Let’s get serious about conserving water

A Narayanamoorthy | Updated on March 19, 2021

Too precious a commodity to waste.   -  The Hindu

With water scarcity on the rise, India must act quickly on de-silting dams and shifting to less water-intensive crops

World Water Day is celebrated every year on March 22. This year’s theme is aptly titled ‘Valuing water’, as it has enormous and complex value for households, the economy and the environment. But the news coming from different parts of the country on the water front is not encouraging — roads are blocked by women holding empty buckets demanding drinking water; city dwellers are not getting regular water supply; conflicts between States over water sharing are on the rise; and farmers are protesting for water.

The NITI Aayog report on ‘Composite Water Management Index (2018)’ underlines that over 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. According to a report of the World Bank, the amount of water currently available to an individual will fall below half of the 1,588 cubic meters per year by 2030. This will create unimaginable disaster for the majority people in India.

Another World Bank report, ‘High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy’, warns that the countries facing severe water scarcity are likely to face a 6 per cent fall in their GDP by 2050s. In such circumstances, can we talk about water shortage only when it occurs?

Fast developments

The average water levels in dams in June, just before the onset of monsoon, has been declining year after year. This is evident from the report of the Central Water Commission on the storage level of 91 major dams. There have been shocking reports that perennial rivers like the Ganga, Godavari and Krishna have dried up in many places in recent years.

The Central Groundwater Board’s estimates show that the groundwater table in most part of the country has been declining every year because of over-exploitation. If the groundwater continues to decline unabated, meeting the country’s agricultural and drinking water requirements will become a big challenge; 85 per cent of rural water supply, 45 per cent of urban water supply and over 64 per cent of irrigation now rely on groundwater.

Due to accumulation of sediments in the water storage area of major and medium irrigation dams that are currently in use, the total storage capacity has fallen significantly. This is clearly underlined in the report ‘Compendium of Silting of Reservoirs in India’, released by the Central Water Commission in 2020. Many unprecedented changes are continuously reducing the total water available for future use.

Who can forget the year of 2016, when nearly 25 per cent of India’s population living in 254 districts across 10 States suffered severe water shortages due to drought. Maharashtra and Gujarat in particular were badly hit. The government had to take unprecedented measures to save people from the grip of drought. From about 300 km, five lakh litres of drinking water was brought to Latur district of Maharashtra by trains to distribute to the people. But few remember those traumatic days. The demand for water is increasing at a faster rate due to changes in economic growth and the ever-increasing population. According to an estimate released by the Water Resources Ministry, a big demand-supply gap for water is going to happen by 2050. There is a compelling need to save water and increase its storage capacity. But without considering all this, farmers are increasingly allocating more area for cultivating water-intensive crops.

For instance, despite facing severe water scarcity, sugarcane area in Maharashtra has increased from 4.44 lakh hectares to 11.62 lakh hectares between 1990-91 and 2018-19, an increase of 162 percent. Isn’t the wrong pricing policy announced for different crops by the successive governments the major reason for this?

As India’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, we need to set right the issue of water scarcity before it inflicts irreparable damage.

Towards the future

Water has become a costly commodity today because of the careless attitude of all the stakeholders. It is time every drop of rainwater is saved for the benefit of society at large. As predicted, climate change is already causing major changes in rainfall levels, with the quantum received in a day rising substantially in recent years. Such a pattern is responsible for the unprecedented floods in Mumbai in 2005, Chennai in 2015, and Hyderabad in 2020. This being the case, the dams that can store more water needs to be constructed.

The Minor Irrigation Census of India reports that there are a total of about 6.42 lakh tanks, lakes and ponds in India. Due to the lack of proper maintenance, the water storage capacity of these small water bodies has fallen steeply. The Standing Committee on Water Resources (2012-13), in its 16th report, underlined that these waterbodies have been heavily encroached upon and even destroyed in many places. Immediate action must be take to remove such encroachments.

Also, steps should be taken to remove silt deposited in the water storage areas of the dams. We cannot fight the monster of poverty with looming water scarcity. Water is increasingly becoming scarcer and if we overlook its value, irreparable damage will be caused to both humans and the environment.

The writer is former Member (Official), CACP. The views are personal

Published on March 19, 2021

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