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Water - The Fast Depleting Nectar Of Life

It is time to get into mission mode to preserve and conserve water, of which India has only four per cent of the global resources, notwithstanding the bountiful rainfall

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'Business' is all about optimisation of resources, and when we are talking about a resource that is essential for sustaining life it's management becomes infinitely more important. Add to it the fact that it is a resource that is fast depleting and of which the whole world is facing a shortage. So, water management becomes a subject of paramount concern. I am aware that BW Businessworld readers are an enlightened lot, aware of the acute water stress. I am taking the liberty of adding my two bit on the subject only to gently remind everyone that the problem needs attention on priority.

My little knowledge of the complex subject comes from (a) being a trustee of the Climate Project Foundation, India since 2010 and (b) my company having worked on a simple hand pump that helped in making good clean potable water available to perhaps half a million villages in India and Africa from the late 1970s till the turn of the century long before that. During this long innings, in 1981, a routine business visit took me to a village and what transpired there made a huge impact on my thinking about water and made me a self-appointed conservationist. Let me first share that nostalgic story.

“Hum iski Pooja kartein hain”

On my first visit to a pump installation in a village near Bhopal, as our jeep started climbing uphill it seems someone noticed the familiar white Unicef vehicle and by the time we reached, there were 200 to 300 people gathered around the shining galvanised steel structure – our pump – on which they had put a garland, anaumand a swastika insignia, with vermillion and also lit anagarbatti. As we got close, my escort told an elderly gentleman standing next to the pump “Baba,in sahb ki company yeh pump banatihai” (father this gentleman’s company makes this pump); before I knew what was happening, the gentleman fell at my feet. I was very embarrassed, raised him and said “aap mere se bare hain, aisa kyuon kar rahehain” (you are an elder, why are you doing this)? His answer left me speechless; “sahb aap nahin samjhen ge, is pump nehamari jindgi badal di hai, yeh haar agarbatti hum roz jalate hain, bhagwan ke baadis ki Pooja karte hain.” (Sir, you won’t understand how this pump has changed our lives. We light these joss sticks every day and pay obeisance to it after we say our prayers to God.)

Suddenly he pointed to a few women standing nearby “aap kekhyal mein in larkion ki kya umar hogi?” (How old do you think these girls are). I was perplexed but muttered that they must be in their thirties. “yeh sub 20-22 ke karib hain, bechari saara din ghar ke liye paanidhohti dhohti budhhi lagne lagti hain. Hamare gaon ke ladkon ko koi ladki nahindeta. Aayie aap ko johar dikhate hain jahan se yeh paani lati hain. (These girls are in their early twenties. After fetching water for each home, they begin to look old. No one offers their girls in marriage to our boys. Come, I will show you the pond they fetch water from.) We got into the jeep and drove three to four kilometres over rocky terrain to a rain fed pond which, till the pump had been installed, was their only source of water for the 500- odd residents, as well as their livestock.

That night I was unable to sleep. We city folk take water for granted, it is available 24x7 just at the turn of a faucet and here were 500 of my countrymen who had to trudge miles every day to collect a bucket of the nectar! Overnight I became sort of an activist. I swore to myself that I would do my best to prevent anyone from wasting even a drop of water.

*Only 4% of Global Water Resources

My company had been manufacturing these ‘positive displacement deep well hand pumps since the mid-seventies. Based on a Swedish design, developed under the aegis of Unicef, the simple steel structure could easily pump out 1000 litres of water every hour from a depth of up to 100 metres. Before you scoff at my mentioning a “hand pump” let me hasten to explain that a common hand pump is a suction device that can theoretically work up to a maximum depth of 32 feet and with slippage losses, it’s average practical range is only about 25 feet. In contrast our positive displacement pump – known as the India Mark 2 – has no theoretical limit and in practice a child can easily operate it for depths of up to 100 metres or 330 feet.

These are sturdy structures, installed on a solid concrete base and very easy to maintain. In the beginning, we were told that about 6,50,000 Indian villages had no reliable source of potable water. To say that this problem of staggering dimensions has been solved now would not be the complete truth. Yes, most villages have been covered with these ‘miracle pumps’ but there are major new problems now. Let me start with the demand-supply situation in the country. 

As ‘consumer connect initiatives’ of several major national dailies had pointed out, on the occasion of ‘World Water Day’ on 22 March, our country accounts for 18 per cent of the world population but we have only four per cent of the global water resources and a mere 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area. Our per capita water availability (per person per annum) is already down to around 1,100 cubic metres (m3) whereas the international community considers anything less than 1,700 as a situation of water stress. As if that was not enough 1,000 m3 is recognised as the threshold of ‘water scarcity’ so we are staring at that frightening situation.

To add insult to injury –despite the looming scarcity – we are one of the largest water users per unit of GDP, which is a sad commentary on our inefficient use of this life sustaining resource. Looking at the near future, our requirement of 1,100 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2017 is expected to grow to 1,200 bcm in 2025 and 1,447 bcm in 2050. The big question before the government and the people is ‘how will this humungous requirement be met’?There are indeed no easy answers but it is quite clear that we have to learn to conserve with a missionary zeal and we have to make sure that not a single drop of water is wasted. The problem is further exacerbated by the well-known fact that a lot of our water – both in the rivers and underground – is badly contaminated with chemical effluents from the factories, faecal matter, leachate from garbage dumps, fluorides and arsenic. This UN initiative of celebrating ‘World Water Day’ every year is excellent as it hopefully sensitises some of us by throwing the issues right in our face without mincing any words.

Before I proceed further, let me add a disclaimer that all figures that I am about to share are estimates. There is a dynamic three yearly compilation of data about rainfall and it’s spatial and seasonal distribution, estimation of groundwater withdrawal and recharge in nearly 7,000 assessment units of the country. All this is done regularly by the Ministry of Jal Shakti through the department of water resources and the Central Ground Water Board. These bodies are staffed by highly qualified and experienced technocrats who are also well aware of the critical need of accurate assessments which then trigger corrective action by the state and central governments. Most of the figures cited by me in this write up are based on the latest report released in June 2021.

*Abundant rain

Total annual rainfall in India – estimated at 4,000 billion cubic metres (bcm) – is nearly four times our current requirement and three times the projected requirement in 2050. So the big management challenge is to capture enough of this bounty. Sadly, our present estimated capture is only around eight per cent and the rest just runs off into the sea. The issue is complex as the rainfall is neither uniform throughout the year nor is it distributed evenly across the country. Just to give you a flavour of the acute diversity, 75 per cent of all rains happen in about five months –  May to September. Only three states, J&K, Himachal and Uttarakhand, experience significant rains almost all year round.

Geographically, against the 119 cm annual average rainfall for the whole country, the North East, the Meghalaya Hills and the Western Ghats get about 250 cm and that figure for Northern Kashmir and Western Rajasthan is a mere 40 cm! The same story is repeated in the case of groundwater; whereas many parts of the country draw much more than the replenishment, there is underutilisation of the same in the eastern and north eastern states. On an overall basis, this elixir of life – fundamental to livelihoods, food security and sustainable development – is in dire need of better and more scientific management.

Groundwater has emerged as the backbone of India’s agriculture as well as drinking water security. A sharp decline in water levels due to withdrawal exceeding the annual replenishment is a matter of great concern in many parts of the country over the last few decades. Effective management of the limited groundwater is crucial for ensuring its long term sustainability. It is extremely important that the decisions taken are pragmatic and based on realistic ongoing assessment of availability. State governments and the Centre have to work in cohesion on both the dynamic assessment of resources as well as course correction of usage.

Even though the annual groundwater recharge at 436 bcm is quite healthy, after providing for some natural discharge about 400 bcm is available for extraction. And against this the total actual extraction at about 62 per cent is only 245 bcm but the trouble starts with grossly uneven replenishment and extraction across the country. As I have mentioned earlier in this paragraph itself some states, namely Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Western UP – notwithstanding the fact that these are great sources of recharge of underground aquifers – withdraw water totally indiscriminately due to various reasons like ‘free water and electricity’ as a political tool leading to high water consuming and unnecessary crops which are sold to the government under the grossly misutilised MSP scheme and often rot in the FCI godowns or even out in the open due to lack of storage space.

*Demand & supply solutions

According to an independent World bank report, the number of bore wells in the country has grown from one million to a whopping 20 million in 50 years. The report suggests integration of demand and supply side solutions. They are actually running some joint programmes with the GOI for groundwater management – albeit with mixed results, largely due to weak regulatory action. Thankfully ‘land rights to groundwater’ – that used to be absolute at one time – are no longer so, otherwise that would have added another complexity to the issue and endless legal hassles.

Extraction did allow rural communities to reduce their short-term vulnerability but it generally has a trade-off and is likely to risk depletion and increase chances of long term vulnerability. Even the much admired ‘India Mark 2 Deep well Hand Pump’ referred to by me at the beginning of this article – billed by many in the seventies and eighties as ‘The Miracle Pump’ – might have caused similar effects but (i) being a manual pump its water extraction quantity was not too much and (ii) there was dire need and a priority at that time to ensure some reliable and safe water supply in lakhs of our villages and also those in many African nations. I believe this pump was able to provide the desired service in over half a million villages and at present there may not be many Indian villages which have no access to drinking water.

Having highlighted all the problems, I must now move to what all is being done already to ameliorate the situation and what more needs to be done. Actually none of the data shared by me is based on any original research by me. All this is available in public domain and perhaps most enlightened readers know more about the situation than I do. And yet, as I had mentioned in the opening paragraph, my only purpose is to remind our opinion makers that they owe it to the country to address these issues by (a) trying to influence the governments to stop wrong practices like free/subsidised  water and electricity that encourage unsuitable crop patterns (b) helping the governments do a more efficient and effective job (c) use their corporate R&D departments to come up with better and more affordable solutions (d) disseminate information through their vast networks about the seriousness of the matter and inspire their employees and all stakeholders to get involved in the water conservation programmes in their homes, societies, clubs, workplaces, religious centres ... really everywhere they come in contact with.

*Conserving water

There are a million things we can do to conserve water in our day to day activities but I would mention only some that have the potential of huge success:

  • Rain water harvesting from all conceivable surfaces. The system has to be properly designed so that the water percolates down to the aquifers. It needs regular maintenance to ensure there’s no clogging.
  • Surface water harvesting through farm ponds, check dams, rejuvenation of water bodies lost due to the avarice of builders and their unholy nexus with civic bodies. Most natural water bodies and natural drainage channels in all major metros and even tier-2 towns have disappeared over the years. Not only does this lead to acute shortage of rain water storage but also causes flooding during heavy rains. Wherever possible new water bodies can be created.
  • Switching to advanced crop patterns and more efficient irrigation methods like drip and pulse technology, extensive use of hybrid seeds and implementation of ‘water shed management’.
  • Industries to recycle waste water and treat all sewage and effluents before discharging the same
  • Sensitising civic bodies about plugging all leaky pipes and other wastages in their supply network, not resorting to ‘free or subsidised’ water, treating all sewage and waste water and reuse the same for construction, gardens, washing, cleaning and other activities so that fresh water use is restricted to drinking, cooking and other essential areas; restoration of urban watersheds and wetlands; protection of water catchment areas, penalising and punishing those polluting water, strictly monitoring rainwater harvesting in all buildings – standalone houses, residential and commercial complexes as well as industries.
  • Educating communities about water conservation – at individual and community levels. Also growing more trees and rewilding of arid areas and creating mini city forests that can help in making the rainfall somewhat more uniformly spread.

*Effluent treatment

Before proceeding further, I want to share two personal experiences – one about industrial effluent treatment in Germany and the other relating to water saving potential in one of our daily activities.

  1. On a visit to the Bayer Chemicals plant at Leverkusen, north of Cologne, around 2001 the concerned engineer was showing us around their effluent treatment system that discharged treated water into a beautiful wide, but shallow channel that ran through lovely greenery and flower plants. At the end of the channel, as we were admiring the picturesque place, when he took out a paper cup from his jacket pocket, filled it up from the channel and drank it; also inviting all of us to feel free to do so leaving us all speechless at the thoroughness of their treatment plant.
  2. On the personal front, we are aware that our forefathers all bathed with a bucket and mug using perhaps not more than 20 litres of water for the purpose. Yet most of us – who can afford to – use showers, pressure showers and Jacuzzis without giving a thought to how much water gets wasted in the process. A simple study has shown that (i) a dry shower – during which you rinse the body and shut off the faucet before applying soap and shampoo and open it again to rinse – uses about 30 litres whereas the (ii) wet shower – without closing the faucet – consumes as much as 60 litres and (iii) pressure showers, tub baths and Jacuzzis can easily guzzle between 100-300 litres. Assuming that only 15 per cent of the population has access to showers (that is nearly 210 million people) and each one takes an average of 1-1/2 showers a day considering the tropical climate conditions and a saving of just 30 litres – wet v/s dry – every time, we are talking about a potential saving of 3,450 billion litres or 3.4 bcm of the precious commodity every year in our country alone. And this is just our bath; there are many other routine activities like washing hands – sadly increased several times since the onset of the pandemic – brushing teeth, shaving, face washing etc. Add to it the wastage with use of RO water purifiers, condensate from the air conditioners, indiscriminate hosing down of cars – a job for which half a bucket of water is enough – and even driveways, lawns and we have great possibilities of saving the precious stuff.

*A salute to Israel

Almost every day we read about dire predictions like (a) 40 per cent of the Indian population not having access to drinking water by 2030 (b) cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Hyderabad ‘going dry’ by 2030 and Jaipur, Indore, Kolkata by 2050 (source NITI) (c) further decline in per capita water availability. If we are seeking some sadistic pleasure at others’ discomfort, Beijing, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Kabul, Mecca, Mexico City, Nairobi, Rio and Sao Paulo are in the same list. I don’t think the purpose of these reports is to frighten us; as a matter of fact, it is important that we are continuously reminded of   the deteriorating situation and get down to taking some action.

If there is one shining example amongst all countries in the world, Israel deserves a salute. A nation with scanty rainfall, optimises its water resources – it recycles 90 per cent of all waste water, they now use ‘micro irrigation’ – despite the fact that they invented ‘drip irrigation’, they are meeting 80 per cent of their needs through relatively inexpensive desalination plants. Before closing, I am tempted to add a little known anecdote that is deeply related to water management in India.

We are all aware of Dr Ambedkar as the chief architect of our constitution but at least I wasn’t aware (till I read an article, by Uttam Kumar Sinha of the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, in the Hindustan Times of 17 April 2022) that he also played a key role in initiating water management in the country way back in the early forties. From 1942 to 1946 Ambedkar had served as a member of the Viceroy’s executive council, primarily responsible for labour, irrigation and power.

This is when the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) – the first river valley project in India – was taken up. Ambedkar opposed the Viceroy’s prejudiced choice of a British expert to work as the chief engineer and succeeded in getting an American engineer, with experience in Tennesse Valley Corporation, in that position. Established in 1948, DVC ushered in other projects like the Bhakra Nangal Dam, Hirakud Dam and Sone River Valley projects. If this great man had buckled in before the Viceroy, perhaps all these projects may not have seen the light of the day.

Time to get into ‘mission mode’. I have full faith in the ingenuity of our scientists, technologists and social managers to get a firm grip on the situation sooner than later.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Krishan Kalra

The author is President NAAI and Member National Advisory Board SARTHAK

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