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.

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