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The Great Indian Thirst

, March 26, 2013, 0 Comments

Water, Water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge had foreseen the future long back in the 18th century.

About 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, however, only 1 percent of this water is pure. This shrinking share of 1 percent has to quench the thirst of 7 billion people who are growing by 145 net additions every minute.

The Ministry of Water Resources, has predicted that the per capita availability of water in India will go down by 36 per cent in 2025 and by 60 per cent by 2050, from the 2001 levels.

Doomsday proclaimers warn that water is surpassing oil as the scarcest critical resource and will be the biggest sore point among nations in the 21st century. It will be an apocalypse, they say, when the precious elixir of life would be the reason for taking and not saving lives.

A likely water Armageddon?
A look at some of the instances that took place in India, in last one year alone paints a horrifying picture.

In Jharkhand, one man was lynched and several were hurt in clashes over water collection. Tiffs among  farmers over water sharing led to murders in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.  A village in Punjab saw clashes between two groups over sharing of canal water. A young tribal girl in Thane (Maharashtra)  fell into a well filled by a tanker,  amidst a scramble for securing a bucket of water.  Earlier this month, the Maharashtra state police chief has issued a circular, alerting the police personnel on the possibility of a water riot arising out of the worsening water scenario in the state. Illegal boring and rising urbanization have only added to the problem. In Delhi, the water table is going down by three feet, every year. Not only is the water table falling at a rapid rate, the salinity and brackishness of water have rendered it unfit for either drinking or agriculture.

Strapped of water; trapped in litigation.
Water dispute tribunals have been doing active work, since most of the states are entangled in some sort of dispute for waters of India’s fourteen interstate rivers.  The recent notification of the Supreme Court in the Cauvery river dispute satisfies neither of the contesting parties; Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Karnataka has begun releasing water to Tamil Nadu,leaving its reservoirs dry. However, the quantum of water is still not sufficient to save Tamil Nadu’s standing crops. Parts of central Maharashtra are facing severe drought-like situations, the worst in last three decades. Water conflict is even rampant between India and its neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  On the international front, a ‘water’ angle was traced in world’s recent humanitarian catastrophes; the conflict in Sudanese Darfur and the Rwandan genocide. Water has long been a contentious issue in the Middle-East as well.

Misaligned Priorities
Inspite of the ‘in-your-face’ scale and significance of the problem, the question remains- can we continue treating water as a public good, even when it has lost all essentials of a public good?Can we continue providing water subsidies even when we can’t provide adequate drinking water? Can we continue losing almost one-third of our piped water supply due to gross systemic inefficiencies? To keep up with the pace of urbanization, the governments would have to provide adequate amenities like water to the burgeoning mega-cities and townships. It certainly doesn’t help that a city dweller needs almost double the quantity of water than a villager to meet his basic requirements. This water has to be sourced at the cost of someone, who is usually the weaker and the poorer party.

A proper channeling of this gift of nature can only stall the slow thirsty death of our civilization. Solution lies in cooperation and not conflict. Water issues need to be given the thrust they deserve in India’s growth agenda. Steps towards water sustainability start from changing our day-to-day habits to prioritizing investments in a water management framework for the country . It is also important to have well defined water rights which can  improve water use efficiency immensely. Infact, informal water markets already exist in pockets of India, e.g. Gujarat.As for pricing of water, let us apply the same principles as in case of other very valuable yet essential commodities like medicines, to stop its thoughtless squandering.

Unless a nationwide movement is stirred on this issue, the future of the country looks dry and grim.