Come summer, the crisis of water scarcity is all-pervasive in India-be it a metro city, a small town or a village. As the mercury rises in the summer, long multi-coloured bucket lines begin to appear at community taps in cities and villages across the country. Tempers fray as formerly amicable neighbours fight bitterly for their share of the precious commodity. Meanwhile, in affluent neighbourhoods, state-subsidised water is used to wash cars and for water gardens. As water tables sink and frustration increases, no immediate end to the water woes for the people in cities and in rural areas is in sight. Thus, the water crisis turns into a political issue blaming the government and authorities concerned in our country. People start crying for water, start agitation and sometimes resort to violent demonstrations too. Media hype adds fuel to the fire. At that time when people are consumed with sheer rage because of water scarcity, public awareness and education is worthless. Nobody happens to be in mood to listen to the wise advice, that too from a politician!
After a few days, by God’s grace, there is rainfall, as monsoon has reached, though sometime it may be late. The water crisis is over for time being. People, politicians and media forget that issue and turn their attention to other issues like water-loggings caused by heavy rainfalls and other related disasters and the government authorities concerned come under the fire. This is a usual story, repeated almost every year, yet we do not learn a lesson. We, Indians are powerful advisers and critics.
Gravity of Water Issue
Now, I come to the real issue of water, water scarcity and water management. Let us study the issue in details with the hope that it would be taken in right spirit. While complaining for shortage of water to local government authorities, do we introspect ourselves? How much water are we wasting during brushing and shaving, leaving the tap open? How much water are we wasting during bath and toilet? How much water is wasted for washing the utensils and clothes? Ignoring the water conservation at our level, we feel proud to purchase the bottled water at a cost ranging between Rs 10 and Rs 15. Do we know how much water is provided by municipality everyday at our home by charging Rs 840, annually? More than one lakh eighty thousand litres of water annually! Even then, we blame the local authority. With regular and adequate water supply, we hardly realise its importance, except during its scarcity. It is said that if there will be the third world war, it will be fought not for land, petro-products, etc, but for water. What a grave situation it will be at that time!
Realising the importance of water crisis in advance, the United Nations has declared the decade 2005-2015, “Water for Life Decade”. The Government of India also declared the year 2007, “Water Year”. Water is our life, our livelihood and our paramount wealth. Water, air and food are three essential elements for life. That is why the adage: Jal he to fal he. About 70 per cent of the planet is covered by oceans. Ninety-seven per cent of the water on the planet is in the oceans, and therefore is unusable for drinking because of the salt. Similarly, the average person’s body is composed of approximately 70 per cent water, although the water content varies considerably from person to person. Blood contains maximum percentage of water (90 per cent) and maximum water element in single body organ is occupied by eyes. Water is needed for digestion, for excretion and for circulation in the body. Hence, water is a prime natural resource, basic human need and precious natural asset. Optimum development and efficient utilisation of water resources assume critical significance. Access to fresh water is a pre-requisite for achieving the goal of sustainable development and better health care.
But the problem of water is very acute in the country. Water disputes turned to be extremely tense or even erupted into violence, not merely because there were disputes about water sharing, but also because the tensions took place in a frame of broader tensions: territorial disputes, border disputes, rivalry between states. Water thus became a tool to be used against an adversary, and water cooperation became impossible to develop as mistrust had grown to high levels.
Total Water on Earth
Saline water – ocean – 97 per cent, 1320 million cubic kilometres
Fresh water – 3 per cent, 37.5 million cubic kilometres
(One cubic km = water layer equivalent to 1 km length, 1 km width and 1 km of height)
If we analyse the above figures seriously, it is apparent that there is a vast balance between supply and demand. We have 1122 BCMs utilisable water as against the projected demand of 710 BCMs in 2010, that too, excluding the annual river flow, which is about 1869 BCMs. Even then, why is there water crisis? It is clear that the management of water resources is poor and implausible, which is responsible for water crisis. It is high time we made extensive endeavour for water harvesting and water management, i.e. water conservation and judicious use of water.
The above figures clearly reveal that to what extent the exploitation of natural resources is being done by the western world, and a large chunk of water is consumed in agriculture due to unawareness and traditional methods of irrigation in Asian countries. It is obvious that real water requirement at all level is meagre but problem lies in indiscreet and primitive methods of water management at all levels. Therefore, given the use of water to such a large extent in both sectors-industrial and agricultural-it would be rational to use water in a prudent way. As water is considered, till now, a free commodity, our society has never taken it as seriously as it should have been. As human beings, we are wasting water at every level, i.e. from personal level to family and community level, and from national level to universally. We have never been conscious of sagacious use of water in our life.
Lesson from Mahatma Gandhi
In the context of prudent water harvesting and management, it is worth mentioning an anecdote showing consciousness of Mahatma Gandhi in judicious use of natural resources. One day in 1937, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were sitting on the bank of Triveni Sangam of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati in Prayag, discussing seriously about the freedom movement. After sometime, Gandhiji got up and went away to wash his face. While washing his face, Gandhiji felt a sudden jerk on his face and hand. Nehru was watching Gandhiji, so he immediately asked if there was some alien body in the water. Gandhiji replied in negative and explained that while washing his face, the water in his metal bowl was exhausted but his face-washing was not complete. Because of absence of mind, he could not complete the face-washing with water in the bowl and he held himself the guilty. Commenting on this, Nehru said that there was nothing to worry about, as there was enough water flowing down the Triveni Sangam. He could utilise one more bowl, just simple, added Nehru. The story does not end here. Gandhiji told Nehru that he could not waste the water more than required. It was not for himself only; nature is not for exploitation.
Unscrupulous Use in Agriculture
As mentioned earlier, about 87 per cent of total utilisable water is used for agriculture in our country compared to 69 per cent world average. As such, our agriculture is monsoon based. There is very little facility for conservation-no uniform system for water harvesting. We just don’t water crops and plants for development and nutrition but we bath the whole crops fields. Crops need just humidity and water. This tremendous waste of water is only because of lack of proper knowledge of water management. Also the increasing industrialisation has definitely increased the water requirement and utilisation.
Urbanisation and Population Explosion
Rapidly spreading urbanisation has also added to the crisis of water scarcity along with increasing population. This resulted in increase in atmospheric temperature leading to global warming; melting of glaciers and ice will increase sea water level; life in habitations and cities near seashore will be in danger due to increase in sea level; increased scarcity of water leading to civil war and world war; accidental heavy rainfall may endanger the lives, and shortage of crops and food causing worldwide food scarcity resulting in hunger and starvation.
Alarming bell is already warning us constantly. Let us awake, before we all perish.
(The writer is former Minister of State for HRD, Health, Heavy Industry, Government of India.)