A water crisis ahead

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

India is on the threshold of a water crisis, warns a report prepared by the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

THE spectre of a freshwater crisis that can lead to millions of people being denied access to safe water supply looms over India, according to a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The crisis, pointers to which already exist in many parts of India, will not be a result of natural factors, such as drought, according to the report; it will be largely human-induced and the result of poor water resource management, increased pollution of surface water and groundwater, environmental degradation and the population explosion. Shortcomings in the design and implementation of legislation and regulations that are intended to address these problems may also contribute to the crisis, says the report, which was released on January 20.

The report, the first of its kind from UNICEF and the WWF, addresses the impact that a freshwater crisis will have on future generations. It presents case studies from five ecological zones of India to illustrate their common problems and community efforts to deal with the situation.

The case studies, from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, were commissioned in 1995 to assess trends in water availability and use at the local level. Primary data and information were gathered through participatory rural appraisals, surveys, tests of water and soil quality and hydrogeological observations over a one-year cycle covering all the seasons. They examined the freshwater situation using an ecosystem approach and documented the actions of people to meet their basic water needs and to increase family income using the water resources available.

According to the report, the root causes of the crisis are: 1. the system of 'water rights' under common law in India, which sees groundwater not as a common resource from common pool acquifers but as belonging to the landowner; 2. uncontrolled use of borewell technology, which has allowed groundwater to be extracted at a rate that exceeds the rate of water recharge; 3. pollution of freshwater resources; 4. inadequate efforts directed at water conservation, efficiency in water use, groundwater recharge and ecosystem sustainability; and 5. the denial of control over water resources to local communities.

The subject of groundwater management in the context of the uncontrolled use of borewell technology is in focus this year: this year's theme for the World Day for Water, observed on March 22 every year, was "Groundwater: the invisible resource". Borewell technology helps provide drinking water for millions of people in arid regions, but in recent years the number of energised wells drilled to irrigate cash crops in water-scarce regions has increased rapidly. The provision of subsidised electricity has contributed to this, although the benefits of such subsidies are often cornered by landowners with large holdings. Further, according to a study by the Tata Energy Research Institution (TERI), 60 per cent of the water used for irrigation is lost through seepage.

Pollution of freshwater resources has assumed alarming proportions. In India, each year nearly one million children die of diarrhoeal diseases that can be directly traced to unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions. About 44 million people are affected by problems related to water quality - pollution, and the prevalence of excessive amounts of fluorides, iron deposits, salt or even arsenic.

The report says that inadequate attention has been paid to efforts directed at water conservation, water reuse, prevention of water pollution and efficiency in domestic water supply. Moreover, from the point of view of the sustainability of the ecosystem, the report held that watershed approaches had failed to take cognisance of the role of wetlands, rivers and small tanks which could play an important role in the regeneration of freshwater resources.

Access to water resources is another issue. In rural areas, women have to trek long distances to fetch water for household use. In Gurrabbadu village in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, one of the five places studied, on an average women walked 5 km to fetch 150 litres of water for a family of four. In periods of scarcity, especially in summer, people bought water from irrigation wells, paying in cash or kind. Among children, it was mostly girls who fetched water; they had to walk long distances and as a consequence faced long-term health problems.

"Water," says the report, "is used as a political tool, controlled and cornered by the rich, who do not pay the price for this scarce resource." It adds: "The poverty of incomes, capabilities and opportunities ... is compounded by water poverty."

According to Aung Chein, project officer in the Water and Sanitation section of UNICEF, the situation was similar in urban settings - the rich benefited the most at the cost of the poor.

The report recommends the decentralisation of the management and regulation of water resources to local communities, as represented by democratically elected institutions such as panchayats. It also recommends that local bodies be provided the authority, responsibility as well as financial support to manage the water environment.

The report suggests legislation to protect groundwater resources in water-scarce areas. The legislation should aim to control and regulate water extraction and the types of crops grown in identified areas, ensure mandatory construction of recharge structures and prohibit the withdrawal of water below certain depths for irrigation and industry.

THE freshwater demand for agriculture, industry and fast-growing urban centres is expected to double by 2025. In the rural areas, where the majority of India's population lives, groundwater resources account for 80 per cent of domestic water supply. Fifty per cent of the urban and industrial water demand is met by groundwater and 50 per cent of all irrigated area is fed by this source. Moreover, in drought years, groundwater is the prime source of water for irrigation. Rainwater by itself has been found to be inadequate to meet domestic needs, and the reasons are, again, man-made. Even areas with heavy rainfall - Cherrapunji, for example - face water scarcity. Owing to deforestation, soil erosion and reduced ground cover, the rainwater does not percolate in the ground to feed the springs.

The report says that India will be a "water-stressed" nation by 2017. This signifies that it will face acute water shortages for prolonged periods. There is also the risk of water pollution. Cities, which generate 2,000 crore litres of sewage a day, treat only 10 per cent of this; the rest flows out to merge with groundwater - or even surface water - sources. The report cautions that as a result, the incidence of water-related deaths and diseases might go up. "The poor in rural and urban areas, particularly women and children, will continue to be hard hit by these emerging problems," the report adds.

The report is critical of the failure of successive governments to implement the National Water Policy, which recognises that the "drinking water needs of human beings and animals should be the first charge on available resources." However, a lack of political will and the use of water as a "political tool" have meant that the policy remains unimplemented, the report says.

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