Water crisis is the biggest killer in making, writes Murli Manohar Joshi

More than 100 million people live in areas of poor water quality

Dr Murli Manohar Joshi | February 9, 2016


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Water is essential for sustaining life and our ecosystem as a whole and India is by far the largest and fastest growing consumer of ground water in the world. In our country, ground water is a common pool resource (CPR), used by millions of farmers, and about 84 percent of the total addition to the net irrigated area comes from ground water. It also remains the only drinking water resource in most of our rural households. Besides, many industries depend on ground water. Moreover, food, energy and water are interlinked. Despite the importance of water in our sustainability, it is distressing to note that ground water is being exploited beyond sustainable levels, and ground water pollution and depletion remain serious issues.

India possesses an estimated 1,123 billion cubic metres (bcm) of utilisable water out of an annual estimated available water of about 1,869 bcm. Over 80 percent of the rural and about 50 percent of urban and industrial water requirements of India are being met from ground water resources and about 45 percent of created irrigation potential in the country is through development of ground water resources. Despite such dependence on water, according to several studies the condition is alarming. It is glaring to note that, 
 

  • 22 out of 32 major cities have to deal with daily shortages.
     
  • The worst-hit city is Jamshedpur, where the gap between demand and supply is a yawning 70 percent.
     
  • We used to be able to hit water at 100 feet a decade ago. Today, with some luck, you may hit water at 1,000 feet.
    According to the World Research Institute, India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world, from its deepest aquifers to its largest rivers.
     
  • Out of the 632 districts examined to determine the quality of ground water, only 59 districts had water safe enough to drink.
     
  • Almost 600 million people are at higher risk of surface-water supply disruptions.
     
  • More than 100 million people live in areas of poor water quality.
     
  • Shrinking supply might have serious ramifications for agriculture sector which uses 90 percent of the available water.
     
  • 54 percent of India faces high to extremely high water stress and about 600 million people are at higher risk of surface-water supply disruptions.
     
  • 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing.
     
  • By 2030, the national supply is predicted to fall 50 percent below demand.
     
  • According to the UN, India lost more than 6,00,000 children under 5 years in 2010 due to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene).


Analysts fear that growing competition for rapidly dwindling natural resources will trigger inter-state or intra-state conflict. According to the several other reports, the following facts have emerged, which might be under the consideration of the government as well:

  • Nearly 85 percent of the rural drinking water supply in the country is based on ground water.
     
  • Vagaries of monsoon rainfall resulting in reduced rainfall and exploitation of ground water for irrigation, domestic and industrial purpose in a proportion more than the rainfall recharge are the main factors that have resulted in depletion of ground water.
     
  • Based on the categorisation of 6,607 units (blocks, mandals, talukas, districts, firkas) in the country, 1,071 units (the actual number could be significantly higher in some states) in 16 states and two UTs have been categorised as ‘overexploited’, where the annual ground water extraction exceeds the net annual ground availability, and where the stage of ground water development exceeds 100 percent with significant decline in long-term water level trend in either pre-monsoon or post-monsoon period or both  (also known as ‘dark blocks’). This number was 802 in 2009 and has increased by 33 percent to 1,071 in 2011. Agricultural area covered under the dark blocks is about 5 lakh sq km.
     
  • As of May 2015, states have reported 63,282 water quality-affected rural habitations (arsenic: 1,482, fluoride: 11,309, salinity: 16,289, iron: 32,020, nitrate: 2,182). Heavy/toxic metals have been found in nearly 8,862 rural habitations. Punjab, Assam and West Bengal are the most affected states in terms of emerging water contaminants in drinking water resources.
     
  • According to the central pollution control board (CPCB) of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, the ground water quality is slowly but surely declining everywhere.
     
  • 10 states have excess concentration of arsenic, 20 states have higher concentration of fluorides, 21 states have higher concentration of nitrate and 15 states have higher concentration of heavy metals such as lead, chromium beyond norms prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS-2012).
     
  • According to the CPCB, an alarming picture is beginning to emerge in many parts of the country in respect of the slowly but surely declining ground water quality.
     
  • Intensive use of chemical fertilizers in farms and indiscriminate disposal of human and animal waste on land result in leaching of the residual nitrate concentrations in ground water.
     
  • Ground well extraction from tube wells from irrigation is adding large quantities of arsenic every year in agricultural fields, resulting in high built-up of arsenic in soils and subsequent accumulation in crops and vegetables.
     
  • Fluoride contamination in ground water is mainly geo-genic, wherein, during weathering and circulation of water in rocks and soils, fluoride is leached out and dissolved in ground water and thermal gases.
     
  • The concerned ministry/department has not shown any interest in adoption of latest technology in this vital area and as such it has so far remained largely neglected.
     
  • No serious and systematic efforts have been made by the government towards development, management, conservation and related issues such as shortages, scarcity, depletion and pollution of ground water, in spite of the alarming trend towards ground water problems in both quantitative and qualitative terms, and that no single agency is maintaining the database on quantum of artificial recharge to ground water.
     
  • No study has been undertaken by the central ground water board regarding the losses caused to agriculture, economy, health and environment due to the dark blocks.
     
  • The artificial recharge scheme was closed on March 31, 2012 and there is no separate scheme for artificial recharge of ground water or contamination of ground water during the 12th five-year plan.
     
  • Out of the total length of 45,019 km of major rivers in India, 33 percent of the stretches are polluted.
     
  • In Delhi, out of the nine zones only two zones are safe and the rest are reported to be overexploited zones in terms of ground water development.
     
  • There are 1,79,999 habitations in the country having water problem associated with fluoride, arsenic, iron, salinity and nitrate. This is over and above the hazard posed by anthropogenic/man-made contaminants such as manganese, lead, chromium, cadmium etc. in ground water in some parts of the country, resulting from mining activities or seepage from untreated industrial wastes. Growing construction of septic tanks has become for want of sewer lines in the countryside has become another source of sub-soil contamination.
     
  • 70 percent of the sewage is discharged untreated.


Ray of hope

Despite a gloomy scenario with one of the most important natural resources, we have a ray of hope of what has been done in India and across the globe.

Oman is a good example for a good ground water strategy/management. It has successfully combined demand side measures to control, protect and conserve water resources with supply side measures to augment the resources. Demand side measures include obligatory registration of all wells, introduction of well permits, national well inventory, well metering, improving irrigation techniques, public awareness campaigns for water conservation, etc. while the supply side measures include large recharge dams.

In Arizona of the US, a similar issue is addressed by legislation that requires balancing extraction with recharge. In 1980 it enacted the groundwater code, whose goal is to (1) control severe ground water depletion, and (2) provide the means for allocating Arizona’s limited ground water resources to most effectively meet the state’s changing water needs.

Rooftop rainwater harvesting has been made mandatory in 31 states/UTs. Remaining states are mostly hilly and rainwater harvesting in these states is already in practice.

Anna Hazare has transformed the village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra into a model sustainable village through water harvesting and cooperation. Another example is Rajendra Singh, whose NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh has transformed the Alwar District of Rajasthan through community-based efforts in water harvesting and water management.

Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides must be controlled and regulated and we have an example of Bathinda in Punjab, which is now known as a cancer belt only because of misuse of fertilizers. They not only pollute ground water but also cause damage to life.

Water is a state subject (the centre’s role is only in respect of inter-state rivers), and despite a need to include it into the concurrent list if not the central list, it has met with opposition from states and has not been done. We need to evolve a national consensus on this issue without losing time.

India has been known to be proactive with regards to water in the past. There are inscriptions dating as early as 600 AD citing that ancient kings and other benevolent persons considered construction of small dug-out ponds as one of their bounden duties to collect rain water and use them to recharge wells. We need to go back to the basics and peep into our past to find solution to the most pressing problems of our time through water conservation and harvesting.

We need immediate policy and regulation for ground water extraction, harvesting and sustainability of water resources for meeting the increasing demand of the growing population in the decades ahead.

It is not the food, energy or the population crisis but it is the water crisis that will let us down as a nation, as on water depends the food and energy security. Water security is important for development and security of the country. It is a wake-up call for each one of us. 

Dr Joshi, MP, is a former cabinet minister and the founder general secretary of BJP. Views are personal.

 

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