India thirsting for a solution to water crisis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2008, 12:00am

A retired teacher in the New Delhi suburb of Vasant Kunj, Anita Duggal, has access to water from the tap for just two hours a day. In that time, family members quickly bathe. Then she fills huge plastic buckets so they can later wash their hands and dishes and flush the toilet.

In rural India, women measure their lives by the four-hour walk they take each day to fetch a few litres of water.

Urban or rural, rich or poor, it makes little difference. Indians are beginning to experience equality in the lack of water. Experts predict chronic shortages will turn cities into ghost towns in a few decades, their inhabitants driven out by dry taps.

Anxious to see first-hand how the water crisis was affecting lives, journalist Nitya Jacob travelled 6,000km across India and found the stark contrasts that the country is so famous for - villagers eking out two tubfuls of water while the rich soak their lawns with sprinklers and wash their cars once a day.

Writing about his experiences in Jalyatra: Exploring India's Traditional Water Management Systems, just published by Penguin, Jacob predicts that the capital, which has seen riots over power cuts, will one day experience water riots.

'The shortage has reached critical levels. Enduring power cuts is miserable, but you can't live for a day without water,' he said.

City dwellers are quick to come to blows over water. Anyone suspected of stealing even a drop that is not strictly theirs can expect to feel the wrath of neighbours.

Private tankers ferrying water to homes where the municipal supply has dried up are a common sight. Even parts of Juhu in Mumbai, where Bollywood stars live in luxury homes overlooking the sea, have access to tap water just two hours a day.

In a 2006 report, the World Bank warned that conflicts caused by severe water shortages could plague India in coming decades as rivers dry up, groundwater is depleted and canals become polluted.

Demand for water is rising rapidly because of India's growing population of 1.2 billion and high economic growth. The report predicted that the availability of surface and groundwater would decline to less than 80 cubic kilometres in 2050, from about 500 cubic kilometres in 2006. India's annual water consumption in 2006 touched 829 billion cubic metres. By 2050, demand is expected to double and exceed 1.4 trillion cubic metres.

Householders in Delhi are feeling the pinch. Though it is illegal, they have been digging bores in the grounds of their homes for decades to offset the unreliable municipal supply. These days, they have to dig very deep to hit water - evidence that the water table is falling.

At this rate, groundwater could be used up so fast that scarcity could threaten whole regions. In the worst-case scenario, people will be driven off the land and India will struggle to feed its citizens.

Since becoming aware of the water crisis, Jacob has started using only half a bucket of water to clean his family's two cars, turns the tap off while shaving and brushing his teeth, and has installed dual flush toilets in his home.

But as he travelled around the country, he saw very few signs of people being aware of the need for water preservation. Affluent neighbourhoods in urban areas are installing gigantic iron gates to keep out the hoi polloi but few residents' associations are organising rain harvesting.

The same lack of awareness afflicts poor farmers, who over-irrigate their fields. Agriculture consumes about 80 per cent of India's water.

'None of the farmers I met had ever been told how much water they needed to give their crops. They know about seeds and pesticides, but not about water,' Jacob said. 'So what little water there is, is being wasted on a colossal scale. India's water problems are largely the result of poor management of water resources.'

India's 'Green Revolution' four decades ago, which turned parts of the north into the nation's breadbasket, was based on farmers using high-yield crops requiring intensive irrigation.

Farmers sank millions of tube wells and, with free electricity, they pumped water from the wells into their fields around the clock. 'What you had is the groundwater levels in many areas falling by several hundred feet,' Jacob said. 'The Green Revolution is the single largest cause of the depletion of water.'

The government has no policy for the catastrophe that could lie ahead and appears to be impervious to the data from its own ministries. The Ministry of Water Resources, for example, has ranked 80 per cent of groundwater resources in just one state - Rajasthan - as 'over-exploited' and nearly 34 per cent as 'dark/critical'. Yet no policy has been formulated to tackle the crisis.

There are signs of restlessness now emerging. Last month, Communist Party activists disrupted traffic and burned tyres in protest at the water shortage in Bihar, eastern India, where homes had been without water for a week in raging summer heat.

In Gurgaon, a bustling new township outside the capital where massive shopping malls and commercial complexes are sprouting up by the day, 34 residents' associations have sought the Supreme Court's help.

They have petitioned the court to stop the proliferation of commercial complexes and save Gurgaon from 'complete disaster' because unplanned development has pushed groundwater levels down to desperate levels.

'We get a trickle of water for 30 minutes a day. You come home from work hot and exhausted, and can't even have a shower. All we think about - all we talk about - is water,' Gurgaon resident Devindra Singh, a garment exporter, said. Residents also complained to the court that the local government had taken no steps to recharge groundwater or harvest rain water.

This modern failure to conserve rain water astonishes Jacob. In researching his book he discovered that India had a 5,000-year-old tradition of water conservation. Each region had evolved its own methods for capturing rain water.

'Each monsoon, villagers saw how the water flowed and where it accumulated. They built tanks and channels using local materials and local skills. They were experts in water management, but that knowledge has been lost.'

For some, the water crisis is not just some future abstraction. The people of Bundelkhand district in Madhya Pradesh are unable to marry off their daughters because prospective spouses hear of the region's water shortage and cry off.

Om Prakash Tiwari, a timber merchant, had to call off his daughter's wedding because he had no water for the 100 guests.

He had been hoping that municipal officials would give him a tanker, but two days beforehand they informed him that all the tankers were going to a 'VIP'.

Embarrassed at the prospect of being waterless in front of so many guests, he postponed the wedding at the last minute.