June 2014 By Punya Srivastava Without water, we perish. And yet our present systems operate from the notion that water is an unlimited resource. No wonder that a water crisis is looming world over, particularly in India. How can we as individuals manage water more responsibly; and are there any solutions to this crisis in indigenous practices,asks Punya Srivastava “When the well is dry, we learn the value of water.” – Benjamin Franklin So true! One of the strongest memories of my early years in Delhi was of the chronic water shortage that would grip us during the scorching summers, and how we would carry buckets of water collected from Delhi Jal Board tankers to our second floor flat. My siblings and I would eagerly wait for our annual trips to my maternal grandparents’ house in Allahabad. Oh, what a treat it was to splash each other with mugs full of water during those balmy evenings. We kids would lavishly pour buckets full of water, pumped through a bore-well, on every square inch of the huge courtyard, preparing for our night’s sleep under the star-studded night sky. It is one of my favourite memories of the vacations spent in that beautiful town of Prayag, a witness to the holy fusion of the three most important rivers of north India. And yet today I wince at the way we wasted water with such gay abandon. Every time I read an announcement of water shortage in the newspaper, my guilt bubbles up to the surface, and chides me for having been so wasteful of such a precious resource. Water is indeed precious because out of the total amount of water present on earth, only 2.5 per cent is fresh water, stored in glaciers and as ground water, and sustaining life on this planet. Humans have access to less than 0.08 per cent of all the Earth’s water. Yet over the next two decades, our use is estimated to increase by about 40 per cent. Apparently, it takes around 1000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk and around 1,600 litres to produce one kg of wheat bread. One kg of rice requires 3000 litres of water. What are the problems? India comes under the ‘water-stressed’ category, according to a 2011 report by the United Nations. Quite surprising for a land blessed with an abundance of perennial rivers crisscrossing throughout its terrain. But then as researchers point out, the increasing water scarcity in India is man-induced. Traditionally, India has been well endowed with large fresh water reserves, but the increasing population and overexploitation of surface and ground water over the past few decades has resulted in water scarcity in some regions. Moreover, India being an agro-based economy, around 89 per cent (as per a survey in 2006) of available water is consumed for agricultural purposes, while nine per cent and two per cent are consumed for domestic and industrial purposes respectively. Also, agro-based industries such as textiles, sugar and fertilisers are among the top producers of waste water. Inefficient irrigation also wastes water resources. India’s water scarcity is due to many factors, with administrative mismanagement securing the top slot. Improper planning of urban infrastructure continues to add pressure on the surface water and groundwater depletion because of the high influx in the urban areas. Modernised techniques to source water, like hand pumps and bore-wells, have led to a rapid decline of groundwater. Poor sanitation planning, for example in Delhi, is the reason behind the present-day condition of the river Yamuna. Not only that, the waters of Yamuna are saturated with toxic industrial waste along with untreated water from sewage plants as well as from open drains. Moreover, the increase in per capita income and standard of living in the past three decades has led to a water-intensive urban lifestyle in India. Domestic contribution to the total water consumption is projected to increase from five per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent by 2050. Also, per capita water consumption is expected to double from 89 litres per day in 2000 to 167 litres per day by 2050. Cities are facing severe water shortage. According to a Grail Research report in 2005, 65 per cent of households across seven major cities faced water deficiency with metros like Delhi and Chennai reaching out to distant rivers that are 250 km and 450 km away, respectively. Perhaps more than anything else, it has been the separatist and fragmented modern approach that has sounded a death knell to water sources. Where earlier, India practised sustainable and cyclical water management, modern methods of using piped water, bore wells, motorised pumps rather than community wells, have placed unprecedented pressure on water supplies. Rejoice, we have a lower water footprint Water footprint is the amount of freshwater consumed directly and indirectly by an individual. India’s water footprint is 980 cubic meters per capita per year (according to Hoekstra and Chapagain, 2008 report), considerably lower than the world average. Being a predominantly vegetarian nation helps the cause as 30 per cent of the total population consumes a plant-based diet. However, its increasing population collectively makes the country’s overall footprint 12 per cent of the world’s total. Greed at play Water scarcity has created quite a furore at the global level. There is no person on this planet that hasn’t been affected by it. We have seen so many initiatives and drives, funded by governments across the world, to sensitise people about the judicious use of water. But has it really made a difference? One can still see a criminal wastage of water everyday across every strata of society, starting from the administration itself. On my way to work I pass the water tanker station of the Delhi Jal Board where tankers are filled to cater to water scarce areas. Most times, they are filled so much higher than capacity, that gallons of water spill out within a few minutes of the tankers starting. Else a leaky tap at the back will leave a trail of freshwater on the road. How difficult is it to monitor the amount of water filled in the tanker, knowing that the moving vehicle will cause water to spill unnecessarily? Or how difficult is it to use a bucket instead of a hose-pipe to wash your car or your pavement? Or to report a broken pipe spewing water in a community park to the authorities? Both, the administration and we, the citizens, need to awaken from this apathy. In our greed to embrace urbanisation, we have started losing touch with our ground realities. We have left behind our community wells and started pumping water into our houses, first with hand pumps and then with motor pumps, sucking out ground water, unmindful of the fact that we are depleting the ground water content without replenishing it. We have been behaving greedily, with no regard for the forthcoming generation and neither for other life forms on earth. Water management at micro level Water scarcity is not a problem of a few. It affects all of us; it affects the whole community. As John F Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Can we not take over the responsibility of managing the way we use water? We can all practice water management – be it rain water harvesting, water conservation, or groundwater replenishment. “Rain water harvesting is something that we all can do whether we live in rural or urban India,” says Farhad Contractor, Founder of Sambhaav Trust. “We have taken too much for granted for too long. And now, we are suffering from the dependency syndrome,” he says, adding, “We don’t respect ourselves, hence we don’t respect our ecology.” Farhad Contractor has been working on rejuvenation and revival of ecological systems along with the community for over 22 years. He works extensively in the Thar Desert as well as in several states in North and Central India. His work is his passion, a fact borne out by his considerable body of work. This includes working with around 600,000 people to rejuvenate and revive more than 9,000 structures such as tanks, ponds, lakes, and wells. He has also worked on reviving three rivers in Rajasthan. and worked to conserve and revive forests in various states of India. He is also involved in reviving and strengthening community-based and owned sustainable agricultural practices. In order to offset the dependence on groundwater especially in urban areas, Farhad advocates developing ground models that ensure long-term sustainability. “Community effort will always be more sustainable than individual efforts. Also, when you work with others, the whole process stops being a burden, and becomes filled with love,” he says. According to him, one can collect around two lakh litres of water in a tank per rainfall if one installs a rain water harvesting system at the building rooftop. It only costs Rs 10,000 per house in an apartment system, which can be seen as a one-time investment. Alternatively, we can also prepare catchment areas for rainwater in the society compound. “This helps in recharging the groundwater level of the area which works for the greater good,” he says hopefully, adding, “Water management is not only about saving water. It is about living a better life, maintaining a beautiful and sustainable way of living.” Capacity building “Involving community is a must for it enables a sustainable process,” says Dr Yogesh Jadeja, adding, “We are in a crisis because communities are not in direct control of their water resources.” Dr Jadeja is the Director of Arid Communities and Technologies (ACT), an organisation that has been active in Bhuj and Kutch areas of Gujarat since 2004. “We at ACT try to leverage the potential of the community as a resource for wat
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