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India’s Water Woes

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Supporting a population base of over 1.2 billion people are India’s fragile river systems that are on the brink of, or perhaps already are, an ecological disaster. Contaminated with untreated industrial and human waste, in many places the rivers waters are considered unfit for bathing, leave alone drinking. To compound the problem further, India’s ground water is falling at an alarming level, in some places going down 1 – 3 meters a year. The World Bank has predicted that India’s ground water table may even dry up in 12 – 15 years time. Acute water shortage may cripple the bustling nation’s peace and progress in times to come. Yet there seems little focus in the media on such a critical issue and activism or initiatives around the cause seem at best marginal. There is a need to bring the issue to the forefront so that the underlying causes can be addressed, while there still is time. What could be done to make safe and plentiful water a reality for the common man?

In terms of falling ground water table, a problem indeed in most parts of the world today, a key reason is poor agricultural practices. India’s agriculture still depends upon small scattered farms producing traditional crops using ground water for irrigation. As per election freebees, water and power are given free to farmers and they have little incentive to conserve the precious resource. India underwent a green revolution a few decades back which led to spurt in agricultural output but not enough attention was paid to water conservation in terms of crops selection or irrigation practices. India now needs a blue revolution in its agriculture to bring about optimum use of water and that would mean changing cropping patters to suit the natural climate and rainfall as well as consolidation of farms to improve efficiency. So long as agriculture revolves around tiny farms, it is hard to educate individual farmers or effectively bring about a change. In the present scenario, farming is also a non remunerative business only providing bare minimum sustenance to the famers often resulting in large number of suicides in several regions. A cooperative movement may be the need of the hour to amalgamate farms such that larger farms may be able to use machinery as well as technical knowhow for better productivity and efficient use of natural resources like water. There have been some such cooperative movements in the past which have borne good results and can serve as a good model. However nowadays, the economic focus is mainly on the manufacturing and services industries while a core sector like agriculture has taken a back seat with little initiatives other than election time stunts like free power, loan waivers etc. Amidst such apathy, the ground water table keeps falling at an alarming rate yet hardly raises an alarm.

India’s water problem is not just quantitative but also qualitative; its rivers have got so contaminated by human and industrial waste that they are often referred to as sewers and drains rather than rivers. For instance, the great river Ganges at places has been recorded to have fecal coli form levels at 1,00,000 per 100 ml – the highest such figure on Earth rendering the water unfit for even bathing. Waterborne illnesses such as typhoid, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, gastroenteritis etc., afflict millions of people dependent on the river. Like the Ganges, many other rivers are also considered sacred but are equally putrid and increasingly dermatologists and doctors advise against the “holy dip” which is customary during the festivals. The water is so polluted that it leads to several skin infections. Under pressure from the Supreme Court, some city water boards have plans for sewage treatment plants which will make the waters fit for bathing. But having spent millions already on many such projects, it is doubted that the water boards can deliver on even such a basic task of making the water fit just for bathing while they are yet to even set any milestones for water fit for drinking. Also the Board alone could not carry out this task as there seems little pressure on industries that pump gallons of hazardous waste into the river system. In some cities like Kanpur, small scattered tanneries dump tons of poisonous waste into the water daily. As the rivers course their way through the plains, they accumulate all the waste of humankind and achieve a level of filth downstream that is crying out for attention and action. While various administrative bodies claim to have spent millions of rupees in cleaning up these rivers, the money seems to have gone down the drain, quite literally. The problem yet remains on cleaning up the rivers whereas the solution should focus on ensuring untreated waste is not dumped into the rivers in the first place. There should be stringent laws and penalties on industries big and small as well as city water boards for polluting the rivers. However, the key problem remains lack of sufficient attention or public outcry on the important cause.

These problems afflict most other developing countries too where safe drinking water is a far cry. Likewise, water table drying up is a global problem affecting almost every nation in the world from China to Africa to Central plains of America. It might be of great significance if there were an international movement to save water. Cooperation and sharing of best practices among nations may give a boost to agricultural productivity as well as enable means of conserving ground water. Similar sharing of best practices may also help frame laws and enforce mechanisms to contain rivers pollution. In the developing world summits, which usually focus mostly on their economic stories, the radar should be shifted to human rights issues like water which should be treated as a priority. As things stand, access to safe and plentiful drinking water is a basic human need that remains unquenched for billions across the world.

Anuradha Kataria is the author of the book Democracy on Trial, All Rise! - which is a critique of democracy in the developing world. She has also published several editorials on the developing world issues.
Anukat3@gmail.com

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Mon, January 28, 2013 08:47 PM (about 13703 hours ago)
Anuradha..well written article...kind of scared the c*** out of me ( forgive my language). More people should be reading these articles to become conscious of the problem and spread the awareness. Imagine, the water table drying up in just 15-20 years...it is scary.
 
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