Why is rain a tragedy for cities?

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 31 July 2003

A few days ago, most of India reeled under drought. Cities thirsted for water. Karnataka's chief minister S M Krishna -- seeing water supply in his software capital reduced to once in three days -- announced desperate measures, such as prayer. The entire country seemed to await the first emancipatory raindrop.

Now it has rained. Now the same cities are full of it. Flooded, life disrupted. Dirty and unhealthy, as rainwater mixed with sewage water flows through crowded urban habitats. Rain has literally become a curse. But the real tragedy is that in a few months, once the rains and the waterlogging are far behind, these same cities will be thirsting again. Once again, their water greed will make them poach for water in surrounding rural areas.

Today, our flatulent cities get their water supply from further and further away -- Delhi gets Ganga water from the Tehri dam; Bangalore is building the Cauvery IV project to pump in water from 100 kilometres away; water for Chennai will traverse 200 kilometres, from the Krishna river; Hyderabad will bring its water from Manjira. I could go sickeningly on and on. But the point is that the urban-industrial sector's demand for water is growing by leaps and bounds. Yet, this sector does little to augment its water resources; it does even less to minimise its water use, or conserve water. Worse, because of the abysmal lack of sewage and waste treatment facilities, it degrades scarce water further. Even after all this, its water greed remains unslaked.

Groundwater levels are declining precipitously in urban areas as people bore deeper in search of the water that municipalities cannot supply. So when it does not rain, the city cries. And when it does rain, still it cries. What a tragedy.

It is a tragedy because this continuous cycle of deprivation and disruption is completely unneccesary. We can do so much more. The water imperative is that cities must begin to value their rainfall endowment. This means implementing rainwater harvesting in each house and colony. But it also means relearning about the hundreds of lakes, tanks and ponds that built, indeed nourished, cities. Almost every city had a treasure of water harvesting structures, which provided it with a flood cushion and allowed it to recharge its groundwater reserves. But today's urban planners cannot see beyond land. Where there is water, there should be land, is their money-spinning philosophy. So it is that waterbodies in cities today are a shame to our traditional imagination -- encroached, full of sewage, garbage or just filled up and built-over. The cities forgot they need water. They forgot their own lifeline.

Take urban lakes, a city's vital sponges. Every city gave its land for rain. Bangalore in the early 1960s had 262 lakes; now only 10 hold water. The Ahmedabad collector -- on directions from the high court -- listed 137 lakes in the city but also said that over 65 had been already built-over. In Delhi, 508 waterbodies were identified -- again, on court orders -- but are not protected.

I find that the hue and cry about water harvesting and rejuvenating lakes still remains a chimera. Urban planners simply don't know how important these two activities are. They simply refuse to believe that both are perfectly possible. They flirt with the idea, but then do not even begun to integrate the city's water needs with its rainwater wealth.

There are also other problems. Firstly, builders and architects today have simply never been taught the many other ways of holding water, that exist outside the syllabi they conned as students. They have been trained to see water as waste and to build systems that dispose it off as fast as possible. Of course, given the sheer mess of urban India, even the stormwater drains have become conduits for sewage, or get choked with garbage or in many cases just don't get built. An entire generation of Indians will have to be retrained. It is crucial that future architects and planners understand water once again. Our society cannot let go of its own wisdom so easily.

Specially when other countries are profiting from it. In Germany, city authorities have learnt and are using our knowledge. To save investing in stormwater drains, they provide incentives to households to harvest and recharge rainwater. The city charges tax based on the calculation of the paved area and the water-runoff coefficient. If rainwater harvesting is done and the load on the city's stormwater drainage is reduced, the burden of tax on the house-owner is reduced accordingly. But this demands governance capacities, something we desperately lack.

Secondly, the business of land is far more powerful than the business of water storage. In spite of all the efforts of civil society groups to use the strategy of judicial intervention, the movement to protect and revive lakes is facing an uphill battle. The administrative framework for managing a waterbody just does not exist in our cities anymore.

Even if such a framework did come up, it wouldn't be enough. The city will now have to learn to minimise its water use and work on conservation and reuse. Politicians and planners believe that water is God's gift to their election promises. People must now begin to believe it is something they can gift to themselves. We are all mindless about wasting water; now, let's get mindful of retaining it. Then, the modern-day urban tragedy called timely rain will receive a popular denouement.

-- Sunita Narain

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