Water Crisis In India: What Are We Missing?

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In the past few months, the media has done a good job of covering the water crisis that is plaguing India. With the new government in power, one of their first priorities has been addressing the issue of water conservation by launching the Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA), which is a time-bound and mission-mode under the department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti. It will run in two phases:

Phase 1: It starts from July 1 to September 15, 2019 covering all states and union territories.

Phase 2: It starts from October 1 to November 30, 2019, for states and union territories receiving the retreating monsoon (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu).

It will mainly target water-stressed districts, i.e., districts with critical or overexploited groundwater levels as per the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) 2017. For states without critical and overexploited groundwater levels, districts with the least availability of groundwater in comparison to the rest of the districts in the state have been selected. There are five key areas under this campaign:

  1. Water Conservation and Rain Water Harvesting.
  2. Renovation of traditional and other water bodies/tanks.
  3. Reuse and recharge structures.
  4. Watershed Development.
  5. Intensive afforestation.

As India is a huge country with great physiological variations, pan-India solutions are not sustainable. Hence, it is advisable to take up individual states and UTs and come up with geographic-specific solutions for water conservation which will benefit people at large in the long run. Moreover, urbanisation happening at an unprecedented rate is creating many peri-urban areas which are a juxtaposition of both the rural and urban settings. These areas can be highly water insecure, as seen in areas close to Gurgaon where there is intense competition for resources, and can lead to water conflicts along with daily caste-based conflicts. This further gives rise to inequity in water resources distribution. 

India Needs To Visit Its Ground Water Laws

There are a few states in our country that are highly water-stressed because of over-exploitation of groundwater. One such state is Punjab. Although Punjab became very successful because of the Green Revolution and helped our country achieve food security, yet, in the present times, it has led to a severe water crisis. Agriculture is the highest consumer of water, and as the state of Punjab is primarily involved in the agrarian sector, it should now work towards achieving water security. The ground-water level in the state has gone down at unprecedented rates along with the added problem of saline water intrusion because of the excessive use of pesticides. Furthermore, as the rich farmers are also powerful landlords, there is no limit to their extracting groundwater, which only hampers the entire aquifer of that particular area. This compromises equity to a great extent. It can be hence said, water is where the power is! India still follows an archaic law which allows the owner of a particular land to extract as much water as they want. It is about time we looked into this old law before more areas keep getting water-stressed. The state of Punjab also has the problem of rice stubble burning around the time of Diwali which makes the air in North India extremely toxic with the Air Quality Index(AQI) reaching beyond 400 in the national capital. The sad part is, not many people come out and show their anger, nor do they take climate change seriously. Anger, in this case, is required to bring about a positive change. 

Plachimada, a small village in the Palakkad district of Kerala, is an extremely important agricultural zone and is popularly known as the ‘rice bowl of Kerala’. As rice is a standing crop and is extremely water-intensive, this village is heavily dependent upon canal irrigation and groundwater. Unfortunately, Palakkad district is in the rain-shadow region of the Western Ghats and is a drought-prone area. A few years ago, the Hindustan Coca Cola Plant was set up in this district, and naturally, beverage industries are located near sources of water. Not only do these industries consume a lot of water but they are equally responsible for polluting the water reservoirs as they release tremendous amounts of effluents. This increases the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) levels, reduces the DO levels which makes the water warm and hampers aquatic life. The permissible BOD level in a water body is 30 mg/L, and DO levels should be greater than 4 mg/L to sustain aquatic life.

By Neeethud (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It was found that within six months of setting up the plant by Hindustan Coca Cola, people had undergone great adversities. Along with the increase in salinity and a sharp rise in the hardness of water, a strong bitter taste from some of the open wells was also reported. People complained of a variety of illnesses such as a burning sensation in the skin of the face, greasy, sticky hair, stomach disorders, and skin deformities. There were certain areas that ran dry because of over-extraction of groundwater by the beverage industry, as a result of which there was a major decline in the agricultural production, thereby creating huge amounts of loss for the already poor farmers.

Floods, Fury, And Forced Migration

The Bay of Bengal region is always in the news, at least two times, in the context of cyclones that affects the eastern coastal states of Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. It adversely affects coastal Bangladesh thereby pushing hundreds of thousands of people to flee every year. And if the early warning systems (EWS) systems are not well developed it leads to huge destruction of life and livelihood. The extensive loss of life and property has been scaling up the ladder for the past few years, and the time is not far away when the fury caused by such natural disasters will be so high it can make the entire economy of the state topsy turvy. Although migration due to climate change has not caught the eyes of many, because ‘climate migrants as a term has not found its way in the lexicon, but can soon turn into a reality in the near future. The following link makes it clear how the naming of cyclones takes place in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal region.

This year, the Brahmaputra was flooded unimaginably. Floods are a necessity for sustaining lives in this region of the country. There are instances when farmers will share their agony of losing out on their agricultural fields but when the floodwaters recede, they are grateful as the land becomes more fertile than what it was previously. Embankment-breaching has become so common that investing in them is actually a loss of money every year. Rather, it is high time to look out for alternatives. Most importantly, evacuation strategies have to be strengthened to avert such disasters.

The Barak river was declared as National Waterway Number 6, mostly for transporting heavy cargo items, thus reducing the costs of transportation which otherwise is a very costly affair. Dredging of the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers have been provided as a solution for improving the carrying capacity of the rivers (as siltation is a major problem) which will allow the rivers to not flow above danger levels and inundate large areas, further improving navigational facilities. But is it sustainable in the long run? One needs to understand that it is impossible to flood-proof the entire Brahmaputra valley. It will surely influence the micro-climate of the region in due course of time. Dredging will have long term repercussions on the ecosystem of the entire region further aggravating the situations of man-animal conflicts. Encroachment on wetlands (beels) has been a matter of huge concern for Assam. Wetlands function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water, rain, snowmelt, groundwater and floodwaters. The vegetation surrounding these wetlands slows down the speed of floodwaters and distributes them slowly over the floodplain. Kaziranga National Park itself is 70% wetland and has a history of surviving floods. If this necessary evil of flooding stops then there are chances that the national park could possibly turn into woodland thus making the survival of the species difficult which otherwise is not actually the habitat of the endemic species found here. 

Floods have a huge impact on habitations that are located downstream. As Bangladesh is a lower riparian country, they suffer a great loss every year. Previously, the Farakka Barrage was built to keep the Calcutta Port alive, but there has been an extensive loss, ecologically. For example, the national fish of Bangladesh, i.e. Hilsa, would travel up to Kanpur along the Ganges before the barrage got commissioned. Post-1975, there has been no Hilsa found, and now the new sources of this famous fish are augmented from the Narmada and Tapti rivers. India and Bangladesh, as developing countries, have contributed far less to climate change, in comparison to their developed counterparts, yet the deluge due to rising temperatures and increasing water levels have had dire consequences, leading to forced migration. This is landing people in vulnerable and furious positions.

Have We Forgotten Our Traditional Harvesting Structures?

India has had amazing water harvesting structures from the past, but as we have adhered to modernity at a very fast pace, we have hardly given a thought to what water conservation must have been like many centuries ago. The most famous traditional water harvesting technique that we know of is about the Bamboo-drip irrigation technique from Meghalaya. But let’s take a look at some of the other water harvesting structures/techniques:

  • Ahar Pyne: 

Image Credit: insightsonindia.com

Ahar Pyne system is an indigenous irrigation technology, which continues to irrigate substantial areas even today in the plains of South Bihar. An ‘Ahar’ is a rectangular embankment type of water harvesting structure, i.e., a catchment basin embanked on three sides, and the fourth side is the natural gradient of the land itself. ‘Pynes’ are artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. Ahar differs from the regular tanks, in that the bed of an Ahar is not dug, and usual tanks don’t have the raised embankment of an Ahar. The water supply in an Ahar comes from natural drainage after rainfall or through Pynes where necessary diversion works are carried out. This system is extremely beneficial for cultivating paddy which requires a lot of water. But with the advent of modernity, lack of budgeted funds, and an increase in the usage of private tube wells, the Ahar Pyne system has seen a massive decline. 

  • Zabo system:

Image Credit: indiawaterportal.org

This system is popular in Nagaland, and Zabo means ‘impounding run-off’. It combines water conservation with forestry, agriculture, and animal care, and promotes soil management, environmental protection, and sustainable water management. Villages such as Kikruma, where Zabos are found even today, are located at a high altitude. In spite of heavy rainfall, the areas experience water scarcity. In this system of water conservation, the rain falls on a patch of protected forest on the hilltop, and as the water runs off along the slope, it passes through various terraces. The water is then collected in pond-like structures in the middle terraces. Below are cattle yards, and towards the foot of the hill are paddy fields, where the run-off ultimately meanders into collection systems. (Agarwal and Narain, 1997)

Zabo System of Nagaland
  • Apatani System:

Image Credit: cpreecenvis.nic.in

This is a wet rice cultivation-cum-fish farming system practiced by the Apatani Tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, in elevated regions of about 1600 meters and in gentle sloping valleys, having an average annual rainfall about 1700 mm. It taps several small streams and springs found in those hill regions by making temporary walls, which act as barriers and can divert the flow of water towards terraced and valley lands. Water harvested from the hilltops is mixed with domestic wastes as it passes through the village through small channels. The valleys are terraced into plots separated by 0.6 meters high earthen dams supported by bamboo frames. All plots have inlet and outlet on opposite sides. The inlet of low-lying plot functions as an outlet of the high-lying plot. Plots can be flooded or drained off with water by opening and blocking the inlets and outlets as and when required. The stream water is tapped by constructing a wall of 2-4 m high and 1 m thick near forested hill slopes. The local drainage system is merged with the irrigation system which, in turn, improves the nutrient content of water required for rice cultivation. (Agarwal and Narain, 1997)

  • Johads:

By Dinesh.jangra1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://dz01iyojmxk8t.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/10110249/index.php_.jpg?curid=29474592

This is a traditional water harvesting structure from Rajasthan. In this system, simple mud and rubble barriers are built across the contour of a slope to arrest rainwater. These earthen check dams are meant to catch and conserve rainwater, leading to improved percolation and groundwater recharge. It is built across a slope with a high embankment on the three sides while the fourth side is left open for the rainwater to enter. It is used for drinking purposes by both humans and cattle. Johads are extremely successful and popular in the Alwar district, which actually falls in the flood plains adjoining Sariska National Park. The initiative of reviving Johads was taken up by Dr. Rajendra Singh, popularly known as the ‘water man of India’.

  • Kulhs:
Image Credit: indiawaterportal.org

Kulhs are the traditional irrigation system in Himachal Pradesh. Here the surface channels divert water from natural flowing streams called khuds. A typical community Kuhl is serviced by 6 to 30 farmers and can irrigate an area of about 20 hectors. It consists of a temporary headwall (constructed usually with river boulders) across a khud for storage and diversion of the flow through a canal to the fields. Kulhs are constructed and maintained by the village community, and the master or the local engineer is known as the ‘Kohli’. At the beginning of the irrigation season, the Kohli would organise the irrigators to construct the headwall, repair the kuhl and make the system operational. Any person refusing to participate in construction and repair activities without valid reason would be denied water for that season. The Kohli also supervises allocation for irrigation of fields and settles disputes among farmers. The Kohli is paid in kind—each farmer offers a small share of the produce as a form of gratitude. But, due to urbanisation, and changing lifestyles, many Kulhs have become polluted today with garbage and plastic. Moreover, the villagers get tap water, and agriculture is not considered as a lucrative business, and this highlights the general apathy of people. More importantly, the maintenance cost of these Kulhs is high. 

  • Tanks:
For representation only. Credit: By Alavoudine – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://dz01iyojmxk8t.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/10110249/index.php_.jpg?curid=35460052

Tanks are extremely popular in South India. A tank complex comprises the catchment area, supply channels; water spread area, earthen bunds, outlet structures (sluices), field irrigation channels, surplus weir, and the command area. Tanks were owned and maintained by the community before the British consolidated the various power centres in India. After the British took over the tanks as the property of the State for revenue purposes, the centralised management prevented the local community from collectively maintaining and managing them. The collective effort by the people to preserve the tanks declined. This further accelerated the decline of these structures. After Independence, the government concentrated on major irrigation schemes. Tank-fed agriculture lost its status and that hit farming in many areas. The rich farmers in tank command areas opted for bore wells thus leading to exploitation of groundwater. This further jeopardised the collective community action needed to revive the glory of the tank systems.

  • Zing System:

Image Credit: 2luxury2.com

These are the water harvesting structures found in the Ladakh region. They are small tanks, in which the melted glacier water is collected. The main thing essential to the system is the network of guiding channels that brings the water from the glacier to tanks. As glaciers melt during the day, the channels fill up with a trickle, which, in the afternoon, turns into flowing water. The water gets collected towards the evening and is used the next day. A water official called the Churpun ensures that water is equitably distributed.

Some of the other traditional water harvesting techniques include Dongs of Assam, Baolis, Kunds/kundis from Gujarat, Kuis/Beris from Western Rajasthan, ponds, wells and tanks from UP, inundation channels of West Bengal, to name a few. Unfortunately, all these structures are losing their significance because of large-scale migration, especially of male members, thereby increasing ‘feminisation of agriculture’ and ‘women’s water burdens’ which is exploitative in nature, as traditionally, women have to also look after household activities.

At the rural level, as a lot of focus is given on community participation, it is important to ensure equitable distribution of water in a caste-based environment. Proper functioning of Water Users Associations (WUAs) needs to be ensured which essentially forms a part of decentralised system of governance. There is an urgent need to revive all the traditional water harvesting structures as they will target a specific geographical area with the locally available materials which not only saves a lot of money and resources but are also sustainable in nature. If one were to do a cost-benefit analysis, then the benefits would be mostly on the higher side. A greater emphasis should be laid on the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater. Pani Panchayats of Odisha, backed by the Pani Panchayat Act (2002), have been extremely successful when it comes to water conservation and reviving certain traditional techniques. Other states can follow suit and implement similar models, subject to geographic conditions.

Conclusion

Water is a very vast and complex subject to study. To cover different aspects of this indispensible resource is beyond the scope of one article. But what is simple is to induce behaviour change, have a structured system of Information, education, and Communication (IEC) to reach out to more and more people to avoid a major water crisis. It is equally important to note that while many social activists might argue that water should be made available free of cost for a major chunk of population, one must understand that water should also be treated as an economic good in order to avoid indiscriminate use. We have these resources in abundance most of the time. It is not the crisis of resources that is a problem, rather a crisis of governance which makes a big difference. Let us just stop blaming the government for everything, because as citizens we make up the largest chunk as stakeholders in utilising water!

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images, Reuters, Twitter
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