Water Scarcity and Our Existence - Now or Never

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Can we think of life without water? Certainly not. Water has been undeniably the most precious gift by the nature. One can’t imagine the existence of life without water. Whether it be terrestrial, aquatic or amphibians or plant kingdom, everyone needs water to stay alive. In ancient era, civilizations flourished along the river for the same reason.

Can we think of life without water? Certainly not. Water has been undeniably the most precious gift by the nature. One can’t imagine the existence of life without water. Whether it be terrestrial, aquatic or amphibians or plant kingdom, everyone needs water to stay alive. In ancient era, civilizations flourished along the river for the same reason.

Off and on, the voices have been raised from various quarters about the decreasing availability of water and to promote the methods of its conservation. Suddenly the water has become a buzzword since the Prime Minister of India expressed his deep concern and appealed all the celebrities and intellectuals to join the campaign and aware the masses about the issue of availability of water. The drivers of water demands have been agriculture, domestic, energy production and industries. Widening gap between the availability and demand of water has created tension between the nations and even within the states of a country. India has been at loggerheads with China and Pakistan over the distribution of water from the rivers falling within their boundaries. Similarly, the water has been the contentious factor behind the inter-state disputes in India as evident from the tension between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka or Delhi and Haryana.

Drying river.Drying river.

Why suddenly, this issue has gained so much of prominence? It is not so; this is actually the manifestation of deepening concern of the last few decades when certain parts of our country have been acutely grappling with the scarcity of water. This is not an issue confined to a particular area. Instead, in the recent years, per capita availability of water has emerged as a grave concern across the globe and especially in the developing countries like India where population density has escalated like anything and results into the dried-up earth and difficulty to fulfill the requirement of water.

You all are aware how Marathwada region of Maharashtra is crippling with the shortage of water. A news had flashed recently which frightened me from inside thinking that how dreadful would be the life of next generation. The news was that in a village of Marathwada people are using the used water for bath. A member of a family sits on a cot and places a pot below the cot to collect the same water which a member has used for bathing, this used water will again be utilized by another member of the family and this process will continue till all the members of a family have their bath from the same used water!!!!

In this column I am discussing the situation of our country and particularly about Bihar. The states of our country are full of diversities in terms geographical characteristics including the spatial variability of water. Water availability per person is dependent upon the population and hence, water availability per capita has been progressively diminishing due to population load. The grimness of the situation can be assessed from the fact that at the National level the average annual per capita water availability in the years 2001 and 2011 was about 1820 cubic meters1 and 1544 cubic meters respectively which may reduce further to 1341 and 1140 in the years 2025 and 2050 respectively. When we turn to the flashback, we can imagine the abundance of availability which was about 5178 cubic m per year in 1951 and it indicates how with the time the luxury of having water would be a tale of the past.

Technically, annual per-capita water availability of less than 1700 cubic meters is considered as water stressed condition, whereas annual per-capita water availability below 1000 cubic meters is considered as a water scarcity condition. Due to spatial variation of precipitation, the many regions of India have been considered as water stressed/water scarce regions. Due to the huge load of population, the demand of water and consequent over extraction of ground water has placed Bihar under water stressed region. It can be understood from the fact shared by different sources that the gross per capita water availability in Bihar reduces from about 1,9502 cubic meters/year in 2001 to 12003 cubic meters in 2011 and may go down to about 1,170 cubic meters/year in 2050.

Old-style tubewell.Old-style tubewell.

Some of the states in India have traditionally been placed under water stressed region. Bihar once abundant with good level of ground water is now gradually earning the recognition as a water stressed region. It happened primarily due to improper use of water, erratic rainfall, rampant deforestation, contamination of water and lack of its conservation.

The state has been mostly dependent upon the ground water to fulfil its requirement of domestic or agricultural use. The rampant private boring and tube wells have severely depleted the level of ground water. The situation has got worsened for the last few years especially in urban areas, the level of groundwater has menacingly gone down. People remain in queue before handpumps and taps installed by the government. They scuffle with each other to get the water and sometimes the situation turns violent.

Rainfall is the biggest source of the recharging of the groundwater. However, the pattern of rainfall has not been consistent in the last few years. If we see the statistics of rainfall in this region during last two decades, below-normal rainfall has been recorded, particularly, the years of 2004, 2009-10, 2015 and 2018 have seen a dismal precipitation. With the reducing precipitation, water bodies have dried up and recharging of ground water has been at stake. At some places the level of groundwater is so low that the handpumps and borewells have stopped running the water and people are either going far away to collect the water or are forced to collect the water from unhygienic sources. Not only the human beings but animals are wandering in search of water or dying thirsty. It has adversely affected the agricultural yield and agriculture has no more been a lucrative means of livelihood. Water bodies are dried up and irrigation through tube wells costs exorbitant for the poor.

Though, the forest cover in the state has been around 7 percent, the deforestation in the recent years has been quite visible. In the name of infrastructure creation to meet the requirement of the population, irreversible damage has been caused to the environment. With the expansion of urban areas, trees have been felled indiscriminately and it has resulted into the scorching summers, decreasing water retention capacity of soil and more importantly, rain deficit year by year.

Unplanned urbanization and lack of waste disposal system have also added fuel to the fire in the escalation of pollution. Pollutants in the form of plastic and other waste have not only spoilt the quality of water, they have also jeopardized the existence of water bodies. Such contamination has reduced the usability of water in spite of its availability and people are forced to use the polluted water. Many districts of Bihar have harmful chemicals like arsenic and fluoride in water which badly affect the health of the users. An initiative recently taken by the state government to ban the use of plastics has been a praiseworthy step. However, it would be premature to remark on how effectively it has been enforced. Worse, the rampant encroachment of water bodies has cast a shadow on the existence of rivulets and natural water bodies. A recent example is about a rivulet used to flow across the city of today’s Patna got extinct due to illegal encroachment. I am sure the new generation would hardly believe that a drain stuffed with garbage was once a rivulet and a source of water for the nearby inhabitants. There are several instances of such illegal occupation resulted into the extinction of the water bodies in Bihar.

Inadequate management of water has also been a biggest concern in Bihar. Illegal connection of water supply is usually visible in urban areas which are ignored by the urban local bodies. On the other hand, users are not sensitive enough to use the precious resource judiciously and make aware the people who are not known to the imminent problem. We often see how apartment dwellers recklessly misuse the water in washing their vehicles and campus and how in urban slums running water from the pipe goes to the drain. This is the sheer responsibility of local bodies to curb the misuse of water with awareness and stringent actions, if required.

MGNREGA could have been a better channel which has been mandated to focus on water conservation, drought proofing and renovation of water bodies including desilting of tanks. However, the performance of MGNREGA has not been much encouraging in Bihar and in the past a controversy was also reported in its implementation. The government needs to promote the project like Jal Sanchay, especially in drought prone districts. The Jal Sanchay was implemented in Nalanda district where check dams were constructed as well as traditional system of irrigation was accorded equal significance. The project resulted into the improved conservation of water in the district. It was identified as one of the successful methods of water conservation by the central government.

TubewellTubewell

Considering the gravity of the situation, it is the opportune time to address the issue of quantity and quality of water. The Government of Bihar under its seven-resolve program (Saat Nischay Karyakram) has been trying to ensure the availability of drinking water through piped water supply, however, it is regrettable to share that the Government itself has recently expressed anguish over the misuse of drinking water under this scheme.

If the Government is keen on conserving water, it will have to adopt two-pronged strategy - one is to enforce the strict law over the misuse of water and fix the accountability of the department concerned and secondly, intensive awareness campaign about the repercussions of shrinking water table and how to promote the sensible use of water.

In addition, to conserve the surface water as well as ground water interdepartmental coordination and the commitment at the level of the state government is indispensable, for instance, Public Health & Engineering department, Rural Development, Water Resources and Forest department should work closely to improve the quality and enhance the quantity of ground water. Through Rural works, MGNREGA can be effectively used for water conservation in water scarce areas and promote the pilot as done in Nalanda, while Water Resources department should properly care and desilt the rivers and canals and the department of Forest should put the efforts to curb the illegal felling of trees in the name of development. The government must focus on making the water harvesting system mandatory the system, especially in urban area. Similarly, private boring for personal use must be restricted to reduce the unwanted extraction of ground water and local bodes should ensure the timely availability of water to the households. The drafted water policy of the state should be promulgated with the commitment wherein the community-based management of water and sanitation is more talked about. We really need to wake up now because if not now, then never!!!!!


[1] http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=168727

[2] https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/qualitative-and-quantitative-water-scarcity-issues-bihar-presentation

[3]  https://www.gwp.org/globalassets/global/gwp-sas_files/cwp-reports/report-on-review-of-draft-bihar-state-water-policy-in-line-with-national-water-policy-2012-in-context-of-climate-change

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