By Dr. Hari Haran Chandra
They call it DEWS. It is something that politicians and senior bureaucrats at the helm of government and meteorologists look at, with some anxiety, every so often. The Drought Early Warning System (DEWS) offers a real-time drought monitoring platform in the country. Despite technological advancement, the fortunes of the economy depend on how the monsoon fares. Our cities and villages depend dearly on the blessings the monsoon bestows.
There are two things that are useful to bear in mind when it comes to rain. There are drought years like 2019 (even if it was officially not declared), and there are drought regions every year (even if it is not a ‘drought year’ for the country). Governments, naturally, play down the outbreak of such news, to avoid panic and concern among people. The year 2019, for example, saw four times the spatial extent of drought. That was also the year Chennai saw an alarming shortage of water with a 20-liter bucket of water for the poor, selling at Rs. 20-30. The middle class paid Rs. 500 plus for every thousand liters they secured by tankers of water that was muddy. They had no choice. The groundwater resources of Chennai saved the day that summer of 2019. And that sets us thinking about what we need to do for the very long term, while we address short-term crises.
Even as this column is written the ceaseless monsoon winds are poised for offering another year of reasonably healthy rains. As we have said in this series so far, there are two ways India can secure water security. [i] One is to ensure that solutions are localized to the extent possible (with rainwater harvesting, aerators that reduce water flow in taps, reuse of water with treatment). [ii] The other is to have the government pay attention to surface water management and recharge of groundwater in cities, coupled with a concerted attack on the massive loss of over 40 percent in distribution leakages. [iii] A third and enduring solution that has never secured attention from any state government in the last twenty years of the growing crisis of water availability, is the strengthening of the catchment of the rivers that offer water in every city.
Mid May 2022 has also seen the water ministry or Jal Shakti announcing the creation of a new National Water Policy for better use of the precious liquid across agriculture and urban sectors. It is also, finally, setting up a National Bureau of Water-use Efficiency—much like the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (that has brought some changes in the way that appliances we buy are rated, though there is much more that is needed in the energy sector). The new BWE will ensure that all water products meet certain sustainability norms on low-flow fixtures or on RO filtration and the dangerous levels of RO Reject water quality. What the vision, scope, and canvas of interventions the BWE will bring is not clear as yet.
The Jal Shakti ministry is also looking at creating capacity for treating wastewater up to about 36 billion liters across cities against the 75-80 billion liters of current, urban water use and daily discharge. A Chennai or a Bengaluru discharges daily about 1.5-2 billion liters while a Mumbai or NCR accounts for discharge of about twice as much.
Agriculture is another major area of concern and needs serious solution frameworks for the reduction of cultivation water—the sector consumes over 80 percent of freshwater. The twin-pronged ‘attack’ is therefore on used water in cities and cultivation water for farming. Drawing deep aquifer water for farms has led to a serious outbreak of diseases emerging from fluorosis, arsenic, nitrates, iron, and other metals that are stirred from the earth’s bowels by these borewells which go down a half kilometer and more in many parts of the Gangetic basin, too.
Late April 2022 saw the Prime Minister announcing that 60 rain-fed tanks will be created across every district in the country—that’s about 60,000 lakes across the country. Many kings and satraps down centuries had resorted to such creation of tanks in timeless India—and with dividends for the people that were rich and well beyond their own lives and times. So what the Jal Shakti ministry is launching is good, and we can only wish Godspeed to their resolve to implement it across states and districts.
This is extending to cities, too. Says Ashok Natarajan, a Chennai-based exponent of water conservation and a former CEO of the Tamilnadu Water Investment Company with two decades of useful contributions to water planning behind him, “The task force of the Government’s Amrut 2 program has set about implementing and guiding all 500 AMRUT cities in India for better water management of supply. The determination is evident. Officers need training in the government and the Ministry is doing its best.”
The architecture of water for over a thousand years has depended on rain-fed reservoirs and rivers. The last fifty years from about the mid-1970s saw the advent of a rash of projects for bringing river waters over a long distance with massive infrastructure spends. The turn of 1980 saw the advent of borewells and this age of groundwater decimation. It was an age of ecological innocence when planners, academia, and other experts simply didn’t know the impact all this was making on the earth’s ability to renew. Little did they realize between 1960-2000 the impact of ecology that dams and such drawing of river waters will wreak—or turned a blind eye for they were caught up in the obsession with GDP and ‘development’. That takes us to the third major intervention that should be taken up, now that the government is setting about the water mission in right earnest. This is an area that will require major focus: strengthening the catchments of every river that feeds our cities. This is not about money alone. “The complexity of biodiversity of our natural forests—or what is left of them—is beyond human understanding. All we can do is leave them alone, and nudge their growth with reforestation and afforestation,” says one of the few outspoken conservation scientists, TV Ramachandra, of the IISc’s Centre of Ecological Sciences, one of the few citadels of action research, that was founded by that doyen of ecology, Madhav Gadgil, in the early 1980s. Compensatory afforestation arrogates to itself an understanding of how forests work. He continues, “Wrong choice of species and large scale planting of exotic species have impacted people’s livelihoods, aggravated human-animal conflicts, perennial streams have become intermittent or seasonal streams, there are higher instances of mudslides and landslides.”
Planting ten trees for every ancient stand (30 years and over) in a forest that we decimate has disastrous consequences. Interjects a water policy expert, currently in office, and so wishes to remain unnamed, “The Ibsen-ist absurdity of clearing forest in extremely vulnerable ecozones of the Andamans and offering the sop of compensatory afforestation in districts of Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh defies comprehension.”
Wrote EO Wilson, one of the finest exponents of biodiversity who passed away just this last December 2021, said memorably, “If you care to look closely at Nature, every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?”
And the protection of such biodiverse forests in the sensitive catchment zones that feed rivers that in turn slake the thirst of billions in our cities will help urban India reach some accommodation with our forests. Mumbai’s water source, for example, is the catchment of Bhatsa, Middle and Upper Vaitarna, Tansa, and Modak Sagar in Thane and Nashik districts, to the east and northeast of the agglomeration, while Tulsi and Vihar, the two lakes located within city limits and inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, are major supports, too. Chennai’s lifeline is the region to its hinterland, which hosts the lakes of Poondi, Sholavaram, Red Hills, Chembarambakkam, and the Veeranam reservoir. Bangalore takes us to the catchments of both Coorg and Wynaud, while in Pune the degraded catchments of the westward flowing rivers of Mutha, Pavana and Mula continue to serve the city on the Deccan.
The story is the same in every town, small or big. Aurangabad to Gadag (Karnataka), Indore to Trichy, they all have bequeathed this legacy of dependence on long-distance sources that need to be strengthened. Says S Krishnan, a former water Board official in Chennai, “Augmenting’ water supply with more water from depleting rivers or reservoirs is devoid of meaning and significance if it is only to lay more pipes without working on the natural ecosystems to strengthen their ability to renew, regenerate. Somehow as engineers, we have not been heard by the government when such proposals are taken for enriching the upper catchments of our reservoirs.”
The story is better told by Pooja Agarwal, a water scientist who worked on the catchment deficits of the Cauvery after one of the regular outbreaks of riots between people on the borders of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. “We floated an online petition then with rounds on social media urging the authorities ‘to stop destroying the catchment areas of Cauvery’. A lasting solution is to create a concerted plan to the steadily growing degradation of vast tracts of the catchment areas in both Coorg and across the border in Kerala of the Wyanad region.” That petition put out in 2015, said the destruction of Shola grasslands at the source of Cauveryand in Wyanad was hurting the network of catchments.
The challenge seems obvious to people like Pooja. “It is not just about strengthening the catchment to offer more water for our cities. We have to stop the damage because they impact wildlife.” Much of this stretch from Coorg down south into Kerala’s Wyanad is an important corridor connecting this Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala with the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka, and the Aaralam Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala to the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary up north at the source of the Cauvery. “How can these tracts be left pristine to ensure the protection of ecology?” asks Pooja. The story is not any different in each of the other catchment zones across cities and rivers that feed them.
We will leave the last word to that indefatigable champion, TV Ramachandra, “The custodians of forests have failed us over the last half-century in protecting forest ecosystems. Inclusion of all vegetation under the guise of ‘tree cover’ will only distort the actual status of forests,” He emphasizes with his usual passion, “Forests form vital ecosystems in sustaining water in aquatic ecosystems. Water sustenance in streams and rivers depends on the integrity of the catchment, as vegetation helps in retarding the velocity of water by allowing impoundment and recharging of groundwater through infiltration.” This is not easily understood by most administrators, and it has therefore not secured attention and budgets.
He adds, “As water moves in the terrestrial ecosystem, part of it percolates, while another portion gets back to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration. Forests with native vegetation act as a sponge by retaining and regulating water transfer between land and atmosphere.”
And in the context of a river’s headwaters that such forests form, TVR (as he is known to his students and to people outside) says, “An undisturbed native forest has a consistent hydrologic regime with sustained flows during lean seasons. Native species of vegetation help in recharging groundwater, mitigating floods and other hydro-ecological processes.”
There is no want of evidence. Many studies have pointed out the other advantages. Crop yield is higher in agriculture fields due to efficient pollination with the prevalence of diverse pollinators in the vicinity of native forests. And if only officers in the irrigation and agricultural ministries work with agro scientists to offer new crop patterns for farmers in the irrigated belts of these rivers, the quantum of water consumed by irrigation can potentially drop by as much as 30 percent – water that could be used for urban needs. Paddy and wheat as staple foods have to change to water-efficient foods like millets. Sugarcane plantations consume way more water and make soils saline. The poisoning of soils with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has to give way to new regimes for farmers.
The new water policy is looking at the right things. Obviously, the central government is seized of the challenge. Now it is time for greater focus, resolve, and good implementation on the ground without the usual inefficiencies.
About the Author
Dr. Hari Haran Chandra is a Trustee at INHAF, Prem Jain Memorial Trust, AltTech Foundation; and a Senior Fellow at the Indian Green Building Council.
WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, and Hyderabad; and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.
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