Clock is ticking

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Clock is ticking

Sunday, 04 August 2019 | Shalini Saksena

Clock is ticking

Is India running out of water? According to a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, about 100 million people are facing water crisis and 21 major cities are likely to run out of groundwater by next year. SHALINI SAKSENA speaks with experts who say that there is still time to take action or the future is bleak

That the sub-continent will be facing water crisis has been talked about and debated many times over with no one solution in sight. The recent water shortage in Chennai is a case in point and points a finger towards a potential water crisis that is waiting to happen in other large cities as well. The reason is simple — there is rapid population growth and effects of climate change and overdrawing from ground level without recharging it.

According to the director of Rain Centre in Chennai, Dr Sekhar Raghavan there is need to look at the situation of what happened in Chennai from two separate aspects — urban and rural areas. “In rural areas, since it is unpaved the rain water percolates into the ground recharging the ground level water or the rainwater would get collected in traditional water bodies called irrigation tanks. In cities, we don’t have such irrigation tanks and everything is paved, there is no percolation of rainwater. There is need to recharge manually — rainwater harvesting. But people here are withdrawing ground water without recharging, leading to the present crisis” Raghavan explains.

He tells you that Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are pioneers in modern rainwater harvesting since 2003. Unfortunately, the scheme didn’t percolate to the lowest levels. “People need to harvest rainwater in the correct manner. It is only now that people have realised the importance of rainwater harvesting. What has happened is a wake up call for us,” Raghavan says who has been getting 20 calls a day from people on how to harvest rainwater.

He also says that what happened in Chennai could have been avoided. “Both the society and the Government need to come together on the platform. It is the society that needs to go for rainwater harvesting and the Government needs to see that the policy on rainwater harvesting is followed. The Government built storm water drains only to dump the rainwater into the sea. The key to solving the future water crisis is rainwater harvesting. We get all our water from the rain. There is need to capture this. Unless we do this, we are looking to not only a parched Chennai but also the State,” Raghavan says who has a dooms day prediction — the entire country is going to face acute water shortage if we don’t capture the rainwater in a proper manner.

“In order to make sure that the rainwater is captured in the correct manner, around 60 per cent of the effort has to come from the State Government and the rest from the individuals. India had a wonderful traditional rainwater harvesting technique in place. But this got destroyed over decades. Our country was leader in rainwater harvesting. We have polluted our rivers and now we are facing the problem. India and in particular Tamil Nadu is rain-rich region but water starved. Hence, we can no longer assume that water will always be there,” Raghavan says.

Back in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a mantra  Per Drop, More Crop to create awareness about water conservation. Five years down the line, the country is still facing water crisis. A fact supported by a case study done in India and three other countries — that there will be no drinking water by 2040 if consumption continues at the current pace.

A UN report published on water conservation in March 2014 has a similar take and says that India will face the consequences if it does not plan water conservation. The report had predicted that by 2025, nearly 3.4 billion people will be living in water-scarce countries. The report added that due to its unique geographical position in South Asia, the Indian sub-continent may face the brunt of the crisis and the country will be at the centre of this conflict. As per the Ministry of Water Resources, India has 18 per cent of the world’s population but only four per cent of total usable water resources.

The reason, experts say, for this water crisis is that India’s annual per capita availability of water decreased from 6,042 cubic metres in  1947 to 1,545 cubic metre in 2011. By 2025, the annual per capita availability of water will reduce to 1,340 cubic metre and by 2050, to 1,140 cubic metre. Second, 90 per cent wastewater discharged into the rivers fails to meet environmental norms. Third, 65 per cent rainwater runoff goes into the sea, which is a huge waste. Fourth, the agriculture sector is the biggest user of water followed by domestic and industrial sectors. So, environmentalists want water conservation to be a priority policy subject.

In urban areas, the crisis is compounded by extensive concretisation of the land surface, which puts urban water bodies and channels into disrepair and even destroys them. Then there is urbanisation without the infrastructure in new, rapidly urbanising settlements, the absence of strict water use norms, difficulties of retrofitting urban buildings for rainwater harvesting and ground water recharge, and the constant extension of urban water footprints, thereby disincentivising economies in use.

Keith Menon, co-founder, Spiro Spero, an architecture & design studio, tells you that there are other solutions besides rainwater harvesting. Growing the right kind of vegetation in certain areas helps retain groundwater in dry areas. Replenishing groundwater sources by limiting bore wells and ensuring that concretisation is done in a sensible manner also helps.

“Ensuring dams and embankments are not messing with the natural flow of rivers that for millennia have recharged groundwater sources besides allowing for a natural strong ecosystem along its banks. Tackling temperature rise by growing more indigenous plants in high altitude regions so that glacier and snow melting happens at a slower pace. Avoiding water sucking crops like sugarcane and rice in regions where there already is a water shortage. Ensuring factories and other heavy industries are setup far from river banks and water sources to avoid large scale unmonitored consumption as well as pollution are some of the other options,” Menon explains.

He also opines that there is need to pass laws that make it mandatory for buildings to source at least 50 per cent of their water from harvested and recycled sources. Individuals too can contribute, he says. Households need to install taps and other modern mechanisms that dispense far less water but at the right pressure for daily usage. Electronic monitoring for checking consumption and wastage and making sure all buildings with over 100 residents use recycled water for flushing and gardening  will go a long way to avert a water crisis.

“A bucket bath saves enough drinking water in a month for an entire village of 200 people. Use a mug of water to brush and wash your face rather than a running tap. Kitchen utensils can be washed in two large drums of water rather than running water. Replacing flushes with those which give you an option of half or full flush. Avoid using hard chemicals and detergents that make it harder to recycle water. Ensuring washing machines are set at optimal usage rather than a full tank,” Menon says and tells you that it is not lack of awareness why we are looking at the parched future.

“People have been facing water crisis in India for a long time so the awareness is high. But the natural tendency to rely on the rain Gods and the belief that it is a limitless resource is the culprit,” Menon says from whom the challenge is similar to convince someone to buy a Rs 150 LED bulb that provides long term savings besides helping the environment. “People don’t want to think of the future and are more interested in making things easier and cheap now. It’s pure short-sightedness and no patience to sustain a long-term vision,” Menon tells you.

Dr Uttam Kumar Sinha, a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library opines that while we are not running out for time, there is need for serious attention.

“This means structural and non-structural amendments; it requires political intervention; it requires science to be brought in; it requires lessons learnt from the past, it requires State-Centre relationship of corporation and consultation and it requires examples to be taken from other parts of the world related to unreal flooding. Water crisis needs an integrated approach to its management. It takes into account various aspects of it including demand and supply and how to use water more efficiently,” Sinha tells you.

There is an estimate that says by 2030, the demand in the country will be double the supply.

“How do we manage this demand. Hence, elements like storage and rainwater harvesting will be important. Recharge of groundwater will be necessary to ensure supply. Then there is the demand management. There is need to efficiently use water. There is need to change the crop pattern and use less water for irrigation. This requires an enormous shift in the way we have dealt with water issues in the agricultural sector till now,” Sinha says.

Mahadevan Ramaswamy who has been researching on water tells you that  water shortage in Chennai has been happening for a long time. People have been seeking waters from their farmland. Is that is anthropogenic? Yes and no. There are certain norms. You promise certain amount of water to the people without focusing on proper demand management and one ends up with unsustainable levels of water demand. Once you create a city, they expand. More the city expands, the more they become areas which require more water. Then you draw water from rivers and they too become areas where there is a problem. However, we have been trying to establish whether water shortage is manmade or due to climate change for a long time. We need to look beyond this.

“What causes rain? You create green areas for precipitation. If you build over the greens, there will be less rain. There is anxiety all over. The Government and those opposing their projects need to understand that interlining of rivers is going to happen. The solution is to create pockets of greens in between the built spaces and protect them in order to reduce the Government’s anxiety. One will have to come up with new solutions or we will not succeed,” Ramaswamy says.

Does this mean that we will be facing water crisis? “It is already happening. Delhi, this monsoon, didn’t get as much rain. This doesn’t bode well for the next year. Water, agriculture, healthcare, land, employment, economy and geopolitics are interlinked. This will lead to a situation where the other countries will tell you that as a nation, the water crisis has not been properly leading to global insecurity. There are too many people on Earth and not all will survive. Some think we should join hands, others feel that maybe some of us can survive.  Science has to introspective. If scientists say that they got a few things wrong and there is need to plant trees because the polar ice cap meltdown is not gong to happen in the next 60 years but now, this will have an impact,” Ramaswamy explains and adds that if children all over the world say green the world, even the Governments will take notice.

“Water crisis needs to be taken seriously. Make it a national issues and develop a consensus. There was a time when Nature enclosed humans, now humans enclose Nature. How will you ensure that the island of green areas thrive and that there are enough of them? You need Plan B. We talk of protecting rural land which is already under pressure. What we need is to look at unrban areas. It is here that we can make a difference, Ramaswamy tells you.

But there is a challenge here. The minute you talk about environment, they feel they have to make do. World is not just about Nature, it is also about humans and their hunger for progress. Water looping is a good solution. One can have rooftop gardens in a city of concrete to create green belts and thereby create an environment where we can spend hours under a shower and not worry because we have created abundance of water,” Ramaswamy says.


  • According to the WHO (2015) every minute a newborn dies from infection caused by lack of safe water and an unclean environment. 785 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, including 144 million people who are dependent on surface water.
  • The WHO also says that by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.
  • In least developed countries, 22% of health care facilities have no water service, 21% no sanitation service, and 22% no waste management service.
  • Four billion people worldwide are affected by shortage of water for at least one month every year. Studies show that the impact of the crisis is most acutely felt by about 1.8 billion people for six months in a year. The World Economic Forum rates ‘water crises as one of the three greatest risks of harm to people and economies’.
  • The rapid growth of population and its growing needs has meant that per capita availability of fresh water has declined sharply from 3,000 cubic metres to 1,123 cubic metres over the past 50 years. The global average is 6,000 cubic metres.
  • In 2001, urban population was 285 million and assuming water supply of 135 litres per capita per day, the domestic water demand is estimated at around 38,475 million litres per day (MLD), whereas as in 2011 urban population was 377 million with a domestic water demand of 50,895 MLD.
  • According to projections by the UN, India’s urban population is expected to rise to 50% of the total population by 2050. This would mean 840 million people in the most water-starved parts of the country compared with 320 million today.
  • As much as 55% of India’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources. Unchecked exploitation by farmers has led groundwater levels to fall dangerously across large areas in the country. Groundwater is critical to India’s water security. Irrigation, of which over 60% comes from groundwater, takes up over 80% of total water usage in India. Besides, nearly 30% of urban water supply and 70% of rural water supply comes from groundwater.
  • Of the total potential of nearly 1,900 billion cubic metres (bcm) in India, only about 700 bcm can be utilised.
  • The use of surface water is also affected by dams. With over 5,000 dams, India is the third largest, after China and US, on this count. While dams help in irrigation and electricity generation, they affect water quality in the country. About 75% of electricity consumed in India is generated through thermal power plants. Alternative sources of power generation can play a major role in preventing the loss of potable water.
  • In India, with a population of over 1.2 billion, 663 million people — 1 in 10 — lack access to safe water — twice the population of the US lives without access to safe water.
  • Water levels at 91 major reservoirs nationwide are the lowest in a decade — no more than 29 per cent, according to the latest bulletin of the Central Water Commission released in March 2016.
  • The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices. Also, more than 500 children under the age of five die each day from diarrhoea in India alone.

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