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The Water Wars Have Already Begun, But We Are Still Busy Playing Ostrich

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A couple of decades from now, all rivers in India will be contaminated. In just about one decade from now, 60% of all Indian aquifers will be at a critical stage; meaning more than half of the country’s underground water sources will be contaminated or reach a point beyond rejuvenation. Does this ring an alarm bell? It should, because even today half of India’s wells are showing ever reducing groundwater levels and half of India’s rivers are already contaminated. I don’t know any Indian town or rural centre which provides clean, drinking tap water throughout the day. Fall in water level percentage (2003 to 2013) for some of the states are:

Tamil Nadu: 76, Punjab: 72, Kerala: 71, Karnataka: 69, Meghalaya: 66, Haryana: 65 and West Bengal: 64.

And given the burgeoning middle class – consuming water at an unprecedented rate due to a more affluent lifestyle, an agriculture sector with inadequate water use efficiency as well as polluting sources with pesticides and an unregulated industrial sector with hazardous waste all flowing into both the surface and underground sources, the impending disaster is much closer than we can imagine.

What Led To This Crisis?

The Green Revolution in India has led to the unfettered use of groundwater for agriculture. More than 80% of water in India is consumed by agriculture – with water utilisation capacity being less than 30%.

India is the highest consumer of groundwater, more than the US and China combined.

The cause of surface water pollution in India is largely due to the discharge of untreated domestic and industrial waste from urban centres. The dying river Yamuna, is a classic case of lax regulations and unchecked toxic waste from households and industries freely flowing into it- 515 million litres of sewage water is discharged every day. Similar is the trend across other river systems in India. Groundwater is being contaminated through domestic, industrial, mining as well as agricultural discharges. The falling water table has also forced deeper digging – leading to a high concentration of cancerous elements like Arsenic in the extracted water. Groundwater in 10 states is contaminated with Arsenic.

In short, there are two aspects to this crisis: exploitative extraction from both ground and surface water, and untreated waste flowing back to the source.

What Will Be The Impact?

India is bracing itself for an extraordinary catastrophe with water wars not only between states but those spilling off to every aspect of the society. Farming will simply become unviable for most of the population, particularly the small landholders, who now form a bulk of the agricultural population. As these teeming millions swarm the cities in search of alternative livelihoods with little or no skills and opportunities, water crisis will snowball into one of the biggest social crisis. This will put extraordinary pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure, in terms of housing, food and water. Then, stands the question of food security in the country. Farmer suicides also point in the direction of water-exploited and depleted regions.  In coastal areas of the country, sea water will make inroads into the depleting water table making them unviable to live. Urban centres with already polluted water bodies and depleted groundwater sources will crumble under pressure. The squabble for water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is well published. Similar situations are building up across the country with multiple states at loggerheads.

Water contamination has already triggered a health endemic in India. According to WaterAid report on “State of the World’s Water 2017”, around 37.7 million are affected by waterborne diseases annually, 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone and 73 million working days are lost due to waterborne diseases every year. Drinking contaminated water causes the death of 140,000 children every year in India. In rural India, 63.4 million people living in villages lack access to clean water, the highest in the world. In fact, 42% of urban Indians and 60% of rural Indians are getting contaminated water (2014).

Is There A Way Out?

Water crisis will be one of the biggest tests for India as a nation. There are no easy solutions on a plate here. For starters, urgent steps should be taken not to aggravate the situation further, and move towards some semblance of a consistent and long-term response to the issue. This will require a coherent water policy and data, as much as urban conservation and contamination management, along with initiatives in rural India. Exploitative water extraction, contamination, sanitation and hygiene, and climate change are all interwoven phenomenon and cannot be seen in silos.  Let us look at some of the possible approaches to address this issue:

1. Coherent Water Policy

India has four central bodies regulating groundwater. Water supply and sanitation is the responsibility of the state under the constitution of India. There is the Central Pollution Control Board along with a plethora of other agencies, including the Ministry of Rural Development. Most of these agencies work without a coherent policy framework and with little coordination. The time is now for everyone to come together under a common framework of policies with a clear-cut demarcation of roles and responsibilities.

2. Data and Rainwater Analysis

There is very little available data on the exact situation across the country. Ironically, despite so many agencies, there is no single database available in the country on groundwater. While the average rainfall data in India is available, there has been very little analysis on the patterns, the percolation across regions and run away loss. The average rainfall of India is 1190 mm per year. With an area of 3.287 million square kilometres, this effectively translates to a whopping 3.5 million cubic kilometres of water. Further conversion gives us about 7000 litres available per person per day in India. While this is a very simplistic calculation, it also underlines the fact that the potential for water availability is high and could pave the way for more sustainable use.

3. Urban Household Waste Disposal

60 million people in urban areas lack access to decent sanitation, and two-thirds of wasted water flows out untreated into water bodies. While additional funding is needed to address this gap, new technological interventions can bring about a more rational approach to address the issue.

4. Industrial Waste Disposal

Small and medium scale industries numbering 3 million, under very little regulation or adherence to environmental norms directly pollute many water bodies. The other major sources of water contamination are large-scale industries and thermal power plants. Without technological upgradation of these industries and stricter norms, they will continue to be a major source of contamination.

5. Urban Leakage And Water Conservation Initiatives

Most Indian cities lose one-third of their water due to leakage or pilferage. Investment in infrastructure in a profit-driven model, checking petty thefts and urban water conservation efforts – should be the way forward.

6. Traditional Water Conservation Practices In Rural India

There are several traditional practices of water conservation in India that have been put to the backburner. In fact, one of the first watershed practices in the world originated in Rajasthan – in the form of a network of earthen dams locally called the Paals. Johads in Bihar is another holistic approach to water conservation. Similar practices abound across the country, and it is imperative to integrate these with the investment of government on watershed development and conservation.

7. Integrating Programs Like MGNREGS With Water Conservation

Several watershed models in programs like MGNREGS have evolved which tie economic security with efforts of conservation and farm security in rural India. Panchayats should be empowered with technicalities of watershed management so that a chunk of these funds is used to conserve water in villages. This will ultimately enhance soil productivity and improve agricultural production.

8. Sanitation And Water Contamination

There is a direct link between sanitation and hygiene practices, and water contamination. Swatch Bharat Mission is a good start in this direction, but it will also require major infrastructure overhaul in terms of quality of toilets constructed, access of water in toilets and behavioural change in communities – if it is to change entrenched practices of open defecation in India.

9. Agriculture

Let us face it, India’s water exploitation will not go away with the current over-consumption of water in the agriculture sector which accounts for the major wastage. This calls for a 360-degree change in our cropping practices and technology including new ways of looking at the underground water which has become the private property of landowners today.

10. Climate Change

In the 21st century and in an inter-connected globe, the issue of water scarcity, erratic monsoons and periods of flood and drought cannot be comprehended without taking climate change into account. This will mean deeper cooperation at both state-level initiatives as well as international level.

The water crisis that India is facing will in many ways, define the future of the country in the coming decades. The situation is grim, but with proper policies in place and implementation, much change can be made in the right direction. Are we ready for policy discourse and a more meaningful engagement to resolve this issue? We really do not have a choice. The old Hindi adage never rang truer:

“Jal Hi Jeevan Hai”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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