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By WaterAid India

My work took me back to Bihar in May this year. Coincidentally, it was during last May that I had visited Gaya and met with families badly affected by fluoride contamination. It was the turn of deadly arsenic this time. We were in a village in Mohaddinagar Vidhan Sabha constituency, which falls under Samastipur district. We met a group of about 40 people, majorly comprising of women and children, many of them showing signs of severe Arsenicosis, blotched body skin, knots under their feet and palms, swollen feet and arms. Two scientists also accompanied us from the reputed Mahavir Cancer Institute of Patna. Looking at many of these boys and girls, the scientists said that many of them would not survive beyond 10-15 years maximum. Almost every second household had a patient dead or dying of cancer. About 65 villages or habitations in the district were officially declared arsenic affected long ago, but no remedial action had been taken to provide people with alternative sources of safe water. The class-caste difference in all this tragedy was discernible. Right in the middle of this rural hinterland, we found a truck loaded with 20 liter jerry cans full of water for those households, which could afford to buy them. Something we city people find normal. Predictably enough, it was the poor and the dalit communities who, without any such means were forced to drink the same contaminated water despite knowing that the water was doing something terrible to them.

While many action points were charted out in the hour-long meeting, what kept haunting me was the image of those young boys and girls with swollen feet and blotched skin and the truck full of jerry cans. Such a sharp contrast! Between haves and have-nots! What is the responsibility of the haves amidst all this? Even in cities, while the poor go beyond their means to buy potable water (very often at much higher prices), the middle classes and the rich barely even register the crisis beyond their nose. Amidst all this comes the recent Niti Aayog’s doomsday forecast about groundwater running out of 21 major cities by 2020. The fact that about 50% of water supply in urban areas comes from groundwater becomes more poignant in this context. The larger lesson is that if not for the poor, the middle and the richer sections of society have to wake up for their own sake.

As if to prove the doomsday theories about “Day Zero”, recently the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), in charge of supplying water to the denizens of the capital, pleaded before the Delhi High Court that the central government be asked to supervise water supply from Haryana to Delhi. While arguing against any reduction in the water level of the Wazirabad reservoir, the DJB painted an alarming picture. It said that the areas, which would be affected by the water crisis, include large parts of Lutyens’ Delhi, home to VVIPs, including the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Prime Minister’s residence, and the bungalows of the Supreme Court and High Court judges as well as central ministers.

Therefore, if you remain sleeping about those have not, one day you are likely to be jolted rudely.

But what could we individuals do to avert this looming water crisis?

While there could be a range of things citizens in partnership with the governments can do, let us look at a few stories, giving us a glimpse of what is possible.

Tamil Nadu has been a trendsetter in rainwater harvesting, making it mandatory for all buildings as far back as 2003. Today, according to the State government website, out of the 23.92 lakh buildings in town Panchayats (government, residential, commercial and industrial), 22.94 lakh have rainwater harvesting facilities. This would not be possible without an active citizenry.

In Thrissur, Kerala, we have rooftops that recharge 4.5 lakh wells. During the rainy season, the rooftop rainwater is led through pipes with a filter at the end. This filtered rainwater is directed to open dug wells to replenish the underground aquifers. In such recharged wells, during hot summers, there is adequate water. It not only helps with the abundance of water but in coastal areas, this system helps to reduce the salinity, turbidity, and color of the well water as well. The rooftop is cleaned before the first rain (in June, and the rainy season extends to November), following which other impurities are cleared out and then the water harvested is pure. Once again, a story of collective enterprise, poor, the rich and those in the middle, all part of it. During just one season, in two Gram Panchayats of Palakkad, Kerala, WaterAid India, and its partners worked with the local communities to harvest, more than 17 million liters of water through bore well recharge.

In Bengaluru, citizens have installed smart water meters to keep track of water consumption in their apartments. This not only helps them manage their usage but also keeps a watch on excess consumption at any particular time. About 6,000 to 8,000 homes under the Bangalore Apartment Federation have installed meters since September 2018, which has reduced their water consumption by 30-35 percent.

WaterAid India has recently entered into a partnership with Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB) to run a citywide campaign bringing resident welfare associations, schools and universities, offices and slums to develop a plan for water conservation. The deal is that water saved or harvested would be used for underserved areas. That is where you bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. A similar campaign is being run in the city of Lucknow. In another district of Banda in Uttar Pradesh, Sarpanches of all the 471 Gram Panchayats have vowed to revive or restore at least one water body during the current year. This is being ably led by the district administration.

Avinash Kumar is Director – Programme, and Policy at WaterAid India.

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