Let there be water: why we need community-driven measures to conserve the natural resource

As we approach World Water Day on March 22, here’s why we need community-driven measures to conserve the natural resource, writes Nidhi Adlakha

March 13, 2020 02:52 pm | Updated 02:52 pm IST

W e all realise the value of water only when we have limited access to it. Chennaiites know this well, especially after suffering one of the worst water shortages in history last year.

As we brace for another summer, is it likely to be any different this year?

In late 2019, a couple of projects were launched to recycle sewage for industrial use, and there were plans to set up additional plants.

A third desalination plant — with a capacity to treat 150 million litres of seawater a day — will soon come up at Nemmeli. And just last week (as per a report in The Hindu ), Chennai Metrowater has said it will launch a study to identify inadequacies and improve the city’s water distribution infrastructure.

What we’re doing wrong

While these initiatives are all very well, there are a number of other factors to consider. For starters, the continued encroachment of our lakes and waterways has to stop.

As highlighted in these columns, it’s the indiscriminate destruction of waterbodies that was a major cause of the 2015 floods, and the government is very much to blame. Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that the buying, selling and restructuring of land, public or private, is a cakewalk in modern times if you are willing to grease the palms of officials.

Secondly, we need to look at continued efforts at the household level. The rainwater harvesting drive initiated in the city a few years ago was a success, and we need similar city-wide measures to recycle grey water, introduce water-saving appliances, and launch community drives to educate people.

These are measures that can be easily adopted across the country. World Resources Institute’s (WRI) aqueduct tools highlight how India ranks 13th for overall water stress and ‘has more than three times the population of the other 17 extremely highly stressed countries combined’ — which includes arid regions in West Asia and North Africa.

The data, which includes both surface and groundwater stress for the first time, states that ‘in addition to rivers, lakes and streams, India’s groundwater resources are severely overdrawn, largely to provide water for irrigation’. Lauding initiatives like the Jal Shakti Ministry, WRI lists other solutions we could pursue — more efficient irrigation, conserving and restoring lakes, floodplains, and groundwater recharge areas, and collecting and storing rainwater. Examples of successful case studies included Namibia — known for its severely arid landscape — where sewage water has been converted into drinking water for the past 50 years.

Australia’s water-trading scheme is another case in point. The largest in the world, ‘it allows for smart allocation of water among users in the face of variable supplies’.

Up north

If you’re thinking that scarcity issues are limited to our cities and farmlands, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s (ICIMOD) report proves otherwise. It reveals how in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, Himalayan towns are facing ‘increased water insecurity in the wake of inadequate urban planning coupled with a rapidly changing climate’.

The first-of-its-kind study, it highlights how the interlinks between ‘water availability, water supply systems, rapid urbanisation, and consequent increase in water demand (both daily and seasonal) are leading to increasing water insecurity in towns in the region’. This insecurity is due to poor governance, inadequate urban planning, shoddy handling of peak tourist seasons, etc. The study goes on to the short-term strategies being used by local communities to help cope: groundwater extraction, which is proving to be unsustainable. There is a lack of long-term strategies for water sustainability in urban centres, and this requires the special attention of planners and local governments.

Here’s hoping

If implemented across cities, the findings from the HKH study will go a long way in not only making us water-secure, but also more aware of the issue at hand. Community-driven initiatives, sensitivity towards the environment, and educating children are what we need.

Late last month, I visited the ongoing Water Matters exhibition — a collaborative project of the US Consulate General Chennai, the Smithsonian Institution, and Care Earth Trust — and it was heartening to see not just school children visiting, but also families. Taking their children through the many interactive displays, parents were teaching them the importance of water and why wasting it is a crime.

Here’s hoping our future generations are more conscious and use this resource judiciously.

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