The year 2020 is almost up, yet our water woes are far from over. Ironically, we also find ourselves amid a global pandemic where hygiene is one of our biggest shields against the spread of the disease. About time we prioritised water conservation, don't you think?
On June 14, 2018, the Government of India’s policy think tank NITI Aayog published a Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report which stated that about 600 million people in the country are facing acute water shortages. Another important observation of the report, that 21 cities across the country will run out of groundwater by the year 2020 is under debate, but everybody agrees with the overarching problem – this is the worst water crisis in our country’s history.
At the sixth edition of the Nature inFocus Festival (August 2019), Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus launched the Save Every Drop campaign with a panel discussion on “The past, present, and future of water in cities". The panellists, Harini Nagendra, Leo F Saldanha and Jonathan Clay, talked about the ongoing crisis and how our collective mismanagement of the resource has accelerated the problem at an alarming rate.
Starting September 2019, we began publishing a series of interviews with the country’s water heroes who have been working to address the issue long before we even became aware of it. From spearheading water conservation in crowded cities, inundating parched rural and agricultural lands, saving rivers and the species that depend on them, to working at the policy level – the Save Every Drop series has highlighted the work of 12 individuals who are influencing India’s water usage in their own unique way. Their paths may be varied, but they are all moving towards the same destination – a water-secure India.
Beyond talking about the problem, the series aimed to discuss accessible solutions that citizens can equally participate in and make a difference at the community, state or country-level. It is certainly not all doom and gloom. Read on to find out how we can attain a water-secure India.
The Bengaluru-based water activist and urban planner who is popularly known as the ‘Zenrainman’ has developed over 100,000 recharge wells across the city as part of the 'Million Wells Project' while providing employment for the Mannu Vaddars, a community of well-diggers. Through coordinated community action, he worked on reviving the Jakkur Lake in Bangalore city. Srikantaiah is also the founder of Rainwater Club, a virtual site where people discuss water conservation measures, which has since taken on new identities, in the form of a YouTube channel with over 2 million views and a Facebook page.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that water is free and that it should be treated as a free code of nature. I think water is priceless, so while we capture the human right to water in which everybody has access to some basic minimum quantity and quality of water, we must get our act right in terms of pricing it, so that we recover the money to invest in cleaning it up and making sure that it is not overused.
Srinivasan is a Senior Fellow and leads the Water, Land and Society Programme at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. She is also the Director of Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE. Her research in the Arkavathy and Noyyal basins in Karnataka has provided us with some much-needed perspective on how human activities have a profound impact on water stress. This has built a case for research and data-driven conservation measures. Her research has also highlighted the methodological issues with our groundwater analysis, thus aiding in obtaining the real picture when it comes to groundwater levels.
Research on water in India is far behind the rest of the world. When it comes to water, you can’t conduct studies for one month and understand the entire picture, because you have wet and dry months. Additionally, for the longest time, all data was classified. Other countries have invested in experimental watersheds to understand how systems work. Since we didn’t have the culture of going out, measuring parameters and doing field research, it became an approach of computer simulation modelling. That has done us serious disservice in many ways.
A name that needs no introduction, 85-year-old Aabid Surti is a national-award winning author, artist and environmentalist. Through his Drop Dead Foundation (DDF), Surti visits housing colonies in Mumbai with a plumber in tow to fix leaking taps – a service he has been doing for free for the last 15 years. Surti's contribution to water conservation has been recognised across the country and the world, with several people following his footsteps in their own cities. The octogenarian has worked on saving more than 20 million litres of water. He has given several talks about the importance of water conservation, thereby instilling a can-do attitude amongst his audience.
My grandmother used to walk a mile to get one pot of water for the family. Today, if I open the tap, there is Ganga sitting in my home ready to give me water. It is the bane of our society. We do not realise how precious water is.
Popularly known as the Paani Maata of India, Ruia is the founder of the Aakar Charitable Trust (ACT) which has been actively involved in implementing rural water security. By establishing check dams, the members of the trust work with village communities to address their water problems. ACT has completed more than 360 check dams, bringing water and financial security to 500 plus villages in the country. Ruia also encourages education and equal opportunities for women in these villages through her conservation efforts.
As of July 2019, we have completed 368 check dams. Our work has impacted residents across 229 villages, greatly enhancing their lives and placing them well above the poverty line. Additionally, it has benefited 289 neighbouring villages with the water from the dams also replenishing their wells.
Kalpana Ramesh is a designer and architect-turned-water conservationist who is spearheading water awareness in the city of Hyderabad. She leads Water Initiatives for Society for Advancement of Human Endeavour (SAHE), a Hyderabad-based NGO, where she has been instrumental in conservation projects like ‘Save 10K Bores’ which worked to revive defunct borewells using rainwater. She is also leading the ‘Live The Lakes’ initiative to restore and revive lakes within the city. Ramesh’s home in Hyderabad is considered as a stellar example of urban water conservation by repurposing greywater and harvesting rainwater. "Be Your Own Water Warrior" is her motto, and she lives by it every day.
Reaching out to people has always been very challenging. In my community, for example, people were convinced about conservation efforts only once all the bores in the neighbouring communities went dry. That is when they realised that the time to act is now. We constructed a few rainwater harvesting pits, injection bores and set up a treatment plant to recycle sewage water. Once people saw the impact and how it reduced the dependency on tankers, they were happy to do more. Unless people are personally affected by the crisis, they do not feel the need to act. They love the idea, but they are not aware of the amount of work these processes involve.
K.J. Joy is an activist and a researcher who currently coordinates the national level initiative, Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, a network of about 600 individuals and organisations who are interested in engaging with water conflicts. He is also the founding member of Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) which works in Natural Resource Management. Through the introduction of Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM), where farmers are involved in the operation and maintenance of irrigation systems, SOPPECOM has brought relief to numerous farmers in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh among others. Joy has also published extensively on water and development issues, raising important questions in these areas. Having worked at the grassroot level and at the policy level, Joy’s work aims to address conflicts and encourage cooperative measures.
My first take is that there is no silver bullet. People talk about very ad-hoc solutions like plant trees on either bank of the river, and your problem will be solved. These types of simplistic solutions create more problems than they solve. So we need to take a hard look at it, and we need to get much more integrated solutions.
'The Waterman of India', Rajendra Singh entered the field of water conservation in the 1980s and has been fighting the battle ever since. His NGO, Tarun Bharat Sangh, based in Alwar, Rajasthan, has employed the johad or percolation pond method to bring water security to more than 1200 villages across 15 districts within the state. The work done by his organisation has led to more than 17 lakh people returning to their villages. Additionally, Tarun Bharat Sangh also works to create awareness about the water crisis through rallies and discussions. The Tarun Jal Vidyapeeth is an educational initiative of the NGO that promotes functional water literacy among activists and students. Singh's work has also rejuvenated rivers across Rajasthan, setting an example for not just other states, but also other countries to follow. For his work, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2001 and the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2015.
I have seen rivers change colours through the day, during my childhood. I would love for future generations to experience nature in such pristine conditions. Log apne bachpan ki Ganga aur Yamuna bhool gaye hai (People have forgotten the rivers of their childhood). Students have the power to change this scenario. I want students to invest an hour of their day on their health and an hour on water conservation — Ek ghanta deh ke liye aur ek ghanta desh ke liye. Somewhere they will realise the two are not mutually exclusive.
An engineer-turned-ecologist, Shishir Rao's research focuses on the eco-hydrology of tropical rivers in the Western Ghats with a special focus on the ecological impacts of small hydropower projects in the region. Rao's work reveals how these green and clean energy sources come with hidden costs which are incurred by placing the aquatic and riparian biodiversity at risk. They also cause significant harm to the endemic species of the region. Additionally, Rao has looked at the social impacts of such projects giving us an overall understanding of their consequences that affect the residents and wildlife of the region alike.
World over, large river infrastructure projects have come under intense criticism for their long-lasting hydrological, ecological and socio-ecological impacts. But we somehow seem to be oblivious to this fact. We live in an era of global warming and climate crisis. Given how unpredictable our monsoon has become, how can a project like Yettinahole, which is intended to capture and divert monsoon rainfall guarantee reliable outcomes? We desperately need a revamp to our very approach to water management. Currently, it is one of attempting to solve a problem by creating two more elsewhere.
Parineeta Dandekar is the Associate Coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) – an advocacy group that focuses on raising awareness and sharing relevant information about river-related infrastructures and policy issues. This is a fancy way of saying that her job is to ask the tough questions. She has been the voice of reason for river-related projects, emphasising on the need for informed decision making. SANDRP’s analysis of various floods in the country has given us an understanding of how dam water storage and release need to be better monitored and understood.
First, I think it is important for people to know where their water comes from, and where it goes. Find out if you are connected to a centralised sewage system. You will be surprised to know that many are not. People should also try to visit the nearby sewage treatment plant and learn how it functions. Water governance in India is very confusing, so starting with the basics is important.
Ajay Mittal and his friend Vijay Agarwal made international news when they started an initiative to fix leaking taps across the streets of Kolkata. What started as a weekend activity has become a movement for Mittal whose volunteer organisation Active Citizens Together For Sustainability (ACTS) has made water conservation a priority. A climate activist and a conservationist, Mittal is now working to engage with farmers to implement water conservation techniques at the farm-level. He is also working on creating cleaner urban rivers by promoting river cleanup drives.
In communities where we did the tap-fixing drives, several households use the water from one tap. People have to wait for their turn to get water. Yes, there is wastage, but the root of the problem here is access to the resource. When basic resources, sanitation and healthcare are bigger issues, conservation becomes an abstract concept. We can talk to them about it, but we need to address the other problems first.
Our water problems don’t just affect us, but also the other water-dependent species, and Nachiket Kelkar’s work highlights this fact. He is an ecologist who studies riverine capture fisheries and Ganges River Dolphins, along with many related issues. Kelkar's work focuses on the biogeography and conservation of the species which are dependent on freshwater sources. But, beyond that, he also seeks to understand the impacts on communities that depend on these water sources for livelihood, an example being how fishing bans affect the traditional fishing communities. Kelkar's works has added the human element to conservation and the wildlife element to our awareness about the water-related issues, showing us how the two worlds coexist.
There is some river around us always – even if we may not know of it. No matter how small or large, or clean or polluted, it has a history, an attachment with some town, a group of fishermen, an industry extracting its water, some local shrine around it, or a wetland in the vicinity where water birds congregate! So we only live far from rivers in the sense that we do not think as much about them as we think of, say, forests.
Aditi Mukherji is a Research Group Leader at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) where she leads the Climate Change, Adaptation and Resilience group. Her research on groundwater usage in the state of West Bengal has brought some much-needed relief to farmers, making access to water easy for them. Her research focuses on the water-energy-food nexus, highlighting how our water policies impact our agriculture and vice versa. As part of the editorial team of The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report, which is the first comprehensive report to cover this region, Mukherji has called to attention the impact of retreating glaciers and glacier-fed rivers on the mountain springs.
Even if the world can keep its pledge of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees (which is very unlikely as we all know), 1/3rd of Himalayan glaciers will still be gone by 2100. If warming continues at the current rate, then up to 2/3rd of the glaciers will cease to exist. The situation is pretty grim because whatever happens to the Himalayan glaciers also affects the rivers. Western rivers like the Indus are more susceptible to the impacts of melting glaciers than eastern rivers like the Ganga and Brahmaputra, as they derive a larger share of their flow from the monsoon rains. However, we have to keep in mind that these mighty rivers mostly serve the populations downstream. The mountain dwellers don’t really rely on them because they flow in deep valleys, and most mountain settlements are on ridges at the top. Local sources like water from the springs sustains them in this case.