Relevance: The recent water crisis in Chennai has highlighted the potential risk of shortage of water in major Indian cities. The water crisis in Shimla last year also highlighted the problem.
In Delhi Water Supply & Sewage Disposal Undertaking v. State of Haryana (1996), the Supreme Court said, “Water is a gift of nature. Human hand cannot be permitted to convert this bounty into a curse, an oppression.”
According to a recent NITI Aayog report, 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020 if usage continues at the current rate.
What is the issue in Chennai?
There is an acute shortage of water in Tamil Nadu. Many people are struggling to find adequate water in Chennai and other parts of the State. There are pictures going around of rows of women holding plastic buckets and waiting for tankers. IT firms, restaurants and the construction industry have all admitted that they are struggling without water. Clashes over water have been reported in some parts. The shadow of drought from 2018 has stretched into the torrid summer this year, evaporating not just the city’s reservoirs, but the prosperity of its residents who are forced to hunt for tankers, pay bribes and spend hours even at night waiting for trucks to dispense some water.
What are the reasons? (Not just applicable to Chennai but to major Indian cities)
- Illegal encroachment – Most of the lands marked in the revenue records of the States as ponds or lakes have been encroached on. Illegal houses and shops had been constructed in those areas. Water bodies are used as dump yards, river banks are encroached upon and lake-beds become sites for real estate.
- Heavy silt accumulation in reservoirs leading in reduction of their water holding capacity.
- Over consumption and wastage by users – Over extraction of groundwater is a huge consumer side problem.
- Lack of efficient harvesting, consumption and recycling methods.
- Lack of planning – Exponential amounts of money is usually spent on storm water drains, pavement makeovers, concrete road medians and flyovers with absolutely no attention being paid to the possibility of using these facilities to channelise rainwater run-off. Pavements and concrete medians are laid on all arterial roads without ensuring the harvesting of rainwater.
What can be done?
- Prudent rainfall management – prudent rainfall management can help cities through withering summers and weak monsoons. Deepening storage in the major reservoirs must get priority. These measures can harvest the bulk of the rain in a good year.
- Rainwater Harvesting – Rainwater harvesting must be made mandatory and must be followed up with an institutional mechanism to help citizens implement it. The government should give monetary incentives to NGOs, as NITI Aayog proposed in its Water Index report, to encourage them to install systems and show quantifiable recharge outcomes. Rainwater harvesting, conservation, recharge and increasing green cover need to be prioritised. Many residents are ready to install rainwater harvesting systems but do not have the necessary technical skills. The government must help in their proper installation and maintenance.
- Consumer side changes – On the consumer side, devices and practices to reduce wastage should be promoted, especially on commercial premises. There have to be curbs to reduce groundwater extraction. Boring deeper may have other environmental consequences. Metro Water and groundwater use should be measured and priced progressively, similar to the electricity tariff, where the quantity of use determines the price. The board can practise differential pricing and cross-subsidise those households with a lower per capita income use of water. For this to be implemented effectively, water meters are a must. Concepts such as Day Zero must be encouraged.
- Desiltation and recycling – Recycling and treating grey water at a central source must be thought of. All drinking water lakes should be desilted and the channelling of sewage into waterbodies should be stopped.
- Building satellite towns – planners have to think of satellite towns with good infrastructure that are not reliant on city water resources.
- Clearing encroachments – Catchment areas to the main reservoirs should be immediately cleared of encroachments. Drones and satellites can assist in mapping of illegal encroachments.
- Permanent authority – Metropolitan cities should set up urban water planning and management boards, a permanent body similar to urban development authorities, that regulate the supply, demand and maintenance of water services and structures.
- Technology – Mapping of water bodies using satellites and drones must be done. Other technological advancements like the mapping of points around the globe where groundwater meets the oceans must be considered while formulating water conservation plans. Researchers from The Ohio State University in the U.S. showed that nearly one-half of fresh submarine groundwater discharge flows into the ocean near the tropics. Understanding how and where groundwater gets to surface water could help policy-makers create better plans to improve those bodies of water.
- Regulation in times of crisis – Charging of exorbitant rates by water suppliers in the times of crisis must be checked; The scarcity of essential resources not only leads to economic losses but also social unrest; an extreme case in Chennai resulted in a woman being attacked over water troubles.
Agriculture and water-harvesting –
Farming needs to adopt scientific methods and technological techniques to get optimum yields. There is a need to shift from water intensive agricultural methods to water conserving methods. For example, practicing methods like of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a method of cultivation involving less water and seeds.
The use of practices like micro-irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and drip irrigation needs to be encouraged. Crops like Sugarcane, banana, coconut, and vegetables like brinjal and tomato can be raised through this method. The state governments must support such practices.
In a mojor step, the Centre is set to initiate the Jal Shakti Abhiyan to ramp up rainwater harvestingand conservation efforts in 255 water-stressed districts from July 1, 2019, in line with the government’s promise to focus on water. The campaign would run from July 1 to September 15 in States receiving rainfall during the south-west monsoon, while States receiving rainfall in the retreating or north-east monsoon would be covered from October 1 to November 30.
The Jal Shakti Abhiyan would aim to accelerate water harvesting, conservation and borewell recharge activities already being carried out under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and the Integrated Watershed Management Programme of the Rural Development Ministry, along with existing water body restoration and afforestation schemes being undertaken by the Jal Shakti and Environment Ministries. Progress would be monitored in real time through mobile applications and an online dashboard at indiawater.gov.in.
The water crisis, especially in Chennai, has to be taken as a forewarning. Proper water conservation techniques, recycling and reuse of water, mandatory installations for water harvesting, water collection in lakes and identifying water bodies can help avoid scarcity to an extent.
There is a need to invest in long term planning over temporary remedies.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu