Debit Card Model For Conservation


Article originally published in Sep 2011 issue of GOVERNANCE NOW magazine

The monsoon brings in its wake a primeval expression of joy as the first showers bring welcome rain, followed by sporadic outbreaks of seasonal diseases, mudslides and water-logging, and finally panic as the season reaches its peaks with a deluge of water in some areas. With 1,200 mm annual rainfall,Indiais one of the wettest countries in the world. Yet, it is a largely water stressed nation with no plan in place to manage its water wealth. Why have things come to such a pass?

We are living in an age of instant, post-paid gratification. Despite the harsh consequences of living on credit cards or the spend-now-pay-later principle, as evident in the developed economies, the mad rush for satiating our greed continues unabated. In India, our water consumption too reflects this syndrome. Our water planning is completely demand driven. Planners take demand of a unit as a given and then plunder water resources from further and further upstream to satisfy that demand.

The result is there for all of us to see. From a per capita annual average of 5,177 cubic metres in 1951, fresh water availability inIndiadropped to 1,720 cubic metre in 2001. It is predicted that by 2025, per capita annual average fresh water availability will be 1,240 cubic metres approximately. This is despite the fact that the potential of most river basins is being exploited beyond 50 percent and several basins are considered to be water scarce. Over 80 percent of the domestic water supply inIndiais dependent on groundwater.

The groundwater scenario too is bleak. Of a total of 5,723 groundwater blocks in the country, 1,615, i.e. 30 percent, are classified as semi-critical, critical or overexploited. By 2025, an estimated 60 percent of groundwater blocks will be in a critical condition. Climate change will further strain groundwater resources. Water is being brought in from surface water sources further and further away – sometimes more than 500 km! Water pollution is also destroying fresh water sources – 15 percent of the total river length inIndiais severely polluted and 20 percent is moderately polluted (based on BOD, or biochemical oxygen demand levels).

Effectively, it means that we are living off our water wealth accumulated over generations and off our accrued water wealth yet to be earned over the coming years.

This can only lead to unmitigated disaster. In a primarily agrarian economy supporting the second largest population in the world, the collapse of the water regime spells an incalculable loss of lives, livelihoods and food security, besides festering potential for conflict.

The only way to avoid disaster is to go in for a paradigm shift in water planning – the debit card model instead of the credit card one. Plan water supplies based on what you have in internal replenishable water sources. Buying water from outside sources or static reserves must be allowed only in severe crisis.

If we were to create a ‘yearly water saving bank account’, all fresh water (river, rain, groundwater) and recycled water (substitute for fresh water) would be credited to the account. The withdrawals from this account would be the quantity of water used annually. To make sure that the water withdrawals do not exceed the water savings, we would need to either increase the savings or decrease the withdrawals or do both. We would also need to create a large enough bank to lock in our water savings.

Take the case of Delhi – a city with a 1.6 crore population and poor water resources – a river that is barely there and is hugely contaminated, groundwater levels going down by 1 m/ year; average rainfall of 611 mm and dried up lakes. According to Delhi Jal Board’s (DJB) own figures, the demand-supply gap in water inDelhiis 255 MGD i.e. approx 26 percent of demand (990 MGD). The probability of bridging this gap in the foreseeable future is nil – no new large sources of water are available and current sources are depleting. It seems ridiculous to even think of makingDelhiself-sufficient in water.

Yet, the figures below show it is possible. In water savings we would first includeDelhi’s share of the Yamuna river’s yearly flow – 4.6 percent i.e. 724 billion litres. Then add the total annual rainwater runoff (i.e. rainwater flow available after subtracting soil absorption and evaporation) from all 1,483 sq km ofDelhi. According to figures available from the national capital region (NCR) planning board, this is 364 billion litres per year. Add to this 692 billion litres per year of recycled water (treated sewage) for which capacity already exists in the city. This is a total of 1,780 billion litres per year.

On the water withdrawal side, DJB estimates annual demand at approx 1,450 billion litres. Though this figure is already lower than our water savings – 1,780 billion litres – it can be further reduced by adoption of water conservation measures. An average middle-class home can easily reduce its treated fresh water consumption by 30 percent without making any significant effort or lifestyle change.

As this example shows, even with a debit card approach to water expenditure in one of the most densely populated, relatively dry parts of the country, we can easily have a positive water balance – not just now, but also in the foreseeable future. In cities like Chennai (1,400 mm rainfall), Mumbai (2,129 mm) and Kolkata (1,582 mm) which have higher rainfall, milder climate (thereby reducing per capita water requirement) and smaller populations (excluding Mumbai), achieving this water balance will be possible.

Unfortunately, the biggest impediment to trying out this approach is our mindset of eyeing outside water resources rather than planning inwards. Our planners assume that any water flowing in any river upstream of the city is surplus and hence available to serve the city’s needs. The task of planning for internal water security must start with them internalising the notion that sustainability lies in minimal dependence on outside sources.

Having done that, their first step should be to declare every planning unit (district village, city or state) as a ‘zero rainwater flow-out unit’, i.e. one which does not allow any rainwater to flow out without at least using it once (apart from river water sharing agreements or environmentally sensitive flows). To make this possible, adequate internal rainwater storage capacity would need to be created. Much of the infrastructure required already exists – in the form of lakes and water bodies.Indiahas 55,00,000 ha of recognised lakes and reservoirs – the actual number would be far higher.Delhialone has 900 water bodies having a static rainwater storage capacity of approx 15-20 billion litres. However, many of the water bodies are dry, silted and/or filled with sewage. Though the central and state governments are trying to encourage protection of lakes, they remain dry because of the altered slopes of catchment areas. We need to not just protect but also artificially re-direct rainwater runoff flows from catchment areas into the lakes.

More rainwater can be stored directly in tanks or can be used to recharge the subsurface aquifers using recent techniques for artificial recharge to groundwater. Nearly 13 states have, fully or partially, already made rainwater harvesting compulsory for buildings. The central government through various schemes is giving incentives for rainwater harvesting in rural areas. More than 80 percent of the NREGA funds have been spent on local water infrastructure like ponds. A concerted effort for rainwater harvesting can be made with the government making check dams, nala bunds and major tanks and encouraging citizens, with judicious incentive schemes, to do rainwater harvesting at household and community level.

The second major step that needs to be taken is to declare every water planning unit a ‘zero flood water outflow unit’. With the monsoon bringing almost 80 percent of rainfall over most ofIndiain just three months, close to 50 percent of river water flows unutilised through an area as flood water. If floodplains in an area could be protected, embankments created and floodwater allowed to spread over them, much of this floodwater can be used for recharging subsurface aquifers. This water can then be extracted throughout the year through Renny wells for the city. According to some estimates, inDelhialone, this can help store up to 1,500 billion litres of floodwater! To enable this, the floodplains must be notified, no construction must be allowed and no contaminants should be allowed to enter the protected area. Both government and citizens must jointly keep the floodplains encroachment free.

Of course, for this a pre-requisite would be that our rivers become carriers of clean water. However, with drains pouring domestic, industrial and agricultural waste into rivers every second, this seems like a daunting task. Though the public – especially those in unauthorised settlements and unregulated industries – is usually held responsible for this, the fact is that the government is more to blame. If only 72 percent Indians have access to proper sanitation facilities, it is a failure of our planning. Enforcement of industrial waste treatment rules is lax and there is no penalty on agriculturists for excessive chemical use. Where there are sewage treatment facilities, the plants are either working much below capacity or become ineffective under the deluge of sewage that they get. This is because of unrealistic planning based on incorrect data.

Perhaps, this is the toughest part of the water balance agenda because of its high dependence on government initiative, multi-sectoral coordination and planning.

The third critical step towards water self-sufficiency would be to adopt water conservation measures. Economic incentives for conservation, pricing / penalties related disincentives for wastage, community education on water wise behaviours and a social system that recognises and rewards water saviours is needed. Also strict controls over water supply – including groundwater extraction and illegal tapping into pipelines – need to be put in place. A base level of awareness already exists – government, NGOs and educational institutions need to join hands to make this possible. Sadly, after all these years of trying to spread water wisdom, I have come to the conclusion that it spreads fastest in a water scarcity situation. When people have to spend time and energy of sourcing it, they quickly learn the fine art of balancing demand with available supply. Hopefully, with a well-designed communication and outreach programme, we will all learn to conserve water before frightening scarcity is thrust on us.

Water is a finite resource. The credit card mentality is creating a temporary bubble of adequate water availability in pockets while actually spreading water poverty in expanding ripples. With the unpredictability in water availability due to climate change, our consumption pattern can only lead to tremendous suffering and conflict.


When I learnt to practice what I preach…

Last week all of us went for our family vacation to our village in Himachal Pradesh – a village called Chachian in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. My father – in- law, now 76 years old, lives there alone.The village is beautiful – and our home – even more so. Our home – a small cottage on the mountain slope, is on the fringe of a forest of pines through which you can see the snow capped mountains.  All sorts of animals, birds and insects stroll in at all times – scorpions, large spiders, chameleons, moths of a hundred types, beautiful birds, grasshoppers in green, blue, red and yellow, ladybirds, mongoose, snakes even wild boars and panthers! (Do check out some pics here…)

But even in this idyllic hamlet, the spectre of Water Scarcity did not leave us. Piped water supply in the village has always been poor, but, to my horror, we did not get a drop of water for 5 continuous days in my holiday week! We needed water for drinking, cooking, cleaning of vessels, home, bathing, washing clothes and toilet – I just didn’t know how we’d manage!

….But I did manage…by practicing the Water Wisdom that I talk about so much….

Unlike here in Delhi, where one type of water serves all needs, I realized I could reduce the effort required to fulfill all water needs by using different types of water for different needs.


So I started grading the water sources. Grade A was clean potable water (at least visually!) There were only two sources for that – branded bottled water from the shops and water from a‘bawadi’ (a miniature step well where groundwater percolates up to the surface and then flows as a stream) about 1 km from home.Grade B was clean water, but its potability was doubtful. This was rainwater from the rooftop or water from a ‘khudd’ -mountain stream flowing nearby or from another bawadi closer to home where the water was slightly muddy (the bawadi was drying up). Grade C was water from a Kul’(Click here to watch a ‘kul’ in action!) flowing in our backyard (a smaller rainwater channel that carries rainwater quietly down the mountain slope and finally empties into the ‘khudd’. (The ‘kul’ water is usually used for irrigation. Till last year this Kul’s water would have been grade B but its quality has deteriorated now). Also water that had been used once – like for washing clothes, washing vegetables – was Grade C water

For each of these 5 days, we got bottled water for drinking ( Am ashamed – we behaved like NRIs! The rest of the village drank water from the bawadi). We drank straight from the bottles to avoid leaving ‘undrunk’ water in tumblers. And to save water needed for washing tumblers. For all cooking, washing of vegetables etc, my husband huffed and puffed and brought back 1 bucket of water a day from the Bawadiabout a km away. For washing of vessels, bathing etc he brought 2-4 buckets a day from the mountain stream or the bawadi that was nearer home.


(There used to be a handpump giving saline water near the house but it had dried up because the village upstream had installed a motor in their handpump. For the first time in my life I knew what it felt like to hate motors !) I learnt how to bathe in 1 quarter of a bucket and my husband in half. My daughter junked the idea of bathing all together and I learnt to live with oily, unwashed hair for four days! (My vanity didn’t suffer too much because my hair was always covered with my dupatta anyway!) I also learnt the virtues of being prompt – if you washed vessels immediately after having food, you needed very little water and absolutely no detergent to clean them. Washing of clothes was postponed – if water supply was not restored, we decided that like professional dhobis, we’d tie clothes in a bundle and take them to the stream for washing. Grade C water from the kul – that was most conveniently located – was used for flushing the toilet. So, thankfully, going to the loo was a luxury we did not have to surrender! The same water was also used for mopping the floor.

It was serious deprivation but it also gave us great moments of fun and…. beauty tips. One day while washing a milk vessel, I remembered reading that milk was a skin cleanser. The next few minutes were a riot – with me chasing my terrified daughter and husband with that milky water trying to get them to do a Cleopatra bathing act! Also, after 5 days of soap free bathing (if any!), our skins were all shining bright like the morning star!

The best was when it rained on the 5th day. By that time we had learnt our Water Wisdom lessons and had felt the pain of the ‘Walk for Water’ of the rural women. Counting every drop of water is an exhausting task!

So when it rained, we went berserk! First we pulled out every spare bucket and vessel and placed them strategically at the points where water from the rooftop was falling – Rainwater Harvesting for direct usage

Then, in a flash of brilliance, I realized I could wash Daddy’s clothes in the rain! So my daughter became the umbrella holder, my husband the cheer leader and I the chief washer woman. Every once in a while my father in law would peep out, look worriedly at all of us like we were a bunch of deranged monkeys and rush back in when he could not bear the sight any more! I wet the clothes in a pool of rainwater, my daughter soaped them, I scrubbed them and then we just hung them on the clothesline and let the rain rinse them automatically! In the process I also washed my hair and got a natural pedicure / manicure!

…But the flip side of the story ….a beautiful village with an ugly water shortage ; the inhabitants of the Himalayas that give India its rain – living without water….

The scarcity I lived with, taught me Water Wisdom.

But power blinded cities like Delhi, that suck in water from the mighty mountains and villages with tubewells, that suck out water from the depths of the earth – how will they learn? Do we need to impose Water Scarcity on them or should we just wait for the eventuality when our foolishness brings it on ourselves?


Pray for those who are suffering

Pray for those who are suffering

Jyoti Sharma, President FORCE posted this in Environment Protection, Jal Rakshak, Uncategorized, Water Wisdom on September 22nd, 2010

Oh God! I’m feeling miserable!



It’s 12.30 in the night, as the rain pours incessantly, suddenly the sight of those black polythene sheet covered hutments that I had seen just last week, flashes across my eyes. In my mind I saw the old man telling me about daily wages in UP,  the young kids playing around and begging to be photographed , the goat chewing placidly and the young men teaching us how to steal the pavement hand-rails…..and suddenly it hit me…….this was a tragedy I was watching unfold.



I remembered that long unending row of polythene sheet rooftops flapping in the wind – on the bank of the floodplain near Mayur Vihar. I remembered those thousands of the city’s poor trying to somehow hang on till the Yamuna let go of their homes on its river bed…….and it scared me. I wonder how they are coping right now – with the river lapping at their feet and the rain drumming on their heads.



I love the rain…….I respond to it like a flower does to dewdrops. It energises me, excites me, makes me feel satiated…..And yet, today, when I remember those faces, I  find myself torn between my love for the rain and fear of the havoc it has created.



Today, I feel the fear of someone who has nowhere to go. I am now sitting in my bed  cuddled up with my family, praying with all my heart that all those I love so much, should never have to face such trauma.



So my delightful rain, and my beautiful river, it breaks my heart to say this –  but please, please will you go away? You’re angry, I know…..but must you make the poor innocents suffer? They are as much victims of greed & apathy , as you are. Take care of them, my dear …for they share your fate.



Jal Rakshaks – let’s pray for an end to this suffering.  And, when many honest hearts cry out for God’s help – with their prayers – He cannot help but answer.



Wherever we are, at 2 pm everyday, let us all take 2 minutes out to pray – and ask God to placate Nature’s fury.



Don’t forget – 2 pm – let us all rise and pray.



…… and tell all  those around you to do the same



Take Care


Jyoti Sharma, FORCE

My dearest Chulbuli Pandey – a letter to the Yamuna river in flood


Jyoti Sharma, President FORCE posted this in Civic Planning, Environment Protection, Uncategorized, Water Management, Water Wisdom on September 14th, 2010

My dearest Chulbuli Pandey,


Aah! Yamuna meri jaan – kya dabangg cheez ho tum ! Ekdum se aisa jhatka de diya, ki sab ko hilaa kar rakh diya!  Kyun chhamiya – itna gussa kis baat ka ??


Like Shahrukh ‘Don’ Khan’s ‘Junglee Billi’ –  in one fit of anger you’ve demolished all delusions we had about being your masters!


We thought we’d tamed you – we Zero sized you, by damming you up; weighed down your frail body by dumping all our kachra in you – and sat happily in our ivory towers thinking – bhookhi billi kya panja maregi??


Your long time, and some part time, lovers shouted themselves hoarse  trying to warn  us. They said, “ She might look emaciated and incapable of even looking after herself, but don’t forget – she’s basically a big boned woman! The day she gets a proper city woman’s diet of double the dose she actually needs – she’ll plump out nicely. She’ll spread out of the little black dresses, you’ve been force-fitting her into, to embarrass the living lights out of you !”


They told the honble judges and the honble leaders and the honble babus, that you’re not so honble… and so you need a big bed to sleep on. They  pleaded and fought and drove all the know-alls, bats, with their antics to stop anyone from sitting on your bed ! But the honble types looked on pityingly, and said – “ pyaar mein paglaa gaye hain bechare. Bolne do – inke dil ko sukoon milega. Phir bhool jao – apna apna kaam karo”  So they sat on your bed in droves – the unwanted poor of the city; the much hunted, but never found, Gods; and an entire city that came up for sportsmen who – now – would give away their gold medals to be anywhere but in this spanking new city!


Ok…ab samajh mein aaya – tujhe gussa kyun aaya – Tere aashikon kaa mazaak jo udaya ! Tabhi tune socha,, “chal bachchoo ek baar zara izzatdar logon ko, thodi beizzati ki jhalak dikha doon.” So first you put on all the weight you could – became this well-fed, poorly exercised, rich city woman- and then….you sat on your bed! You sat your big fat backside on all those who thought your bed was available for all.


Arre meri kadakti bijli – ab toh sab ko set kar diya hai na tune! Tere dar se aaj kal Chief Minster ko neend nahi aati – tu zara phailti hai, toh woh bahut sikudtin hain! Aur to aur aaj kal sare honble babu, Walkie Talkie, le kar ghoomte hain – tu aur chaudhi hokar, saari duniya ke saamne unki izzat ka aur falooda na kare, is dar se, teri diet par minute minute ki khabar rakhte hain !


Chal yaar, ab gussa thook de. Bahut dukhi hain bechaare. Hum bhi tere aashik hain puraane – zara hamari bhi sun le!


So, hello there…. all you honble types – how’bout striking a barter – Chulbuli Pandey has agreed to save you from international disgrace….. will you now, give her back, what is RIGHTFULLY hers?? .


Jyoti Sharma

The Annual Monsoon Mess – Can we do something to prevent this?



Jyoti Sharma, President FORCE posted this in Environment Protection, Jal Rakshak, Water Management, Water Wisdom on August 20th, 2010

Dear Jal Rakshaks


Indians down the ages have celebrated the first showers of the Monsoon rain. It brought with it the promise of a bountiful yield, joy and prosperity all around. It has been a major source of inspiration for Indian folklore and creative arts.  Even today, it has the power to make or break governments and economic indices in India.


From time immemorial, the monsoon has been coming every year – and yet it always seems to catch us unprepared. Infact, it seems that planning for the monsoon excess was better in the ancient times than it is now!


Today, monsoon reports are all about water logging, traffic jams, floods and droughts – the pleasure and poetry of this life giving rain is all gone!


It’s time for some honest introspection. Who is to blame – the government, the people, God or all us ??


Ultimately, it is us …the citizens…who suffer.


What do you think, we can do, to save ourselves from this misery ??

Click on the URL below to join in the Facebook group discussion on ‘ The Annual Monsoon Mess – Can citizens do something to prevent this?’

Did you read the newspaper today?


Jyoti Sharma, President FORCE posted this in Jal Rakshak, Water Management on June 14th, 2010

Did you read the newspaper today?

There were 2 articles that caught my attention—one was the  shutting down of water supply from UP to Delhi by 10,000 protesters in Ghaziabad to force the government to accept their demand for reservation ( Complete Story )


The other was a ‘Water Donation’ drive by residents of different localities in NOIDA and Delhi. ( Pg 8, Delhi Times TOI June 14, 2010 ). Residents ‘donated’ atleast one litre of water each which was collected in a mini-tanker and distributed in nearby slums.


The first was a bolt of thunder—to jerk us out of our complacence. A rude assertion of Water as a political Force , a blackmailing device….exposing the extreme vulnerability of a powerful city to an odorless, colorless liquid.


FORCE has been espousing the Gandhian model of ‘ WATER SECURITY’  – where every locality, village, district , city , state & Nation is sustainably self-sufficient in its water requirements. Each must create its own unique formula of demand supply balance that minimizes its dependence on external sources of water. Hopefully today’s protest will galvanize us all into immediate action on this.


The second article was diametrically the opposite of the first. This was a group of well provided for citizens who empathized with the water needs of the not so fortunate. They saw water as a Gift of God to be VOLUNTARILY SHARED with all.


As its scarcity increases, water is becoming like Nuclear Power—in the right hands, it can be life giving; in the wrong, it can cause unparalleled misery. It is up to us now to decide the direction our lives will take.


Take Care …..Jal Rakshaks…….SAVE WATER, SHARE WATER

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