India’s water crisis is result of poor management, solution requires popular participation

gangaBy Sadhan Mukherjee*

India is now facing a massive water crisis despite having considerable rainfall, huge perennial glaciers and so many rivers as well as a large number of lakes. We have seven major rivers with their thousands of tributaries.

These rivers originate either from the Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges; or Vindhya and Satpura ranges as well as the Chotanagpur plateau, or the Western Ghats. Most of them drain into Bay of Bengal and some into the Arabian Sea. Much of the waters from the rivers go waste and what is tragic is that much of the available waters are not usable.

India’s water crisis has emerged due to bad or lack of water management and we are facing a disastrous situation.

Fair amount of precipitation

India’s average annual rainfall is 1083 mm. In Cherrapunji, the average annual rainfall crosses 11,000 mm. The national average of precipitation is not small considering the dimension of the country and the average volume of rainfall. But much of it goes waste since there is no planned rainwater harvesting yet. We have nearly 2500 dams and barrages. They have done some very useful work for irrigation but some of them were ill-planned and some have become old.

Water-starved nation

“India is a seriously water-stressed nation, and is faced with the prospect of becoming the planet’s most populous country by 2050, with an estimated population of 1.6 billion, while only having 4 per cent of the world’s water resources,” says a Greenpeace report.

It also says that in some areas, “Coal mining, especially open-cast mining, is responsible for complete environmental destruction, and has huge impacts on local water resources; groundwater needs to be pumped out of the ground, forests need to be cut down and fertile top soil are removed in order to access the coal; and in the process destroying valuable underground aquifers, streams and rivers.”

According to an estimate (“The Times of India”, 23 May 2017) by 2020 India may run out of usable water as by that time its total water consumption will rise to 1093 bcm (billion cubic meters) while the total usable water availability will remain at 1123 bcm. So the limit to usable water is fast reaching.

What is even more tragic is while fresh water resources in India amount to 4000 bcm, as much as 1047 bcm is lost due to evaporation, some 1084 bcm is nonusable while 1869 bcm is available including 395 bcm of ground water.

Time-tested water conservation

Our ancient culture taught us to respect and honour water. That is why before bath, a mantra used to be recited in olden times that said “Gange cha Yamune chaiva Godavari Sindhu Kaaveri, Jalesmin Sannidhim Kuru” which meant in this water I invoke the presence of holy waters from these rivers. No wonder, India’s civilisation for yon was located along the rivers.

The Indus Valley civilisation that flourished on the banks of the river Indus and other parts of western and northern India had built a highly sophisticated urban water supply and sanitation scheme. This can be seen in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Similar planning can be seen in the remains of Dholavira city of Kutch, Gujarat.

One of the oldest water harvesting systems can be seen at Naneghat, about 130 km from Poone in the Western Ghats. A large number of tanks were cut into the rocks to provide water to travellers. Every fort in this area had rock cut cisterns, ponds and wells.

In Western Rajasthan, in olden times houses were built in such a manner as to have a set rain harvest system. Though Rajasthan has very little precipitation, rain water was directed into underground tanks. There were also earthen pipes and tunnel placed underground to maintain water flow as well as to transport it to distant places. The same can still be seen at Burhanpur (MP), Golconda (AP), Bijapur (Kantataka) and Aurangabad (Maharshtra).

These modalities of water preservation have been abandoned slowly over the years. Whatever is the method of water supply, modern or old, water needs to be preserved in a planned manner to meet the growing demand of people.

India’s poor record

One reason for water sources vanishing is the global warming; another cause is our unplanned mining and other industrial activities; and third is the urban growth with natural soil being covered up with cement and huge multi-storey buildings built to meet the needs of housing.

More importantly, however, one needs to look at the quality of water available in India. We stand at number 120 among the 122 countries rated on quality of drinking water. It is estimated by Azad India Foundation that even some two decades earlier only about 68% households had access to safe drinking water. Today, with the rise in population, the situation has worsened though the installed capacity has increased.

Of the 1.42 million villages in India, nearly two lakhs are affected by chemical contamination. In many places river water is unfit for drinking. Nearly 38 million people, of whom 75% are children, are affected by water-borne diseases.

All our metropolitan cities are in dire straits due to shortage of water. There is no drinking water available for days together. Even when some water is available, it comes in driblets, not as free flow. Moreover in many cases the water is not safe.

There is excessive content of fluoride in the water. Also arsenic in ground water is another huge risk for people in some districts of West Bengal. In some areas of Delhi, MP, UP, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Tamilnadu high nitrate content has been found in groundwater.

Till the 10th plan the government had spent Rs 1,105 billion on drinking water schemes. Bulk of it had to be borne by the poorer people. They pay a heavier price spending around Rs 6700 crore annually on treatment of waterborne diseases.

More than 90% of lakes in Bangalore are polluted including the one called the frothing lake which is so mixed up with chemical effulgent that it is foaming all the time and sometimes even catches fire. That is not all. Since the city suffers from water scarcity, water mafia here pumps out the water from lakes unauthorisedly and sell the water to the city dwellers.

Much of the water in Delhi’s open water bodies is horribly polluted. So it is in Mumbai. In fact most areas where we have open water bodies, the water is polluted. Some lake areas are also encroached upon.

Since the water quality has deteriorated all over the country, the restoration of water bodies brooks no delay. It is also necessary to make alternate or supplementary supply of potable water.

Dead river brought to life

People’s participation in rejuvenating water bodies often brings wonderful results as the revival of a dead manmade river in Kerala has shown.

The Kuttamperoor stream in the Alappuzha district of Kerala connecting the Pampa and Achankovil rivers has been long dead. It has now been resuscitated by the efforts of Budhanur gram panchayat.

According to a report in “The Indian Express” (8 May) by Nandini Rathi & Shaju Philip, this great job was done by 700 local people organised by the panchayat.  They were funded by the MGNREGA scheme.

The Kuttamperoor stream was in fact a canal built by the people. It was once 12 km long and at places almost 100 ft wide. Wide–bodied vessels once carried items of trade and daily necessities. Besides, it irrigated 2000 acres of paddy fields. It was truly a lifeline for the local people and also a source of entertainment as the venue of boat race. It was also a flood control channel.

All that changed over the years. Modern transportation by road eliminated waterborne trade and commerce. Coupled with rapid urbanisation and neglect, the once clean river began its slow journey to death. The once free flowing waterway got blocked with weeds and vegetation. Three bridges were built on it severely restricting its flow.

The river soon became a giant garbage bin. Coupled with illegal sand mining, its banks were dug up to mine clay for brick clines. There were massive encroachments as well and to add to all that woe chemical fertilisers from fields and sewage flowed into the water body. It was literally choked to death.

The river remained as a garbage bin for over two decades and slowly lost its water flow. The water channel at places got reduced to 10-15 ft and became a cesspool.

In 2013 a move was initiated to revive the river. A dry spell in the area gave the move a further push. Funding became a big problem for cleaning up the mess. Finally the panchayat took the initiative. In December 2016 the work was brought under the MGNREGA scheme.

Some 700 workers, mostly women, began on 15 January 2017 to clean up the river to restore its flow. After 30,000 man-hours of labour, the job was completed on 20 March and water again flowed uninterrupted. The river was restored. So much so, according to reports, fish has now started to reappear. What is even more heartening is that water levels in neighbouring wells and ponds have risen. The panchayat is now planning to clean up the ducts that carried water to paddy fields for better irrigation.

The panchayat has now become a model to harness people’s cooperation for betterment of the area’s social and economic life. Such effort needs to be duplicated elsewhere.

A similar attempt is being made in Karnataka (Hindustan Times 13.5.17) in which some 3000 women have united to revive a dried lake, several ponds and other water bodies spread over 31 villages. So far, the state administration has been lackadaisical in helping them. Now these people are trying to force the government to pay them under MGNREGA.

Global warming

The effects of global warming is being seen everywhere. In Canada, a huge river, Slims, which measured up to 150 m at its widest, has just vanished.

The reason is that the river that was fed for hundreds of years by the melt-water northwards from the vast Kaskawulsh glacier has suffered intense melting. It resulted in the shifting of the drainage gradient to another river redirecting the melt-water to empty finally into Gulf of Alaska.

Earlier, the Slims River met Yukon River and emptied into the Bering Sea. In its long journey, the river fed many areas and many people; now it has a short journey and the benefits to the people have been snatched away by nature.

In Delhi itself, the Lake in the Old Fort which was fed by the subterranean water of the Yamuna River has dried up as the natural feeding process has stopped and Yamuna itself has shifted its course and is drying up.

Delhi and several other places in India had baolis or step wells to preserve water. Most of these have gone dry. These baolis were fed by natural springs. But these have disappeared though one or two have since been revived.

The UN is has held a conference in New York on 5 May to discuss this growing danger.

Development vs nature

The second part of the problem is even more difficult in terms of perception between the demands of industrialisation and preservation of nature.

For example, Chirimiri is one of India’s biggest coalfields with an estimated reserve of over 310 million tonnes. Besides the original inhabitants of the area, many workers have come to work in the coalfield.

Natural springs lost

Their drinking water need until now was met by natural springs in the Hasdeo River valley where the coalfield is located.  But intensive mining has disturbed the geology of the area and some 250 natural springs have vanished in the last 70 years.


Blasting and drilling have severely affected the movement of water in the underground aquifers affecting the flow of water in the springs. The coalfields management is bringing some water from the Surbhoka dam but it is not enough. Now there are about 30 springs left and people draw water from them. But for how long will they remain if the mining goes on apace?

Shortage of water

All our major urban centres are suffering from shortage of water, for both for drinking as well as household needs. In Delhi it is a common problem that many colonies and other residential areas go with water for days together. It also seen that residents try to get water tankers to their homes to meet their need of water. The problem grows manifold during the summer.

Water disputes

Recently there has been an intensification of a problem that has been faced by many countries over the years. This has become quite acute in our sub-continent.

The issue is about the ownership or control over the river water.  Is it only the country where the river originates or the country through which it passes has the right to decide on its use or all countries involved. In some cases it is highly complicated where three or four countries are involved. The problem is both inter-country as well as inter-state.

In our country the problem is very acute. We have water sharing issues with Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We have inter-state water disputes, e.g., in West Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and so on.

Some make-shift arrangements have been made. But it needs a long-term and equitable solution, taking into account the needs of the people in each state.

*Veteran journalist


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