ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Parched Present, Parched Future?

Faced with a worsening water crisis, the state needs to exercise prudence in water management.


The rains have arrived, albeit late, in many parts of India to provide a much-needed respite from the heatwaves thatkilled hundreds and the accompanying water scarcity that had accentuated the vulnerability and crisis situation. In cities like Chennai and Ranchi, water stress led to violent clashes, distress, and desperation, as the lakes and reservoirs dried up and people had to fight and fend for water for their everyday needs. However, water scarcity is the truth not only for these cities, but also for large parts of the country which have been reeling under a drought-like situation.

The delay in monsoon or poor rainfall is not the only reason. The effect of drought has been felt more intensely also because it is becoming difficult to scrape for the smallest amounts of water after digging even deeper. Women in the settlement of Barde-Chi-Wadi in Maharashtra’s Nashik district risk their lives to descend 60 feet into a well to collect potable water for their families. India is a country that is guzzling its groundwater at a rate unmatched by any other. Groundwater here fails to be treated as a public good. While most of the country is “living beyond its means” in terms of its water exploitation, according to a study of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, even eastern India, which is otherwise considered as “water-affluent,” is staring at a future with “groundwater drought.” ­Water scarcity, thus, certainly cannot be treated as a standalone instance or problem. It is a process in which the water stress has accumulated in the absence of steps to prevent it.

Water stress also re-emphasises inequalities of gender, caste, and region. While women have been burdened with the responsibility of arranging for water, in situations of crisis, it also leads to practices such as those reported in Denganmal village in Thane district, Maharashtra. Men here marry for the second or third time for the sole purpose of getting “water wives” or “paaniwaali bais” to fetch water through the day. Such villages are incidentally close to rivers and dams, but the supply being directed towards Mumbai, women plough on to get water covering long distances, even as they are the last in their households to get to use it.

With its availability shrinking further and the market playing an important role in defining the costs and beneficiaries, the more privileged find ways to control the access to water. There is an inherent inequality in distribution and a failure to share ­water judiciously. It is evident in megacities like Delhi and Mumbai where access depends on income and social status. In crisis situations, like in Chennai, while apartment buildings could afford to pay for three or four tankers per day, low income households could not. Among rural households, only 18% are said to have access to piped water. Small farmers are worse off and are forced to take their lives or migrate in drought conditions. Many of the parched villages have ­become deserted in Marathwada in Maharashtra, Bundelkhand in ­Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and even the mountain regions of Uttarakhand.

Cities in India thrive on the water brought from far away locations at a high cost and with loss involved in transmission. They have ignored maintenance of structures like tanks. Chennai alone has lost over 350 lakes. The expansion of ­cities fails to take into account access to water, and to mandate provisions to harvest rainwater, and reuse, recycle and treat waste water. The real estate boom has promoted the tanker lobby and increased water extraction, along with usurping of the floodplains and the green cover. Encroachment on the “land” retrieved after levelling waterbodies, has led to reduced storage and seepage of water, and aggravates flood situations.

The quality of water that is discharged by the cities and the industries remains of no concern to them. Due to such an approach, close to 70% of the country’s water supply is contaminated, leading to an estimated two lakh deaths in a year, according to a report of the Niti Aayog. Most of the farming close to cities is being done using the untreated wastewater, which contains heavy metals and toxic chemicals, further compromising public health.

The present water crisis has encouraged parallels with the “day zero” situation of Cape Town by many, including the Niti Aayog, among other such doomsday predictions. However, such projections also create a situation of panic, and a push to “solutions” that, in fact, will worsen the situation. The interlinking of rivers, pushed for despite evidence of poor functioning of existing hydro projects, will only spell disaster and more conflicts. In view of the looming water crisis, and associated food and health insecurity, it is vital to exercise prudence to manage water efficiently.

It is a situation whose future trail can be changed. It will, however, mean a move towards water-prudent crops and lifestyles, augmented storage and regulation of the usage of water and policies that take into account the inequalities in access, and real time data of its consumption. Instead of mere engineering and technocratic fixes, somewhere an acceptance is also needed that waterbodies in their healthy and natural state have the ability to replenish themselves along with a capacity to contain the intensity of climate crises.

Updated On : 15th Jul, 2019


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