Disappearing act

Overexploitation, increasing salinity and industrial pollution are threatening groundwater resources in several parts of the country

 
By Uday Shankar
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Disappearing act

-- OUT OF sight, out of mind. Perhaps that is why the depletion and degradation of groundwater throughout India has gone virtually unnoticed while much concern has been expressed over the condition of surface water resources. The crisis created by falling groundwater levels has grabbed the attention of only the immediate victims and the Central Groundwater Board (CGB), which considers the state of sub-soil water in many parts of the country needs to be addressed urgently.

Lack of focus on the groundwater situation is partly because of the varying extents to which this precious resource is present in different parts of the country. In the eastern areas, there is a surfeit and the water extracted is usually replenished during the monsoons. The arid regions do not receive sufficient rain to compensate for the loss of groundwater during the dry months and in rocky terrain, rainwater does not permeate easily to the natural underground reservoirs, called aquifers. In the last two cases, the net result is loss of water and a drop in the water table.

Overall projections about the rate and extent of aquifer shrinkage are difficult to make because of the wide variations in their sizes. Even though the CGB monitors groundwater at 15,000 points, officials avoid making generalisations, saying the level of monitoring provides only "a gross idea" about the condition of this natural resource.

For centuries, people have dug wells for water for agriculture and human consumption. But with the advent of tubewells, the spread of irrigation and the growth of cities, the state of groundwater deteriorated quickly.

Irrigation accounts for 90 per cent of the country's water use. From the 1960s, intensive agriculture has led to the exploitation of groundwater to such an extent that in areas such as Mehsana in Gujarat and pockets of Haryana and Punjab, it is now common for farmers to drill tubewells to a depth of 450 metres, compared with about 90 metres 20 years ago. Furthermore, after boring so deep, farmers sometimes run into saline water that lies beneath freshwater aquifers.

Urban needs account for 8 per cent of total water consumption and water tables around almost every town and city are falling. Equally alarming is the fact that the area of groundwater depletion is increasing.

Besides being exhausted, groundwater is also getting polluted. Toxic wastes have seeped into aquifers in several industrial townships, the worst affected are the Bombay-Thane belt in Maharashtra, Wapi in Gujarat and Durgapur-Asansol in West Bengal. Residents of these areas now depend on water brought from outside.

The coastal areas are threatened by an even more intractable problem: Heavy withdrawal of groundwater in many areas has caused seawater to infiltrate into the freshwater aquifers, rendering them useless.

To gauge the extent and variety of groundwater problems, three representative cases can be considered: Jodhpur in Rajasthan, for the kind of pressure groundwater has come under from urban and agricultural requirements, and Bichhri also in Udaipur, a stark example of groundwater degradation by industry, and the Saurashtra coast in Gujarat, where saline ingress has forced people to move out. JODHPUR
An unquenchable thirst

In 1459, the rulers of Marwar abandoned their capital, Mandore, to set up another in Jodhpur. The scarcity of water in Mandore and its abundance in Jodhpur was one of the reasons for the shift. But now, many people in western Rajasthan fear Jodhpur may also have to be abandoned, again because of paucity of water.

P C Chatterjee, a hydrologist who has studied the area, warns, "The principal sources of water in Jodhpur are groundwater and rainwater harvesting. While rainwater harvesting has been given up almost entirely, the shocking rate of groundwater exploitation may soon exhaust all the aquifers." In some areas, groundwater levels fall between one and six metres a year, he says.

Chatterjee attributes the crisis to growing municipal demand, unsustainable agriculture and the decline in traditional systems of collecting water. Traditionally, Jodhpur's water requirements were met by storing rainwater in tanks and surface reservoirs and by wells dug either by the authorities or by the people. Though most surface water bodies were natural, their storage capacity was enhanced by public efforts. These water bodies also augmented the capacity of the wells in their catchment by providing for recharge. The arrangement continued until 1897-98, when the first public water supply system was built.

But it was from the 1960s, when demand for tap water began to grow rapidly and more people began to get water in their homes, that interest in maintaining the water bodies waned, says J Venkateswarlu, director of the Jodhpur-based Central Arid Zone Research Institute. Magharam Parihar, additional chief engineer of the public health engineering department (PHED), confirms this. He points out that while only 35,000 water connections were provided between 1928 and 1981, the number more than doubled during the next 12 years.

Declining capacities
Meanwhile, as studies done by Venkateswarlu and his colleague, N S Vangani, indicate, the capacity of most traditional reservoirs has gone down and much of the increasing demand for water is being met by pumping groundwater.

The demand for water in the city has gone up with Jodhpur's population increasing from 1.5 lakh in 1951 to more than 6.5 lakh now. Also, as Parihar says, in the past three decades or so, industrial, defence and other users such as hotels have pressed for more water and with a gradual decline in the maintenance and hence the capacity of rainwater collection mechanisms, the pressure for more water has led to overexploitation of groundwater.

Today, this desert city's groundwater requirement, according to official estimates, stands at 130 million litres a day (mld), of which barely 60 mld is available from surface water resources. The rest, and any increase in requirements, is met by groundwater in and around the city. These figures do not take into account the groundwater extracted by individuals. "Today, anyone who can afford it has a tubewell in Jodhpur," says Komal Kothari, a social worker who has studied the water problem in the area. Those who can't install their own tubewells have built tanks that are filled by private tanker operators who purchase water from village tubewells. Depending on the quality of water and seasonal demand, 10,000 litres of water costs anything between Rs 150 and Rs 400.

This has led to a thriving market in potable water and has also fuelled demand among those who can pay for water. Thus, twice-a-day plant-watering and lawn-sprinkling is normal in houses in the posh localities of Jodhpur -- a city where the municipal authorities are unable to supply water for more than three hours on alternate days. And, in most city hotels, round-the-clock water supply is a standard feature.

A bonanza
But the real bonanza for tanker and tubewell owners is the frequent droughts in western Rajasthan, which have increased in intensity even as traditional water harvesting practices decline. As Laxmi Chand Tyagi, a local activist, says: "Now even a little uneven rain can create a drought-like situation for ordinary people because the traditional water reservoirs are in a mess." What seems to have precipitated the crisis is the fact that official handling has been limited to augmenting the shortfall by more groundwater extraction. Even Parihar admits that "emergency measures to provide water during droughts have added to pressure on groundwater." But he adds: "What can we do? People want water and this is the only source."

Even emergency measures during severe water shortages are not withdrawn after the situation improves "because once water is available, demand goes up", says Parihar (See box). On the other hand, because of constant pumping from one site and the consequent fall in water levels, the PHED has been adding to the number of tubewells at every site.

Municipal demand alone cannot be held responsible for the depletion of groundwater around Jodhpur because several farmers in the area have resorted to highly water intensive agriculture using tubewells. Instead of growing traditional crops that require little irrigation, such as bajra, oilseeds, cumin and wheat, most farmers have switched to chillies, vegetables and sugarcane. Even those who grew wheat and mustard now tend to plant irrigation-intensive, high-yield varieties and use heavy doses of fertilisers and pesticides. Says D L Bhatti, joint director of agriculture in the Jodhpur division, "With the advent of tubewells in the area, fertiliser and pesticide consumption has shot up during the past three decades."

Before the "tubewell revolution", the irrigation requirements for crops that suited the desert climate were marginal and could easily be met by wells with Persian wheels. However, once tubewells were introduced, all wells in the vicinity of tubewells dried up. Even the few farmers who were reluctant to change their crop patterns were forced to make use of the water for fear of losing it. Thus, first, pump sets were added to the wells; when these dried up, borewells and tubewells came up, says Pukha Bharati, one of the rich farmers of Rampura.

The result of water-intensive agriculture is there for all to see: Groundwater levels in the Rampura area have dropped about 50 metres in the past 20 years. In the Dolipal area, the level has fallen about 17 metres in 15 years, and in Ransiogaon, it has fallen by more than 16 metres in the past six years. According to state government records, almost all freshwater aquifers are not replenished adequately even in normal rainfall years.

Wasteful use
Says K C Purohit, plant protection officer in Jodhpur: "Most farmers here think if they put in more fertiliser and water, yields will increase. There seems to be a competition among farmers to use fertilisers and pesticides. Often, they use water liberally just because it is cheap and get adverse results because of over-watering. Ratanlal Daga, the richest farmer in Mathania, echoes the general mentality: "Kheti to bas khaad aur paani ka khel hain (Agriculture is a game in which fertilisers and irrigation are the only pawns)."

Farmers are aware they will run out of groundwater soon. Already, there are many reports of farmers having to drill at five or six places before striking a good aquifer. But once again, this has only fuelled water consumption because no one wants to waste time wondering about the future. As Daga says, the present is what matters to farmers, even as the city dwellers continue their tirade against the PHED for not extracting "enough water even for a decent bath".

BICHHRI
Waiting for justice

For those who believe that legal and administrative provisions are comprehensive enough to protect the country's environment from industrial pollution, Bichhri, a village in Udaipur district of Rajasthan, is a clear rebuff.

The groundwater in Bichhri has been so badly polluted by a chemical factory -- Silver Chemicals Ltd -- that neither the villagers nor their cattle are left with any water to drink.

The people of Bichhri and some activists have tried to remedy the situation, but with the case hanging fire in the Supreme Court, there is still no relief. The villagers' only water is trucked in by the Hindustan Zinc Smelter "on compassionate grounds". Silver Chemicals continues to deny its liability despite several scientific and administrative reports to the contrary. The red effluent
When the Silver Chemicals plant, owned by O P Agrawal, "a dynamic entrepreneur of Rajasthan", was established about 14 km east of Udaipur in the foothills of the Aravallis in 1988, the villagers were happy about the arrival of another employer.

The factory manufactured a naphthalene-based dye intermediate and discharged a dark red effluent that initially escaped notice. The factory is on an incline and the liquid flowed freely onto the adjoining land. By the time some villagers noticed that their hand pumps were giving out dark red water, the groundwater of Bichhri had become unfit for humans, cattle and agriculture. About 70 wells serving a population of 10,000 in five villages had become contaminated. The Udaisagar lake, the only other source of water for the villagers, had almost dried up in 1988 during a severe drought.

The factory authorities washed their hands of the muck they had generated. Villagers petitioned the district collector, the chief minister of Rajasthan, the PHED chief, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and then President R Venkataraman. A group of villagers also approached an Udaipur-based lawyer and activist, Manna Ram Dangi.

Gandhi directed district officials to examine the allegations. The collector of Udaipur and some colleagues visited Bichhri and satisfied that the claims were correct, the Udaipur subdivisional magistrate instituted a case against the factory and its managers. Meanwhile, Dangi helped the villagers set up the Bichhri Paryavaran Suraksha Sangharsha Samiti (Bichhri Environmental Protection Struggle Committee). Dangi also roped in activists from Udaipur, such as Kishore Saint and K L Bapna of the Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal and some members of another NGO, Seva Mandir.

The group first gave a representation to the collector in November 1988 and the following month more than 2,000 villagers protested before the collector. They demanded closure of the factory and compensation for the polluted wells, dead cattle and destroyed crops. They also wanted an immediate arrangement for drinking water as the quality of the water in the hand pumps and the wells had deteriorated further.

Allegation upheld
The collector appointed an expert committee to look into the matter. Just five days after it was formed, the committee upheld the allegation that the pollution was caused by Silver Chemicals. The next day, December 30, 1988, the additional collector of Udaipur closed the factory with police help.

The factory challenged the order in the Jaipur High Court, which instructed the additional collector to hear the case once again. He confirmed his earlier order. In turn, the company again challenged his ruling in the High Court, where the case is still pending. But Silver Chemicals obtained permission to reopen the factory after building a treatment plant. The plant was operational for barely a fortnight before being closed again because of protests from state and Central agencies.

A Delhi-based NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), brought in noted pollution expert and former member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, G D Agarwal, who was instrumental in persuading the public sector Hindustan Zinc Smelter to provide drinking water by tankers to the villagers. CSE also commissioned scientists from Roorkee University and Aligarh Muslim University to report on the state of the groundwater and causes of pollution. The experts blamed Silver Chemicals.

In the meantime, the villagers' action committee gave a memorandum and a sample of the polluted water to Rajiv Gandhi when he visited Udaipur in 1989. The chief minister and governor of Rajasthan also received samples of the polluted water. The villagers and others involved in the case asked the Supreme Court to provide them with clean drinking water, curb further spread of the pollutants, provide medical assistance for the victims and their cattle, remove sludge and compensate those affected.

Court directive
The state pollution control board supported the charges made in the petition and the court directed the state government to provide safe drinking water. It also asked the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to give a report on the groundwater of Bichhri. The NEERI findings reportedly confirm the allegations against Silver Chemicals.

Yet, the case drags on. In 1990, the defence lawyer agreed to "de-water" the wells in order to clean them. A total of 69 wells were identified for de-watering but later, the defendants argued that the state pollution control board itself was obstructing the process. The court appointed a commissioner and asked for a report in three weeks. But M C Mehta, a Supreme Court advocate who filed the writ on behalf of Bichhri villagers, says the report was delayed by a year. It again confirmed the charges against the factory. It was only in 1992 that the Supreme Court finally asked the state pollution control board to remove the sludge, which was out in the open and seeping into the ground. It was then buried in cement pits in the factory premises.

Meanwhile, the villagers await a decision in their case. In April 1993, the Supreme Court held its 40th hearing. Not surprisingly, people have lost faith: "There is no hope anymore. After all these years and the involvement of all the big people, we could not even get interim relief."

Kanhaiya Lal Bapna of the Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal is even gloomier, and says "It will be difficult now to mobilise people for another popular protest here on these issues. They are all so despondent."

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