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The trouble with emphasis on water conservation is that we are only looking and tackling just one side of the problem.
It all really started with an innocuous Instagram post by Hollywood actor Leonardo Dicaprio, wherein he highlighted the water issue in Chennai. The narrative till then was of a local Tamil Nadu government caught napping, unable to grapple with the scarcity of water. Sadly, Chennai has been no stranger to water shortages, there were even times when potable water was transported via railways to the city. So, there was not much attention given to the story, beyond the political play. But, Dicaprio's post transmuted the water scarcity issue into a climate-change one. Almost overnight, experts and novices alike woke up to calamity of water scarcity in India.
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Dicaprio posted on June 26 and 4 days later Prime Minister Narendra Modi upped the ante. On his monthly radio show Mann Ki Baat, he spoke at length about the water crisis and the ways in which the water crisis was to be averted. He went as far as making three requests from all Indians to avert a water crisis — all Indians should create awareness on water shortage, share knowledge of traditional methods of water storage and share information about individuals and NGOs working on water conservation. This way collectively, the water crisis could be resolved.
Subsequently, there was the launch of Mission Jal Shakti, which was to be a nation-wide program on the lines of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. The water resources ministry was revamped as the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation were merged into the Jal Shakti ministry, under the aegis of the union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. The seriousness of the government can be gauged from the fact in the Union Budget 2019-20, Rs. 28,261.59 crore was earmarked of the Jal Shakti ministry.
Soon enough, the celebrities too jumped on the bandwagon, there were tweets, retweets and all the ancillary stuff. The social media space exploded with hashtags and visual posts, extolling the need for saving water and the ways of doing it. Now, if everyone turned into a water warrior, we would be able to resolve the water crisis. Right?
The trouble with emphasis on water conservation is that we are only looking and tackling just one side of the problem, say the 50 percent side. The other half, the consumption side still needs to be resolved. To give a better understanding, let me expand on the consumption side.
To begin with, we all know that 4 percent of the world's water (fresh) supports as much as 18 percent of the world's population. And also, the fact that thanks to an ever-increasing population and the need to provide for them have resulted in a tremendous decrease in per capita availability of water, from 6,008 m3 (cubic meters) in 1947 to around 1799 m3 in 2001 to 1,545 m3 in 2011 -- a decline of around 75 percent in 60 years. And if that is not bad enough, the per capita availability is predicted to go down below 1000 m3 by 2050.
But do you know who is the biggest consumer of fresh water in India?
It is the agriculture sector. Yes! The agriculture sector accounts for more than 80 percent of water. This is where the ground-water is heavily depleted to provide water for the crops. Industries account for around 13-15 percent of water consumption and some 5-7 percent is used for domestic that is the water supply that reaches our homes.
Thus, it is the agricultural sector that needs to reform its water consumption more than anything else. The problem arises because crop patterns in India are based on what income it fetches, rather than how much water is required or whether such water is available. A sad example of that is how rice is grown in Punjab and Haryana with flood irrigation, much of which comes from groundwater resources. Years back, there was an extensive geological study done to understand the different soil types, what we need now is a similar study to create a water map and what crops are suitable for each area.
A part of the problem arises because we talk of water as a human right, rather than as a depleting commodity. Every individual indeed has a right to water, but we also need to bear in mind that there is just a finite amount of water available. Mechanisms need to put in, some sort of value is associated with water. Agricultural sector cannot have a free-run with indiscriminate usage, neither can the industries, or households. There needs to be pricing in place.
In 2013, former Union Minister (for Railways) Suresh Prabhu was the chairman of the South Asia Water Conference. Back then, he had presented an extensive and detailed paper on the water crisis in India, it was titled as India's Water Challenges. The paper dealt at length on how and why the water crisis was shaping up the way it is and what are the measures that need be taken to avert a full-blown crisis. The paper might be dated, but it is still a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the problem of water in India.
In the same paper, he spoke about how the current agricultural practices and industrial practices were not in tune with the macro-requirement of conservation. One of the interesting points that he raised was on how to curtail indiscriminate consumption was to set the "economic value of water". Here's what he said,
"A key factor affecting the water situation in India is the price of water. In order to meet the demand for water and manage it sustainably, the Indian government, along with its neighbours, will have to account for the economic value of water. Currently, the price charged to farmers and industry is highly subsidized, and authorities are not taking into account the vulnerability and scarcity of water resources when setting the prices. At the same time, in order to raise the real price of water, it is essential to consider income levels, the rural or urban setting, and the profitability of industries."
All the media campaigns (social, print, television) are targeted at the urban audience, which merely accounts for 6-7 percent of the water usage. How will the problem be solved if we ignore the 80 percent and target 20 percent?
In fact, even in the urban space, some 50 percent of water is wasted in cities like Mumbai and Delhi due to transmission and distribution losses. This is due to the crumbling infrastructure that has been in place for decades if not centuries.
Hence, to resolve the water crisis in India, there are numerous steps that need to be undertaken, at both conservation level and consumption level. We need to invest in infra, build water-bodies, invest in desalinisation, replenish ground-water table. And also, use technology in agriculture in a major way, drip-water irrigation, sensors, etc. And finally, just like we look at the CO2 or Carbon Footprint of things, we need to also look at the Water footprint of products.
Back in 2014, the Namami Gange Programme was launched with much fanfare. 5-years later, there is still a question mark that hangs over the project. Let’s hope that the Jal Shakti Programme draws lessons from it and implementation is done in a robust and comprehensive manner, with proper groundwork and assessment. To be honest, India cannot afford a failure on this one, there’s just too much at stake.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone.