When man searches for signs of life in outer space, he looks for the existence of water. The presence of water on a planet indicates it is capable of supporting life. We recognise that life means water, and water means life.
India is considered a water adequate country. But every year, large parts of the country, including those that receive abundant rainfall, experience severe water scarcity. According to some estimates, a woman living in rural India, on an average, walks 1,400 km every year in order to access water. Even in urban areas, supply of municipal water for as little as a few minutes in a day is common.
Why does this happen? Where does all our water go, when we receive enough of it?
Traditionally, as Indians we knew how to conserve and harvest our water. From the eris and uranis (traditional tanks) of Tamil Nadu, to the johads of Rajasthan, people in both rural areas and cities worked to take care of their water needs. This collective work meant that tanks were kept clean, their walls repaired and their catchment areas kept clear of encroachments. As a result, we had a direct connection with water.
With the coming of the British, the collective ownership and use of water was replaced by a centralised ownership. Lakes and tanks were to be maintained by the government’s Public Works Department — not by the public — and people were taxed or otherwise forced to pay for the use of water. That is seen as a turning point by experts. Thousands of lakes and tanks silted up, were overgrown by weeds and fell into disuse. In urban areas, land occupied by waterbodies was put to other use. This trend has only accelerated after independence and vast quantities of land on which waterbodies existed have been reclaimed for use for construction of various kinds. Delhi, for example, at one time had 800 lakes. Less than 10 survive today. The situation is no different in other cities.
The flip side of our refusal to conserve water, and our endless hunger for the land on which our waterbodies existed, is flooding. Since the lakes, tanks and wells which acted as containers to hold our rainfall are now part of our concrete jungle, rainwater increasingly often floods and threatens our cities…in some cases submerging them as it happened on July 26, 2005 in Mumbai. Such stories can only increase.
The great metros of India, draw their water from lakes and rivers from the rural districts around them, with pipelines traversing hundreds of kilometres. This results in depriving people who live around these rivers of their own water. In what can only described as cruel mockery, the people of Shahpur who live on the banks of the Bhatsa that supplies 52 per cent of water to Mumbai city are themselves dependent on tankers for their own water needs! And then we complain about migration into cities.
The rural areas in our country, especially those not close to perennial rivers have tried to meet their water needs by sinking tube wells. There is competition among farmers to sink deeper tube wells as the water table goes lower and lower due to overexploitation of groundwater. In some villages in Andhra Pradesh, there are more tube wells than residents. In one village a farmer is known as “borewell Reddy” because he has sunk over 60 tube wells — all of which are now dry. As a result of this crazy sinking of tube wells, groundwater levels have been falling dramatically. Nearly a third of the regions of this country are now groundwater stressed and with large parts now coming under what is called a dark zone, where groundwater has fallen to dangerously low levels.
The way we pollute our water bodies is the other form of disrespect we show to this life source. We use our rivers as open drains both for municipal sewage as also for industrial effluents. Many of India’s rivers are now clinically dead in large stretches. This means that the dissolved oxygen levels in these rivers — which shows how much life the water is capable of sustaining — is zero. The Yamuna has officially been declared as dead for 800 kilometres — all the way from Delhi through Agra and Mathura to Etawah. The condition of the holy Ganga is no different, despite the billions of rupees spent on cleaning it.
The effect of industrial effluents is even more insidious. We use our rivers as drainage systems thus exposing our water to toxins including heavy metals like lead and mercury. River water is not only used to draw drinking water, but for agriculture too. Research conducted by Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link has shown that several vegetables have levels of lead far above permissible limits. Likewise, mercury contamination in fish is widespread. As they flow, the rivers also recharge groundwater in their basin areas, and hence the toxins in them pollute open wells and tube wells along their route.
The most dangerous form of this pollution is what is known as deep well injection, by which industries, in order to save expenditure on effluent treatment plants, inject pollutants deep into the earth thus polluting aquifers too.
We urgently need to stop polluting our water, and work towards harvesting it. Fortunately, in both rural areas and cities there are many examples of this being done successfully. Anna Hazare’s work in Ralegan Siddhi, the work of the Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan and hundreds of others all involve preventing rainwater run-off. None of this is rocket science nor is it new. Instead it relies largely on traditional wisdom. The key ingredient in community rainwater harvesting is creating and building communities. If a couple of rich farmers are allowed to sink deep tube wells and drain the watershed then rainwater harvesting cannot work. In villages like Hiwre Bazaar, the panchayats have banned the use of tube wells in agriculture. This along with intelligent rainwater harvesting has made drought prone Hiware Bazaar a rare village where there are over 50 agriculturists with small land holdings who are millionaires.
In cities too, where housing societies have got together to harvest their rainwater, they have drastically cut down their dependence on municipal water. In a housing society not 50 metres from where I live, rainwater harvesting has reduced the use of municipal water by 40 per cent. In Chennai, in 2003, an IAS officer, Santha Sheela Nair, backed by the then AIADMK government, had made rainwater harvesting compulsory and prevented the water crisis from spiralling out of control. All these examples tell us that the solutions are simple and at hand. All we need to do is stop dithering and start acting on them.
Our problem, above all, is complacency. Water appears infinite to us and at any rate all of us have access to at least some water as of now. But it won’t be around forever. We need to urgently recognise the danger we face. The spectre of drought facing us this year should act as a wake-up call for all of us Indians, in villages and in cities, to work towards respecting water, conserving it and harvesting it from today.
Jai Hind. Satyamev Jayate.
(Aamir Khan is an actor.)