For a secure water future

How can we chart a course that could lead to a water future which would be sustainable? Sunita Narain offers some insight

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 21 March 2014


Managing water inequity: Dealing with drought

It was only in March 2013 that the drought crippling large parts of Maharashtra finally grabbed the nation’s attention. The region had been reeling under water scarcity for two years — by 2013, agriculture was severely hit, as was industrial output. Maharashtra is no stranger to droughts. In the 1970s, the state had initiated the country’s first employment guarantee programme to provide drought relief. But the drought of 2013 was different. It brought home the fact that a state can suffer the consequences of increasing variability of rainfall if it mismanages its water. Maharashtra’s drought is a reminder of what awaits India in its water future.

Maharashtra has spent a lot on building irrigation projects. Since 2007 — when farmer suicides in Vidharbha hit the headlines — the state has been given central grants for water projects. According to the state economic survey, till February 2012, Maharashtra had spent Rs 12,000 crore only on this, with nothing much to show for it: irrigation projects had either not been built or simply not utilised. The state’s own data says some 40 per cent of the potential created is not being used. Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) speak about scandalous ways in which dams are built but canals are not and about cost escalations so high that projects become unviable and are never completed.

This is also the only Indian state to give industry priority over agriculture in allocation of water, because there is more recovery of investment. So even when an irrigation project is built, the water from it is diverted to urban and industrial needs. In Amravati, a drought-hit district, the Upper Wardha irrigation project was built under the prime minister’s relief package. But when water started to flow in the canals, the state decided to divert it to the Sophia thermal power project. Farmers protested the move. This led to the overturning of the policy that gave industry priority, but not in the cases where water was already allocated.

The state’s economic survey accepts that only 50 per cent of the utilised water in its reservoirs is being used for agriculture. With rapid urbanisation, the demand for water is bound to go up. This will add to the stress unless cities and industries become water-prudent now — use less water and return clean water (and not sewage) to farmers.

The inequity between agriculture and industry-urbanisation finds an echo in the inequity within agriculture itself. Maharashtra grows sugarcane-type water-guzzling crops. This dry and water-stressed state produces 66 per cent of the crushed sugar in the country, way over what Uttar Pradesh, located in the Ganga basin, manages. Thus, water available for agriculture is also not used wisely (see Box: Sugarcane: Engineering scarcity).

But it is the inability to link investment in watershed and soil conservation to groundwater recharge that has been the most damaging. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has replaced the state’s three-decade old employment guarantee scheme. But with the focus on creating jobs, and not on completion of the work, there is little productive asset creation. Even during the drought, the scheme had no takers. Down To Earth reporters found that during the state-wide drought in 1972, 1.5 million people had worked under the employment guarantee scheme. But in 2012, the number was down to 0.25 million — mostly because of low wages and delayed payments.

Furthermore, investments in water assets — coming largely through employment guarantee schemes — are hardly ever productive. Watersheds are planted with trees, but protection of the trees is not ensured. Tanks are desilted, but the channels or the catchment that bring water to the tanks are not. Worse, the tank is rarely completed. In this way, drought becomes perpetual; rain or no rain, money or no money.

Distributed access and dying wisdom

Every country has to mind its water business. But for a country like India, where it rains for roughly 100 hours of the year, the management of water becomes even more critical. It literally determines if the country remains poor or becomes rich; diseased or healthy. In other words, water is the determinant of its future.

What is clear is that the issue of water is not about scarcity but about its careful use and about its equitable and distributed access. Water is the starting point for the removal of poverty in the country. It becomes the basis of food and livelihood security. Water management strategies will need to be carefully designed so that they lead to distributed wealth generation.

This will require reworking the paradigm of water management, so that it is designed to harvest, augment and use local water resources. It is also clear that local and distributed water infrastructure will require new forms of institutional management as established water bureaucracies will find it difficult to manage such vast and disparate systems. It is here that India’s learning from its traditional community-based water management systems will be useful.

Lately, there has been recognition of the need to invest in local and distributed water systems. But as the drought in Maharashtra shows, the programmes for building, restoring and rejuvenating ponds, tanks and other water structures remain deeply flawed. The largest investment in water management is through MGNREGA. Under this programme, over 5.5 million water conservation structures have been created in the past eight years. But thousands of these valuable assets remain incomplete or simply abandoned — which means drought relief is not being utilised to become a permanent relief against drought. Water insecurity grows as a result.

Rewind 2013
Maharashtra government declares a Rs 60,000-crore drought-proofing programme, which will create decentralised water storage. The government will spend the entire amount by 2016. The package comes at a time when the state government is under scrutiny for a large number of incomplete waterworks
This adds to the crisis of groundwater availability: recharge is limited, but withdrawal is unabated. This is one of the unknown ironies of India. Over many years, the Indian state, through its public irrigation agencies, has systematically taken over the management of surface water systems from the hands of village communities. It has taken over the job of building irrigation systems (dams, reservoirs and canals), maintaining these and supplying the water. The irony is that even as the state has vested this power in itself, it has no control over how groundwater is used. Groundwater — a resource that flows under the lands owned by individuals and therefore, is under their control — irrigates the bulk of the land in the country.

This irrigation infrastructure, comprising of some 19 million wells — dugwells and tubewells — has been created by individual farmers, both rich and poor, using funds available from moneylenders or the meagre institutional finance provided by state credit agencies. The lack of institutional support for infrastructure and the dependence on private finance is one key cause of farmer indebtedness and poverty in large parts of the country.

The intense use of this resource has meant that groundwater levels across the country are falling sharply. Technology is allowing for deeper and deeper penetration and extraction. The electricity subsidy — providing cheap energy for pumping — worsens the situation, with estimations that farmers end up using almost double the water for each unit of crop when they have access to cheap or free power as compared to pump-sets using paid diesel.

We can try and regulate this use with legislation. But regulating the use of 19 million users will be difficult, if not impossible. What we have to recognise is that groundwater is a replenishable asset. What is needed is to recharge the wells, so that annual extraction is limited to what is sustainable. In other words, we must use groundwater like a bank. Live off the interest — what is recharged — and not the capital.

This is where the irony multiplies. Even as groundwater has overtaken surface water systems, other irrigation methods — tanks, ponds and all other community-based and decentralised water harvesting structures — have simultaneously declined. These systems had played a critical role in recharge of groundwater: they stored rainwater, which then recharged underground aquifers. These were the ‘distributed’ sponges without which ‘distributed’ water management would not be possible. The tragedy is that when we lost respect for traditional systems, which were designed to ensure that rainwater was stored in millions of disaggregated, diverse structures, we lost our water future.

Rainfall and climate change

Every year, like clockwork, India is caught between the spectre of months of crippling water shortages and drought followed by months of devastating floods. In 2013, there was no respite from this annual cycle. But there were indications that something strange is afoot: each year, the floods have been growing in intensity. Each year, the rain events get more variable and extreme. Each year, the economic damages because of floods and rain have been increasing — in 2013, yet again, the development gains were lost in one season of flood.

Despite the monsoons being an extremely capricious, unpredictable and confounding phenomenon, scientists who study them are beginning to find a distinction between a ‘normal’ monsoon and what is now showing up in abnormal extreme rain events. They are also conclusively linking some of these events to human-induced climate change.

But the causes of the devastation that follows extreme events — such as droughts or floods — are often complicated and involve mismanagement of resources and poor planning as well. For instance, floods — currently ravaging parts of Assam and Bihar — are caused by unusually high rainfall. But it is also true that we have destroyed the drainage in our floodplains through utter mismanagement. We build embankments believing we can control the river, only to find this protection broken. We build habitations in floodplains, only to see them washed away by nature’s fury.

Rewind 2013
Floods roared across Bihar and Assam, as well as parts of West Bengal (Malda) and Maharashtra (Chandrapur). In Uttarakhand, sheer mismanagement of water and the other natural resources joined hands with a changing climate to wreak unprecedented havoc
Similarly, urban India is mindless about drainage: stormwater drains are either clogged, full of garbage and sewage or just do not exist. Our lakes and ponds have been eaten away by real estate — land is what the city values, not water. So, in an extreme downpour, the city drowns. This makes for a double-whammy: on one hand, we are mismanaging our water resources, intensifying floods and droughts. On the other hand, climate change is beginning to make the country even more vulnerable because of increased frequency of such weather events.

The disaster that shook the mighty Himalaya in 2013 was a deadly combination of these two factors. The Himalaya are the world’s youngest mountain ranges, prone to landslides and flash floods. But what we do not easily comprehend is that two factors have made this already vulnerable region more hazardous. One, climate change-related extreme weather events – the Indian monsoon has become more intense. Studies show extreme rain events are becoming more frequent compared to moderate rain events. Rainfall is also becoming variable and unseasonal. This is what happened in Uttarakhand on that fateful June 16. It rained without a break; some 200 mm came down within hours at a few places like Kedarnath. The rain was also unseasonal. June is not considered the beginning of the monsoon season, so pilgrims and tourists thronging the region were caught unawares.

What really compounded the disaster — made it truly human-made — is the scale of development intervention in the past decade or so. This Himalayan region has seen unchecked construction activity, illegal and legal mining, unscientific road building and, of course, hydropower projects built next to each other. In Kedarnath, large-scale construction has been done on the land evacuated by a glacier in the past few years. It is small wonder that the water, moraine and stones came crashing down and took all with them. This is the deadly and painful cost of environmental mismanagement.

The way ahead is to respect the vulnerability of the region. The Himalayan region must develop. The question is how it should do so: by building roads and hydropower projects or by encouraging local economies based on tourism, which do not work against nature? It is also a fact that changing monsoon patterns will require us to optimise use of every drop and not allow rain to become devastating flood. Only then will the Himalayan tragedy not be repeated.

The monsoon is the real finance minister of India. We must make sure every drop of this rain is harvested and used in the prolonged dry season. We must plan for drainage so that when rain comes, it can be channelised and optimised. This means that every waterbody, every channel and every catchment of rain has to be safeguarded. These are the temples of modern India, built to worship rain.

Determining ecological flow

Hydropower is important, but is it important enough to let stretches of our rivers dry up? Or is there a way to balance the need for energy with the imperative of a flowing healthy river? The Ganga, in its upper reaches (in the state of Uttarakhand), has become an engineer’s playground. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and the Uttarakhand power department have estimated the river’s hydroelectric potential at some 9,000 megawatt (MW) and planned 70-odd projects on its tributaries. In building these projects, the key tributaries would be modified — through diversions into tunnels or reservoirs — to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”. As much as 90 per cent of the other smaller tributaries could also be impacted in the same way.

In this way, hydropower would re-engineer the Ganga. It would also dry up the river in many stretches. Most of the proposed projects are run-of-the-river schemes, which are seemingly benevolent as compared to large reservoirs and dams — but only if the project is carefully crafted to ensure that the river remains a river and does not turn into an engineered drain.

Energy generation is the driver of this kind of planning; indeed, the only obsession. On the Ganga, projects would be built so that one project diverts water from the river, channels it to the point where energy would be generated and then discharges it back into the river. The next project, however, would be built even before the river can regain its flow — so, the river would simply, and tragically, dry up over entire stretches. It would die.

Rewind 2013
The 12th Five Year Plan introduces a number of new institutions to manage water — the National Water Commission to monitor compliance with conditions of investment and environment clearances given to irrigation projects; Water Regulatory Authorities in each state to protect the right to drinking water and the New Legal Framework for Groundwater to regulate groundwater ownership and management
The question is what should be the ecological flow (e-flow) — why and how much should be left in the river for needs other than energy. Hydropower engineers argue that 10 per cent ecological flow would be enough, which they say they can “accommodate” in project design without huge loss in energy generation. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), commissioned to look at ecosystem and fish biodiversity needs, has suggested between 20 and 30 per cent e-flow in different seasons.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) prepared an alternative proposal after studying what would be the impact on energy generation and tariff in different e-flow regimes. It found that in the 50 per cent e-flow scenario, there was substantial impact on the amount of energy generated and, therefore, on the tariff. But if this was modified a little to provide for a little extra water for energy generation in the high discharge season, the results changed dramatically.

In this case, the reduction in energy generation was not substantial. Therefore, tariffs were comparable. The reason was simple: the projects actually did not generate much energy in the lean season. The plant load factor, project after project, showed that even in the unrestricted scenario (eflow of 10 per cent or less) there was no water to make energy in the lean season. CSE suggested that mimicking river flow was the best way to optimise energy generation. The river had enough to give us but only if we put the river first, and our needs next.

The CSE proposal is to provide 30 per cent e-flow for six months (May to October) and 50 per cent for the other six months (November to April). The proposal was submitted to B K Chaturvediheaded Inter-ministerial Group on Ganga. But this course of action was unthinkable for hydropower engineers. They had designed their projects on either zero e-flow or at most 10 per cent. So, in this way, they could generate power with every drop of water even in the low discharge season. They planned deliberately for the river to be sucked dry (see Box: Reworking ecological flow).

This issue raises some bigger concerns. Firstly, the question of how we plan the ‘potential’ of hydropower generation. In this case, the CEA had estimated the hydropower potential way back in the 1980s. This estimation did not account for e-flow, or for the competing needs of society for water needs. This has now become the basis of planning. Any reduction in this ‘potential’ is seen as a financial and energy loss. Nobody is willing to ask if the potential is realistic, feasible or sustainable. Secondly, there is the question of cost of generation. Energy planners push for hydro-projects because they say that tariffs are low, and because the source provides for ‘peaking’ power — for those hours when demand is high. But this discounts the fact there is a cost of raw material, in this case, of water and the necessity of a flowing river. This needs to be accounted for in the tariff.

Thirdly, there is the question of how much needs to be built and where. The way projects are being executed, is making this important source of renewable energy disastrous. If any projects are stopped, compensation is demanded, as Uttarakhand is asking today. This sets a bad precedent as it literally incentivises states to degrade the environment recklessly, and demand compensation. But this happens also because there is no framework which establishes the boundaries for resource use or extraction. In this case, what is necessary is to set sound principles for hydropower development, keeping in mind the ecological flow and distance requirements between projects.

The fact is that rivers cannot and should not be re-engineered. But dams can certainly be reengineered to optimise on these limits.

Sewage and pollution

There is no doubt that urban areas and industrial centres are now putting greater pressure on water resources. Cities across the country need more water for their growing population and more importantly, their growing affluence.

Today, cities extract from cleaner upstream sources and discharge their waste — sewage and industrial effluents — downstream. This, in turn, leads to the increased problem of polluted water and ill-health for the poorer users of the rivers. The capital intensity of the modern sewage system — the cost of its transportation and eventual treatment before disposal — is such that it cannot be afforded by all users and even all urban areas. The question then is how will the modern cities of India grow, without creating water waste and pollution? How will these cities innovate so that they can practise the technologies of recycling and reuse, even before their counterparts in the industrial world? The challenge is to re-invent the most modern waste management system that reuses every drop of water discharged, at costs that can be afforded by all.

Take the example of the Yamuna. Delhi’s river, and Delhi’s shame. The city has already spent a huge amount on cleaning the just 22 km of the Yamuna which flows through it: some Rs 1,500 crore. This is possibly the highest amount spent on river cleaning in the country, if not the world. But all this has meant little. It is money down the river as pollution goes on increasing. The river, by all pollution parameters, is dead. It just has not been officially cremated.

Rewind 2013
The environment ministry says in a submission to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that it will prepare an action plan for the restoration, preservation and management of all development works along the Yamuna by February 17. The ministry has been getting flak from NGT for delay in preparing the action plan
The answers exist. They lie not in building more sewage treatment capacity or in building more drains. Delhi has already got 17 sewage treatment plants (STPs), which together add up to 40 per cent of the total installed sewage treatment capacity in India. But these plants remain grossly underutilised. Why? Because the city does not have the drainage to convey all its excreta to the treatment plants. It is expensive to build sewage drainage, but even more expensive to maintain it. In fact, most of the city (and it has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country) is not connected to underground drainage. The government cannot keep up with its plans to build more; neither has it got the capacity to repair enough. The end result is that where there is a STP, there is no sewage to treat.

But that is only one part of the story. A majority of Delhi lives unconnected to underground drainage or lives in what we call unauthorised and illegal colonies. The sewage from these areas — untreated — flows into open drains crisscrossing the city. But these are the same drains, flowing past colonies, in which the STPs dispose off their treated effluent. In this pollution scheme, the illegal unconnected waste of the majority is being mixed with the treated waste of the minority. The result is obvious: growing pollution in the river. We can never clean the Yamuna until we can treat the sewage of all in the city.

But this will require providing drainage to all, and sewage treatment for all. In this, the economics of this waste matter is important to grasp. We have to pay first for the water we use and then for the waste that we generate. This is because the more water we use in our houses, the more is the waste we discharge. The water inequity in Delhi is legendary; parts of the city are water-flushed with over 200 litre per capita per day, while some get merely a few drops.

But it is not just the cost that we need to pay. The fact is that all governments (including Delhi’s) are designing systems that we cannot pay for. These are unaffordable systems to pipe water over long distances, which add to the costs of distribution; at the same time, they lead to more losses of water. Governments also design to take back the waste and pump it and pipe it over even longer distances. The cost of electricity for pumping and of first building and then maintaining the infrastructure means that nothing really changes. This is why we have to relearn the science and art of river cleaning. This is why business-as-usual will not add up to a clean river.

The political economy of defecation is that governments do not charge for the water they supply, forget the waste they collect or treat. The relatively rich users of this system of underground drainage are then subsidised. But this also means that the government does not have money to pay to build, or run, or repair the system for all. This is the political economy of defecation where the rich are subsidised in the name of the poor. This is the real excreta of progress we must understand. Nothing less will clean the river.

The agenda for clean rivers: we all live downstream

What should and can be done to clean the Yamuna? What is the strategy for business-unusual so that we can spend more money, but get a living and breathing river in return?

One, we need to change the art of pollution control. We must understand that rivers need water to assimilative our waste. Today, Delhi takes water from the river, upstream of Wazirabad and returns only sewage to it. Between the two barrages — Wazirabad till Okhla — there is no water. There are only some 17 drains that bring sewage into the river (see Map: The Yamuna in Delhi). Even if we were to treat every drop of waste before it reaches the river, it will do nothing. The river must have water to dilute waste. To live.

There are two ways for Delhi to get water in the river. One, it can demand Haryana gives it more water. But this, I believe will be difficult. All cities, up or downstream, do what Delhi does. They take every drop of water the river has and return only their waste to it.

Rewind 2013
Supreme Court issues notices to the Union ministry of environment and forests and 19 state governments asking why the critically polluted clusters continue to remain polluted despite pollution control norms
The second option is that Delhi can begin to reduce its own water demand, so that it can allow water to flow in the river. This can be done. Delhi today has the highest water availability in the country, already over 250 litre per person per day. The richest cities of the world, like in Denmark, have roughly 110 litre per person per day. Delhi needs so much water because it wastes half the water in distribution. This must be stopped or at least minimised. But importantly, money for river cleaning must incorporate this target — how much will Delhi do to reduce water use. Water is part of the sums of waste. This also means we have to use less water in our homes, so that we discharge less waste. We have to be part of the solution to the river. Remember, the flush tank in our homes is enjoined to the Yamuna.

Then we must change the science of river cleaning. We know the river will not be clean till we treat all the sewage of the city. And the only way we can treat this sewage is by making solutions more affordable. In the current situation, the Delhi government does not even recover the cost of water supply, forget sewage disposal. We must demand that technologies will only work if we can pay for them. This will then drive the change in approach.

Delhi has the capacity to clean 2,330 million litre of sewage each day – enough to treat 70 to 90 per cent of current waste, depending on various estimates for generation. This will mean bringing waste to the plants, by lifting it from open drains, not just waiting to build new ones or building and repairing more drains. The hardware approach needs to go.

The third agenda is connected and critical. The treated effluent must not be put back into the same open drain, which carries the untreated waste of the majority. It must be reused and recycled, as far as possible locally so that costs of pumping are reduced. Today, we spend huge money in first pumping sewage long distances for treatment and then waste this effort by dumping the cleaned water in unclean drains. In other words, sewage must be reused in gardens, in lakes or in industry. STPs must be built only when they have been planned for reuse.

Consider this: today, sewage is treated at the Yamuna Vihar plant in east Delhi, and disposed off in the drain carrying untreated waste outside the plant. Then the same waste is treated further down in the Kondli treatment plant. Cleaned effluent is then dumped into a drain, which flows past the new colonies of Noida, which add more discharges. By the time it reaches the river, there is only sewage in the drain, no water.

Fourthly, we must treat sewage directly in the open drains that crisscross the city. So, instead of waiting for every open ‘storm water’ drain to go underground and disappear, the system will ensure all waste is treated and cleaned as it flows through the city. This would mean using innovative technologies for bioremediation (‘green’ plants) and oxidation to decompose and degrade sewage. Fifth, we should build STPs close to the banks of the river to treat what remains in the drains. This would mean using technologies which need less land to treat sewage. The design would be not to discharge anything but treated effluents in the Yamuna.

The ultimate tragedy is that what Delhi will do to the Yamuna and its downstream city of Mathura, Faridabad on its upstream will do to it. Never forget, we all live downstream.



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