water of the region.

In conclusion, we need to address water management issues with proper planning as I shared in my colony example. We need to make the issue of dead rivers visible, to make them alive immediately.

Let us make all invisible issues of water woes visible and take care of all forms of life on this planet. Let us live in harmony with nature. Let wisdom prevail.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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