A movement to value water
This drought, for the fifth consecutive year in succession, must be used as an opportunity to effect changes in practices for the management of our water resources. There must be a policy that involves communities and households. In other words, we need a water movement that values every drop of rain, says SUNITA NARAIN on the observance of World Environment Day on June 5.
The way out... the challenge is to rebuild the relationship of communities with the water resources they use.
THIS is the fifth consecutive year of drought in vast parts of the country. Without water the situation is crippling and dehumanising. The worst thing about drought is that it forces people already living on the margins of subsistence to sell their only means of survival their livestock. This is the beginning of the spiralling cycle of destitution. Drought is not only about a lack of water or failing agriculture, but also about non-availability of fodder for animals. This process of impoverishment is so adverse that rebuilding rural economies becomes difficult. Each spell of drought destroys the abilities of rural communities to cope. It makes them weaker and more disabled to deal with the vagaries of the monsoon. It must be understood that drought is not a temporary phenomenon. It is permanent and it eats away at the very insides of the country.
But it also must be understood that drought and water management will demand much more than the empty policies of today. We have a plan for drought relief, but not for relief against drought. Government after government has spoken about this. But done little to change the drought-relief mindset, which is well-versed in the famine code that the British left behind. During the critical months of drought, official machinery, in most cases, delivers as it does in terms of an emergency. We have food in our godowns and if the government is able to reach food to the people, it is able to avert famine. Now water is being delivered on trains. But this is not good enough.
We must use this drought as the opportunity to drought-proof the country. For this we need changes in policies and practices for the management of our water resources. But first we must understand that droughts are not natural disasters anymore. These are "government-made" disasters. Over the last one hundred years or so, the country has seen three paradigm shifts in water management. One is that individuals and communities have surrendered almost completely to the State. The second is that the simple technology of using rainwater has declined. Instead exploitation of rivers and groundwater through dams and tubewells has become the key source of water. As water in rivers and aquifers is only a small portion of the total amount of available rainwater, there is an inevitable growing and, in many cases, unbearable stress on these sources. The third is that we have become an increasingly water-wasteful and inefficient society, misusing the resource in industry, farms and toilets.
With people having no interest in using water carefully, the sustainability of water resources has itself become a question mark. As a result, there are serious problems with government drinking water supply schemes. Despite efforts by the government, the number of "problem villages" official parlance for villages that do not have water sources does not seem to be reducing. "In our mathematics, 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages is still 200,000 problem villages," say officials.
Therefore, the water challenge is also manifold. The first is to augment available water resources. It is here that we must look again at the rich traditions of the past. The British called Indians a "hydraulic" society. The simple reason is that our rainfall is variable and rainy days are few: 50 per cent of the rain falls in about 15 days and less than 100 hours out of a total 8,760 hours in a year. The total number of rainy days can range from a low of five days in a year in the desert regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan though on some of these days there can be high-intensity rainstorms to 150 days in the Northeast. Therefore, it is very important to capture this rainwater, which just comes and goes in a few hours.
If you harvest water on just one hectare of land in say, Jaisalmer, with rainfall levels as little as 100 mm of water in the year, this means that you have captured as much as one million litres of water enough to meet drinking and cooking water needs of 182 people at 15 litres per day. It does not matter how much rain you get if you don't capture it. Cherrapunji, with 14,000 mm annual rainfall known as the wettest place on Earth also suffers from a shortage of drinking water.
Rainwater harvesting provides a powerful and decentralised solution to the crisis. But what is clear and this is the key policy message is that water harvesting is not an immediate miracle. It will take time and investment to rebuild our rural capital. Think of it like a bank account which has been overdrawn. Our aquifers are in deep trouble. Groundwater supplies over 90 per cent of drinking water needs and over 50 per cent of agriculture in the country. Modern bore technology allows us to go deeper and deeper into the ground but does not teach us the simple sagacity of recharging the water table.
We need to replenish these reserves as we would a bank account so that in times of need, we can withdraw the interest we have earned. Today, we are not using the natural recharge in these aquifers. Instead, we are mining the capital. But building capital takes time. It also takes people who care about their land, so that they can care to harvest their water.
This, unfortunately, is where policy goes horrendously wrong. Land is managed by a multitude of obdurate bureaucracies and water by another. By policy and in practice, we ensure that villagers are disenfranchised from the management of their resources. The challenge therefore, is to rebuild the relationship of communities with their water once again so that they can invest in conservation. We need a water policy, which recognises that water management must involve communities and households to become the biggest cooperative enterprise in the country. In other words, we need a water movement that values every drop of rain.
But water harvesting will not be enough if we do not learn to use water prudently and carefully. Something we have forgotten completely. Agriculture uses over 70 per cent of water, industrial use is growing and cities are becoming big water guzzlers. Conflict over water between States sharing river basins, between towns and villages, between rich and poor is growing.
We know this. But we do nothing. There is little or no effort to promote agricultural crops based, not just on productivity per hectare, but productivity per unit of water consumed. Rice and sugarcane are a case in point. Similarly, there is little serious effort to reduce water consumption in industry or homes. Industry is a profligate user of water the pulp and paper industry, for instance, uses over 150 tonnes of water for every tonne of paper it manufactures. Compare this to global standards less than 20 tonnes of water for the unit of paper.
It is ironical that in a country as water starved as ours, that the flush toilet that uses less water is more expensive than one that minimises water use. This when the flush toilet and the modern sewage system, are a key cause of the water shortage and pollution in our cities. But what do we care? We think of sending a man to the moon. But our scientists cannot work on reengineering the toilet to make it less water wasteful. Today urban India treats less than three per cent of its human waste. Sewage treatment is expensive and in situations where urban inhabitants do not even pay for the water that they consume, where is the question of paying for waste treatment? In a rich city like Delhi, residents pay less than four per cent of the cost of water delivery.
The rich traditions of the past hold the key to augmenting available water resources.
So even as rich cities like Singapore learn to value water and begin to recycle and reuse it, our urban settlements destroy just about every water body in the vicinity.
We need to learn from the fascinating case of ancient Roma (Rome) and Edo (the city out of which grew Tokyo). The Romans used to build huge aqueducts that ran for tens of miles to bring water to settlements. Even today, these aqueducts are the most omnipresent symbols of that society's water management. And many experts have praised the Romans for the meticulous way with which they planned their water supply.
But, no, these aqueducts represent not the intelligence but the utter environmental mismanagement of the great Romans. Rome was built on the Tiber river. The city did not need any aqueduct. But as the waste of Rome was discharged directly into the Tiber, the river was polluted and water had to be brought from far. Water outlets were few as a result and the elite appropriated these using a system of slaves. On the contrary, the traditional Japanese never discharged waste into the rivers. Instead they composted it and then used it in the fields. Using the rivers, Edo had numerous water outlets and a much more egalitarian water supply.
Water and culture go together. Water shortage is not about the mere failure of rain. It is about the failure of society to live and share its water endowment.
This is what we need to remember with the passage of this Environment Day. Most of all.
Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, is also the publisher of the fortnightly news magazine Down to Earth.
The essence of survival
ARTICLE 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "Water is the most important single element needed in order for people to achieve the universal human right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family". If we acknowledge that clean water is a universal right, it is the responsibility of every one to ensure the purity of water.
The theme for World Environment Day 2003 is "Water Two Billion People are Dying for It". It was chosen by the United Nations Environment Programme to help safeguard our most precious resource. The theme has also been chosen to support the U.N. International Year of Freshwater, 2003. It is not too late for us to focus our attention on protecting and respecting our water resources. Because by protecting our freshwater, we help ensure our future and our planet's long-term prospects.
WORLD WIDE FUND FOR NATURE
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