A Few Drab and Dry Words about Water Crisis

Chennai Water Crisis

Suddenly the media and social media are abuzz with concern for water crisis, water wastage, preservation, groundwater replenishment and so on so forth. It is good. The social media, which are our big brothers, always watch over what people are doing, each and every person, can easily detect the date and time of the beginning of the sudden spur that is going on now. We, who are not that much ‘social’ cannot say that. We are hearing about water crisis in India for ages. Droughts and floods are our sticky companions who never leave us, may that be in British period or before or in Independent India. Even the vivid descriptions in Sainath’s book ‘Everybody loves a good drought’ are about three decades old. Water, its necessity, why not to waste it, etc. are things which our children read in their primary schools. But why this sudden spike! If we consider this year only, on May 21 the BBC published an article on it with many illustrations, charts and graphs [[1]]. But did we hear such lurid discussions (please do not mind, my stock of adjectives is miserably small). Or are we hearing this only after two things happened: (i) Chennai suddenly felt an intense water crisis [[2]], and (ii) almost simultaneously our corporate world [[3]] including corporate media [[4]] all focused on the problem. Let us hope this conjecture of coincidence is wrong and our citizens are always aware and discussing such issues. Otherwise rural and suburban India may feel sad to know that only when a big city like Chennai, supposedly India’s sixth largest economy (as far as cities are concerned) with a GDP of $66 Billion[[5]] (after Mumbai: $209 Billion, Delhi: $167 Billion, Kolkata: $150 Billion, Bangalore: $83 Billion, and Hyderabad: $74 Billion) suffers, our citizens at social media or netigens take up the issue like water scarcity, which is a lifelong companion of large expanses of rural India.

Water woes of Chennai is an old fact as such. Not only the old NASA picture of 2009 shows groundwater withdrawal as % of groundwater recharge at Tamil Nadu to be nearly 80% (whereas int Punjab, Haryana and NCR it was about 100%) showed it [[6]]. It was well known to the TN govt. well before. For example, we may read this little excerpt from a govt. website [[7]]: “The Rain Water Harvesting movement launched in 2001 was the brainchild of the Honourable Chief Minister. It has had a tremendous impact in recharging the groundwater table all over Tamil Nadu. Amendments made to Section 215 (a) of the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920 and Building Rules 1973, have made it mandatory to provide RWH structures in all new buildings.   To consolidate the gains, various measures have been taken up for rejuvenation of RWH structures created already in both public and private buildings, besides creating new ones.  IEC activities will be continued in the Town Panchayats to sensitize all the stake holders to sustain the momentum. During 2011-12, in order to give a fillip to this laudable programme, the Town Panchayats have undertaken the construction of new RWH structures and renovation of old RWH structures. IEC activities are being carried out in Town Panchayat areas to sustain the momentum of the programme.” Just batting for RWH (rain water harvesting) will not be enough as it is already there, at least, legally. So what might be the reasons of crisis? Is the rule is not being followed in new buildings and high-rises? It is not very probable. Then? Are not the measures of RWH sufficient in efficiency and/or quantity with respect to demand and/or some other reasons?

Moreover, RWH in India, at least technically, is a more or less noted well discussed problem from a time much earlier. Artificial Groundwater Recharge was the subject of U. Schottler in the International Seminar on Development and management of Groundwater Resources, Nov 5-20, 1979 at University of Roorkee [[8]]. A Dutch assistance was discussed for artificial rainwater discharge at some points of North Bengal during late 1980s or early 1990s because groundwater was already scarce. For example, in several district of WB permission for new mini-deep and deep tube-wells with submersible electric pumps was halted, for example in Hooghly district, most probably in 1994 or some other time in first half of 1990s. Finally, we may see Guide On Artificial Recharge to Ground Water, New Delhi, May 2000, Published By Central Ground Water Board, Ministry of Water Resources [[9]] which has a more or less detail technical discussion on ways and means of recharge.  And we may also see the final booklet published on the occasion of international seminar on   Management of Aquifer Recharge and Subsurface Storage, Wageningen, 18 – 19 December 2002, published by World Bank [[10]].

It was not that we did not know the technology of how to recharge groundwater or that governments at the centre or state levels did not know that and did not understand the need for that. Rather the point is fixing and/or allocating priority, and following up doggedly. Of course it may be argued that citizens’ initiative and involvement is the prime thing and now we have reached that point. This opinion cannot be contradicted.

Citizens’ concern and initiative is a great motor force in history. We may and should add peasants’ initiative in solving problems of chronic drought and irrigation, because when we talk about citizens often we forget agriculture.  Peasants took up this problem as early as in their Telengana Struggle in the 1940s. Not only that, in many cases agriculture is shown as a problem, as if by consuming so large part of water agriculture is itself a menace. But you cannot live without food, can you? And so agriculture is not a problem, rather a necessity. It is of course true that much water is lost due to evaporation-transportation of irrigation water and inability of switching to more efficient irrigation practice like drip irrigation, mulching practice, etc. but the first alternative, drip irrigation, needs capital and most of poor peasants and middle peasants (those who cannot or can hardly manage their life with their land only) are unable to afford that. The second alternative, mulching and such other less-water-intensive paddy techniques as discussed by Masanobu Fukuoka, or SRI cultivation (which supposedly needs less water), is of switching practice in case of paddy cultivation and it needs initiative of the society, in present case the govt., in form of intensive agricultural extension programme by agriculture-universities and govt. agricultural extension officers.

So moving towards solution does not depend only on politicians or rather do not depend on their goodwill or imagination as many govt. decisions are taken at the level of bureaucracy, though of course the ministers can hinder some initiative or can facilitate some other. Corporate willingness is another factor. We all know that scarcity and contamination of potable water gave rise to a multi-million dollar business of water and water-purifiers in India. But then groundwater recharge can also be a good business if taken in large-scale level. And corporate world is well tied with bureaucracy – today’s bureaucrats are tomorrow’s board-members or advisor and govt. orders and policies may act as good fillip to corporate houses. How far citizens’ and peasants; initiative can force the govt. and the corporate world is a key to the solution.

More blatantly speaking, private property on land, natural resources of ‘commons’ like water, measuring and searching for ‘profit’ from all actions – these are the barriers towards fuller solution. In many cases irrigation canals could not be laid in the optimum or necessary path as that would do harm to some big owners’ landholdings or may be farther from some big owners’ landholdings. Irrigation water is being ‘sold’ by deep tube-well owners in many districts. Drinking water is sold by a state-organistaion like Indian Railway and also foreign multinationals like Coke and Pepsi. (Even, in most places, you cannot relieve water, i.e., urinate without paying.) A thing will be put to practice only if it can ‘yield profit’ – and that is the case of selling water-purifiers, or putting up water ATMs. So, under capitalism, or till the categories of capitalism are overwhelming (commodity, money, profit, etc.) solution to such a big problem like water will be scrappy and will be done to that point which will be ‘profitable’. Govt. can give impetus to citizens’ initiative of rain water harvesting either by ‘stick’ or by frightening / force like TN govt.’s dictum of compulsory RWH in each building or can give ‘carrot’ like tax-benefits / cash-incentives etc. These are some of the limit set by capitalism.

Anyway, if we leave economics for a time being and come to ecology, we can consider a point which is less discussed. We have a practice, in villages, of sweeping or brushing our courtyards, removing dust, fallen leaves, trashes and etc. But why do people sweep gardens, clean the grassy surfaces removing leaf litters and such things? Did we start the practice in the British rule, or not, is unknown to this author. An Asterix story, Asterix in Britain told us that an English has some obsessions like observing Tea time punctually and lawn making. Lawns with decorative trees are kept picturesque and the aesthetics that rules here includes removing leaf litters. And an added problem occurs when such litters and all trashes are often burnt for quick disposal. By doing that we deprive the land not giving it humus, organic carbon; and also we make the soil less efficient in seeping water inside it. A great observation was made by Gandhian late Mira Behn which she published in 1950 in the Hindustan Times: Something Wrong in the Himalayas [[11]]. There she had shown that afforestation as such is not an antidote to deforestation, not just planting a tree for a tree cut down – rather the biodiversity, the species mix, etc., are also important. When Banj or Hiamalayn Oak trees were replaced by commercially (perhaps more) viable Chir Pine, the land has lost that cover it needed. Banj leaves make a thick covering on the soil, gets slowly moist and start degrading, contributing to soil fertility, and also simultaneously it contributed to water seeping inside the soil. This water in turn created the tiny streams often like drops after drops which in turn adds up to make a little gentle brook. But chir pine leaves are like needle, they do not cover the soil properly, and hence rivers are losing feed from the forests. The great CHIPKO slogan “What do the forests bear? / Soil, water and pure air” was born out of this lesson. (Moreover, we have seen how chir pine often acts as catalysts to forest fire as chir pines are more inflammable trees having high resin content [[12]].)  Anyway, the point here is, we should stop ‘cleaning’ gardens and plantations and forests off the leaf litters and foliage fallen from the trees, and no need of mowing the grass is not needed urgently. This will increase water recharge.

[1] India election 2019: The looming water crisis politicians ignore https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48294157

[2] More than 500 arrested after protests and clashes as India water crisis worsens By Jessie Yeung and Swati Gupta, CNN Updated 0736 GMT (1536 HKT) June 21, 2019 https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/20/india/chennai-water-crisis-intl-hnk/index.html

[3] India’s looming water crisis – a call to action for companies

Cate Lamb. Global Director, Water Security & Damandeep Singh, Director, India

June 20 2019 https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/companies/indias-looming-water-crisis-a-call-to-action-for-companies

[4] ET View: A looming water crisis ET Bureau|Jun 22, 2019, 08.03 PM IST | India has to change the cropping pattern, to channel water guzzling crops away from relatively arid regions to the Indo-Gangetic plains. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-view/et-view-a-looming-water-crisis/articleshow/69906497.cms

[5] Top 10 Richest Cities of India Based on GDP, most probably published on 2016-12-09,  http://www.walkthroughindia.com/offbeat/top-10-richest-cities-india-based-gdp/

[6] https://www.nasa.gov/images/content/378061main_indiagroundh2o_img2_full.jpg taken from NASA Satellites Unlock Secret to Northern India’s Vanishing Water 08.12.09 at https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/india_water.html

[7] Rain Water Harvesting http://www.tn.gov.in/dtp/rainwater.htm

[8] Visit https://www.ircwash.org/sites/default/files/212.2-79AR.pdf

[9] Visit http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/ArtificialRecharge-Guide.pdf

[10] Visit https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWRD/Resources/GWMATE_Final_booklet.pdf

[11] For example see http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80a03e/80A03E08.htm

[12] Clear and collect Chir pine needles to prevent forest fires: parliamentary panel, Tuesday 20 December 2016, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/forests/clear-and-collect-chir-pine-to-prevent-forest-fires-says-parliamentary-committee-56597

Sandeep Banerjee is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India. Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at [email protected]


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