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When There Is No Water

We continue to delude ourselves that we will survive the water crisis.


“Day Zero,” a day without water, is imminent. This is not some distant dystopian scenario. According to recent surveys, such a day is an eventuality in Cape Town, South Africa and a very real possibility facing at least one major city in India—Bengaluru. Cape Town has succeeded in postponing “Day Zero” from April to July this year by strict water conservation such as limiting per person water consumption to 50 litres per day. If the rains expected in May are insufficient, residents of Cape Town might have to line up at public standposts to collect water. No such constraints have been placed on the residents of Bengaluru yet or on other Indian cities facing a similar prospect. There lies the crucial difference between a realistic approach to the water crisis and our own self-deluding attitude towards a vital resource that is fast depleting due to a variety of factors, including profligate and unsustainable consumption.

The Cape Town crisis should be a wake-up call to India about the existing and future water emergency that many parts of the country do and will face. It should also remind us that the way a public resource is consumed exposes the essential inequity in our societies. As in Cape Town, only the poor in Indian cities are faced with a constant “Day Zero” as they spend hours every day waiting for water, paying for water, and finding ways to stretch the minimal quantity that they somehow get. For the rich, water flows out of taps, is pumped up to overhead tanks, and is available to use and waste. The price they pay is not an adequate deterrent to save. And the sense of entitlement that an inherently unequal society gives them ensures that their consciences are inured to any sense of guilt that they are over-consuming a precious resource.

Apart from water shortages in our cities, and the inherently inequitable system of consumption and distribution, there is a larger crisis of how water is used and conserved. Our attitude towards this crucial common resource has been ostrich-like. With our heads buried firmly in the sand of unreason, both authorities and citizens tend to live under the delusion that somehow, every year, the rains will save us, fill our rivers and lakes and replenish our critically depleted underground reserves. And if the rains fail, we sit back and blame global warming and climate change, failing to comprehend the essential philosophy of the importance of conservation, that you save today so that there is more available for tomorrow.

This deliberately obtuse approach has dictated the way our cities have grown, with no attention being paid to the availability of a resource like water, or to its distribution. Bengaluru, for example, has grown from a population of 45 lakh in 1991 spread over 226 sq km to 1.35 crore today spread over almost 800 sq km. Water is in a perennial crisis. Yet its growth has not been accompanied by measures to conserve a scarce resource, to ensure that wasteful consumption is penalised and minimised, and that existing water sources, like the once abundant tanks, are preserved. Bengaluru has depended on water from the Kaveri river and the Karnataka government has used its thirst for water as a reason to demand a greater share of the Kaveri water during the recent court case. It succeeded in getting for Karnataka an additional allocation, but even this will not address Bengaluru’s needs, nor that of other cities in the state that are equally water stressed.

Domestic consumption is not the most important sector in water use. Agriculture is. Here too, the problem has been known. Since the 1960s, with the advent of the green revolution, water demand has grown but surface irrigation has not kept pace. As a result, groundwater sources are critically depleted in many parts of the country without adequate steps being taken to replenish underground aquifers. You have a crisis each time the rains fail. Ironically, even where surface water has been diverted for irrigation, it is not meeting the needs. A case in point is the Narmada river where, despite opposition, several dams, including the Sardar Sarovar Dam were built. Yet today, the water levels in the Narmada have fallen to critical levels, there is not enough water to supply several towns dependent on its water let alone those waiting for using the Narmada’s water for irrigation. Instead, the water has been diverted to the once dry Sabarmati that flowed through Ahmedabad where an expensive riverfront development has been constructed to assuage, one presumes, the water-thirst of its residents.

Later this month, India too will observe what has increasingly become a meaningless ritual, marking the so-called World Water Day on 22 March. Each year, governments pronounce homilies on how water must be conserved and how waste water must be reused. Yet, for the rest of the year, none of these concerns are visible in either urban planning, the way our cities grow, in agriculture or in energy plans. Instead, the same delusional cycle of believing that somehow “Day Zero” will be averted for one more year continues to dictate policy. The way water is used, or wasted, is as good a test as any to judge the extent to which a society is socially just and environmentally sustainable. India, as it functions today, would score a zero.

Updated On : 3rd Mar, 2018


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