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A Few Drab and Dry Words about Water Crisis

Sandeep Banerjee

Suddenly the media and social media are abuzz with concern for water crisis, water wastage, preservation, groundwater replenishment and so on so forth. It is good. The social media, which are our big brothers, always watch over what people are doing, each and every person, and can easily detect the date and time of the beginning of the sudden spur that is going on now. We who are not that much ‘social’ cannot say that. We are hearing about water crisis in India for ages. Droughts and floods are our nagging companions who never leave us, may that be from British period or before and so also in Independent India. Even the vivid descriptions in Sainath’s book ‘Everybody loves a good drought’ are about three decades old. Water, its necessity, why not to waste it, etc. are things which our children read in their primary schools. But why this sudden spike! If we consider this year only, on May 21 the BBC published an article on it with many illustrations, charts and graphs [1]. But did we hear such lurid discussions (please do not mind, my stock of adjectives is miserably small) at that time! Or are we hearing this only after two happenings almost coincided: (i) Chennai suddenly felt an intense water crisis, and (ii) almost simultaneously our corporate world [2] including corporate media [3] all focused on the problem. Let us hope this conjecture of coincidence is wrong and our citizens are always aware and discussing such issues. Otherwise rural and suburban India may feel sad to know that only when a big city like Chennai, supposedly India’s sixth largest economy (as far as cities are concerned) with a GDP of $66 Billion[4] (after Mumbai: $209 Billion, Delhi: $167 Billion, Kolkata: $150 Billion, Bangalore: $83 Billion, and Hyderabad: $74 Billion) suffers, our citizens at social media or netigens take up the issue like water scarcity, which is a lifelong companion of large expanses of rural India.

Water woes of Chennai is an old fact as such. Not only the old NASA picture of 2009 showed groundwater withdrawal as % of groundwater recharge at Tamil Nadu to be nearly 80% (whereas in Punjab, Haryana and NCR it was about 100%) [5]. It was well known to the TN govt. earlier. For example, we may read this little excerpt from a govt. website [6]: “The Rain Water Harvesting movement launched in 2001 was the brainchild of the Honourable Chief Minister. It has had a tremendous impact in recharging the groundwater table all over Tamil Nadu. Amendments made to Section 215 (a) of the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920 and Building Rules 1973, have made it mandatory to provide RWH structures in all new buildings.   To consolidate the gains, various measures have been taken up for rejuvenation of RWH structures created already in both public and private buildings, besides creating new ones.  IEC activities will be continued in the Town Panchayats to sensitize all the stake holders to sustain the momentum. During 2011-12, in order to give a fillip to this laudable programme, the Town Panchayats have undertaken the construction of new RWH structures and renovation of old RWH structures. IEC activities are being carried out in Town Panchayat areas to sustain the momentum of the programme.” Just batting for RWH (rain water harvesting) will not be enough as it is already there, at least, legally. So, what might be the reasons of the present crisis? Is the rule is not being followed in new buildings and high-rises? It is not very probable. Then? Are not the measures of RWH sufficient in efficiency and/or quantity with respect to rising demand of rapid urbanisation and/or are there some other reasons? 

Moreover, RWH in India, at least technically, is a more or less noted and discussed problem from a time much earlier. Artificial Groundwater Recharge was the subject of U. Schottler in the International Seminar on Development and management of Groundwater Resources, Nov 5-20, 1979 at University of Roorkee [7]. A Dutch assistance was discussed for artificial rainwater recharge at some points of North Bengal during late 1980s or early 1990s because groundwater was already scarce. For example, in several district of WB permission for new mini-deep and deep tube-wells with submersible electric pumps was refused, for example in Hooghly district, most probably in 1994 or some other time in first half of 1990s. Finally, we may see ‘Guide on Artificial Recharge to Ground Water, New Delhi, May 2000’, Published by Central Ground Water Board, Ministry of Water Resources [8] which has a more or less detail technical discussion on ways and means of recharge.  And we may also see the final booklet published on the occasion of international seminar on   Management of Aquifer Recharge and Subsurface Storage, Wageningen, 18 - 19 December 2002, published by World Bank [9].

It was not that we did not know the technology of how to recharge groundwater or that governments at the centre or state levels did not know that and did not understand the need for that. Rather the points are fixing and/or allocating priority, and following up doggedly. Of course, it may be argued that citizens’ initiative and involvement is the prime thing and now we have reached that point. This opinion cannot be contradicted.

Citizens’ concern and initiative is a great motor force in history. We may and should add peasants’ initiative in solving problems of chronic draught and irrigation, because when we talk about citizens, often we forget agriculture. (We may recall that peasants in their Telengana Struggle days in the 1940s were already concerned with this problem and tried what they can do to solve it in areas under their control.) Not only that, in many cases agriculture is shown as a problem, as if by consuming so large part of water agriculture is itself a menace. But you cannot live without food, can you? And so, agriculture is not a problem, rather a necessity. It is of course true that much water is lost due to evaporation-transportation of irrigation water and inability of switching to more efficient irrigation practice like drip irrigation, mulching practice, etc. but the first alternative, drip irrigation, needs capital and most of poor peasants and middle peasants (those who cannot or can hardly manage their life with their land only) are unable to afford that. The second alternative, mulching and such other less-water-intensive paddy techniques as discussed by Masanobu Fukuoka, or SRI cultivation (which supposedly needs les water), is related to switching practice in case of paddy cultivation and it needs initiative of the society, in present case the govt., in form of intensive agricultural extension programme by agriculture-universities and govt. agricultural extension officers. 

So, moving towards solution does not depend only on politicians or rather do not depend much on their goodwill or imagination, as many govt. decisions are taken at the level of bureaucracy; though of course the ministers can hinder some initiative or can facilitate some other. Corporate willingness is another factor. We all know that scarcity and contamination of potable water gave rise to a multimillion-dollar business of water and water-purifiers in India. But then groundwater recharge can also be a good business if taken in large-scale level. And corporate world is well tied with bureaucracy – today’s bureaucrats are tomorrow’s board-members or advisor and govt. orders and policies may act as good fillip to corporate houses. How far citizens’ and peasants; initiative can force the govt. and the corporate world is a key to the solution.

More blatantly speaking, private property on land, natural resources of ‘commons’ like water, measuring and searching for ‘profit’ from all actions – these are the barriers towards fuller solution. In many cases irrigation canals could not be laid in the optimum or necessary path as that would do harm to some big owners’ landholdings or may be farther from some big owners’ landholdings. Irrigation water is being ‘sold’ by deep tube-well owners in many districts. Drinking water is sold by a state-run organisation like Indian Railway and also foreign multinationals like Coke and Pepsi. (on lighter vein, even, in most places, you cannot relieve water, i.e., urinate, without paying.) A thing will be put to practice only if it can ‘yield profit’ – and that is the case of selling water-purifiers, or putting up water ATMs. So, under capitalism, or till the categories of capitalism are overwhelming (commodity, money, profit, etc.) solution to such a big problem like water will be scrappy and will be done to that point which will be ‘profitable’. Govt. can give impetus to citizens’ initiative of rain water harvesting either by ‘stick’ or by frightening / forcing like TN govt.’s dictum of compulsory RWH in each building, or can by ‘carrot’ like tax-benefits / cash-incentives / easier loans etc. These are some of the limits set by capitalism.

Anyway, if we leave economics for a time being and come to ecology, we can consider a little point which is less discussed. We have a practice, in villages, of sweeping or brushing our courtyards, removing dust, fallen leaves, trashes and etc. But why do people sweep gardens, clean the grassy surfaces removing leaf litters and such things? Did we start the practice during the British rule, or before, is unknown to this author? An Asterix story, ‘Asterix in Britain’ told us that an English has some obsessions like observing Tea time punctually, lawn making and etc. Lawns with decorative trees are kept picturesque and the aesthetics that rules here includes removing leaf litters. And an added problem occurs when such litters and all trashes are often burnt for quick disposal. By doing that we deprive the land not giving it humus, organic carbon; and also, we make the soil less efficient in seeping water inside it. A great observation was made by Gandhian late Mira Behn which she published in 1950 in the Hindustan Times: Something Wrong in the Himalayas [10]. There she had shown that afforestation as such is not an antidote to deforestation, not just planting a tree for a tree cut down is a solution – rather the biodiversity, the species mix, etc., are important. When Banj or Himalayan Oak trees were replaced by commercially (perhaps more) viable Chir Pine, the land has lost that cover it needed. Banj leaves make a thick covering on the soil, gets slowly moist and start degrading, contributing to soil fertility, and also simultaneously it contributed to water seeping inside the soil. This water in turn created the tiny streams often like drops after drops which in turn adds up to make a little gentle brook. But Chir pine leaves are like needles, they do not cover the soil properly as the Banj leaves could, and hence soil seep in less water and in turn rivers are losing feed from the forests. The great CHIPKO slogan “What do the forests bear? / Soil, water and pure air” was born out of this lesson. (Moreover, we have seen how Chir pine often acts as catalysts to forest fire as Chir pines are more inflammable trees having high resin content [11].) Anyway, the point here is, we should stop ‘cleaning’ gardens and plantations and forests off the leaf litters and foliage fallen from the trees, and there is also no need of mowing the grass if that is not needed urgently for some specific reasons. This will also increase water recharge. 

Refrences

India election 2019: The looming water crisis politicians ignore https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48294157

India’s looming water crisis – a call to action for companies
Cate Lamb. Global Director, Water Security & Damandeep Singh, Director, India
June 20 2019 https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/companies/indias-looming-water-crisis-a-call-to-action-for-companies

ET View: A looming water crisis ET Bureau|Jun 22, 2019, 08.03 PM IST | India has to change the cropping pattern, to channel water guzzling crops away from relatively arid regions to the Indo-Gangetic plains. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-view/et-view-a-looming-water-crisis/articleshow/69906497.cms

Top 10 Richest Cities of India Based on GDP, most probably published on 2016-12-09,  http://www.walkthroughindia.com/offbeat/top-10-richest-cities-india-based-gdp/

https://www.nasa.gov/images/content/378061main_indiagroundh2o_img2_full.jpg taken from NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India's Vanishing Water 08.12.09 at https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/india_water.html

Clear and collect Chir pine needles to prevent forest fires: parliamentary panel, Tuesday 20 December 2016, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/forests/clear-and-collect-chir-pine-to-prevent-forest-fires-says-parliamentary-committee-56597

Frontier
Jun 15, 2018


Sandeep Banerjee [email protected]

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