As we are celebrating world water day 2019 with the theme ‘Leaving No One Behind’, two United Nation’s reports release in this month have underlined the growing water crisis on the watery planet. While theWaterAid report has raised alarm over rapidly falling groundwater table in South Asia, the sixth edition of ‘Global Environment Outlook’, has warned of growing pollution of freshwater sources and resultant impact on human health.
The situation this year in India indeed warrants wide attention as about 50 per cent of the country is facing drought condition. With rapid fall in groundwater table, wells, tanks and streams are turning dry in most part of central and south Indian states. The farming, riverine and village communities are particularly at the receiving end of compounding water crisis.
In a remedial but surprising move, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike has set up a team of water marshals to act against water tankers charging exorbitantly from residents. Before this, Nasik district administration has formed patrolling squads to protect canal water from theft by farmers. Tribal areas in Siddipet, Telangana arereeling under dearth of potable water. The forest fire and increasing summer has forced wild animals move towards human populated areas.
However, on positive note, many individuals, groups and communities have silently been investing efforts in water conservation works. Many have yielded positive out-comes. Many other institutions including some initiatives at government level have also set an example before others in preserving the water resources and treating and reusing polluted water. Also, there are a number of remarkable water conservation efforts by farming communities across the country. This compilation tries to put together some of the positive water actions in India during the past one year.
The state of Kerala experienced extreme precipitation events during the 2018 South West monsoon period with multiple episodes culminating in devastating floods across the state during 14th-18th August 2018. This year, with an early onset of monsoons that dovetailed with strong summer showers, the state received about 41% excess rainfall (2394 mm against the normal of 1700 mm) during the period June 1st to August 22nd . Almost all of its reservoirs were near full storage by mid-July.
The heavy downpour and the uncontrolled opening of the spillway gates of almost all reservoirs that inundated huge stretches of river banks and floodplains, along with massive landslides across the Western Ghats affected more than 1.5 million people, with close to 500 human casualties, immense losses to property, livelihoods and resource security apart from the extensive damage to forests, wildlife and biodiversity. Maximum destruction was observed along the rivers of Periyar, Chalakudy and Pamba, all having multiple dams on their tributaries. The debate is still on as to the various reasons, both manmade and natural, behind the floods and the resultant wide-ranging casualties [2,3,4,5,6]. Meanwhile things have taken a rather unexpected turn in the flood ravaged state.
Chandigarh is widely known for its well-designed urban areas and associated amenities. No doubt, the city is relatively congestion free and cleaner. The roads are wider, sideways have adequate space for walkers and cyclists and they are mostly covered under thick tree canopy earning its tag of ‘City Beautiful’.
However less is known about and rivers. This pictorial account tries to throw some light on present day situation of water sources like wells, ponds and rivers in and around Chandigarh town.
SANDRP & VEDITUM: Press Release, Panna, Apr 19, 2018
About the Yatra: The Ken River is considered to be one of India’s cleaner rivers. It is part of the Ganga basin and meets the Yamuna at Chilla Ghat in Banda District, Uttar Pradesh. To closely understand the Ken, this walk along the Ken was organised by SANDRP – South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) from Delhi and Veditum India Foundation from Kolkata. In the past, these organisations have also undertaken long journeys along rivers Yamuna and Ganga.
The difficult terrain of the Ken River and the harsh weather required this journey to be undertaken in multiple parts (June 2017, October 2017 and April 2018). It required a total of 33 days to complete this over 600 km journey on foot, where we discussed issues of the river, water, agriculture, the proposed Ken Betwa project and other socio-environmental topics with villagers in over 60 villages.
On occasion of World Water Day 2018, SANDRP put together reports of remarkable water conservation work done by individuals, villager community and organizations across the country.
Good that UN report this WWD says[i]: “The efforts by local communities in India to improve water availability have been lauded in a UN report that highlights the importance of finding nature-based solutions to meet global water challenges…. The report notes that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at disposal. It also cited the example of China’s Sponge City which aims to recycle 70 per cent of rainwater.”
But the UN report[ii] does not mention that local options should be the top priority and should be exhausted before going for large projects. Unfortunately, Indian water resources establishment’s priority is Large dams and river linking. The UN report also does not say that local systems are bound to be neglected and destroyed in the shadow of large projects and where the governance is top down, unaccountable, non transparent and non participatory.
Rivers in different parts of the world have been dammed to fulfill human needs like water for irrigation, industries and domestic supplies. Then there are dams that have been raised to control floods or to produce electricity.
These have often been celebrated as human victory over nature, glorified as engineering marvel and claimed variously as highest, longest etc as a matter of national pride.
But rarely has there been a holistic assessment or appreciation of what a dam does to the natural entity called river and its adverse impacts on all the associated life forms, including humans.
“Konkan” is the narrow strip of land encompassing coastlines, estuaries, lateritic plateaus, foothills of Western Ghats and dense forests, which runs from Maharashtra to Goa. It is bound by the Arabian Sea to its west and the mighty Sahyadri ranges (Western Ghats) to its east. The isolated region has a distinct and rich culture of folklore, performing arts, music, literature, culinary art, with subtle changes from north to south. The region receives heavy rainfall of about 2500-3500 mm in summer monsoons, with the lofty Sahyadri ranges blocking the moisture-laden clouds.
The rivers in the region are as spectacular: gushing and gurgling over steep hilly paths and meeting the Arabian Sea in just about 100-150 kilometers from their origin in the Western Ghats. The steep and hilly terrain makes it difficult to build large dams, (though we keep trying unsuccessfully as can be seen here: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/large-dams-in-konkan-western-ghats-costs-benefits-and-impacts/) and water resource managers never fail to point out that of the total yield of rivers in Maharashtra, 45% is from of the West-flowing rives of Konkan!
Having said that, the tempestuous nature of rives, rocky terrain and steep slopes mean that rives dry up as fast as they swell. The lifeline here is not surface water, but groundwater…Groundwater that emerges from springsas the predominant porous laterite rock meets a layer of clay..or dug wells…or unique water harvesting structures crafted by local communities.
Here is a glimpse of some such structures…to appreciate not only the utility and appropriateness, but beauty of small, local structures and traditional wisdom. Also important to note is the diversity and independence of water management in Konkan: as in India..where communities own, maintain and manage their own water. There is a special kind of power and magic in this independence.Continue reading “Many colors of groundwater in a tiny Western Ghats village”→
Above: Well at Lothal, possibly more than 4000 years old Photo : Srijan Bhatt, 2013
Over the last 3-4 decades, groundwater has emerged as the main source for all uses including irrigation. According to the World Bank, “India is the largest groundwater user in the world”. It has a relatively decentralized access and is convenient to use, making it the backbone of India’s agriculture and drinking water security. As a common pool resource, it also remains the only source of drinking water for most rural households. Almost 60% of the water used for irrigation in India is groundwater. Estimates show that nearly 50% of urban drinking water comes from underground sources. The 12th Five Year Plan recognizes that groundwater is being exploited beyond sustainable levels and with an estimated 30 million groundwater structures in play, India may be hurtling towards a serious crisis of groundwater over extraction and quality deterioration. In fact, according to the World Bank report, “If current trends continue, within 20 years 60 percent of all aquifers in India will be in a critical condition (World Bank 2005)”.
Quality of groundwater also needs attention. There is a dearth of safe drinking water in many parts of the country.The groundwater crisis seems to be embedded at two different levels: depletion of aquifers (quantity) and their contamination (quality).
Challenge of Quantity:
According to the 12th Five Year Plan, groundwater decline ranges from <1m to 4m annually in various parts of the country.
The report of the Expert Group on Groundwater Management and Ownership of the Planning Commission (2007), had reported that in 2004, 28 per cent of India’s blocks were showing alarmingly high levels of groundwater use. In another instance demonstrating depletion, an assessment by NASA showed that during 2002 to 2008, India lost about 109 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM) of groundwater leading to a decline in water table to the extent of 0.33 metres per annum.
The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) monitors groundwater levels four times a year: pre-monsoon (March/April/May), August, November and January at around 11000 wells in the country, but this number sites is till not representative of the large no of aquifers or the 30 million Indian users.
In this groundwater monitoring, CGWB takes into account various regional changes in groundwater levels. Apart from the draft of groundwater for various purposes, quantum of rainfall and its component being recharged to the ground is a major controlling factor of the depth to water levels and its fluctuations. According to the CGWB report for the time period of January 2013- January 2014, it was seen that out of the 11,204 wells studied, about 66% showed a rise in water levels, 31% recorded a fall and there was no change recorded in 2% of the wells. The report concluded that in general, there is a rise in water levels in the entire country. The report seems to be giving erroneous picture, possibly due to the good monsoon of 2013 when the long term trends are contrary to this.
However, the Union Minister of State of Water Resources recently informed Lok Sabha that around 56% of the wells in the country showed a decline in their levels in 2013 as compared to the average of the preceding decade (2003-2012). As per this information, 76% wells in Tamil Nadu, 72% wells in Punjab, 71% wells in Kerala, 69% wells in Karnataka, 66% wells in Meghalaya, 65% wells in Haryana, 64% wells in W Bengal & 62 % wells in Delhi showed depletion.
But the CGWB report does not tell us what the quality of water is like, or how feasible it is to use the available water. According to a study on the water situation in Punjab, a farmer had to sell off 4 acres of his ancestral farmland at a village in Patiala because it had turned less productive thanks to the groundwater level receding from 70-80 feet pre-1990s to 400 feet today. “Even the water available at this depth is not good for irrigation. Those who can afford it, dig bore wells at around 1,000 feet which yields good quality water”. The 12th Five Year Plan states that the absence of rational pricing for canal water, combined with free or very cheap power for agriculture, has encouraged agricultural practices which are extremely wasteful. Cheap power has encouraged excess drawal of groundwater leading to falling water tables in large parts of the country. However groundwater situation is much more complex to fit into narrow economic framework, the key issues in groundwater remain need for bottom up community driven regulation and protection and multiplication of groundwater recharging systems.
In Maharashtra, it has been reported that indiscriminate groundwater abstraction is leading not only in fall of groundwater levels, but shrinking of ‘paleo-historic storages’ which can be many millenia old. One of the culprits is sugarcane cultivation in the drist parts of the state, leading to critical watersheds. According to GSDA in Maharashtra, groundwater table in some places has decreased to as much as a metre or more due to pumping.
The 12th Plan recognizes that water balances for the country as a whole are of limited value since they hide the existence of areas of acute water shortage, to say nothing of the problems of quality.
The challenge of Quality:
In addition to depletion, many parts of India report severe water quality problems, causing drinking water vulnerability and huge livelihood impacts. According to reports, as we drill deeper for water, our groundwater can get contaminated with fluoride, arsenic and other impurities. In the Punjab example, it was seen that wells have to be dug deeper because of depleting groundwater, thus increasing the chances of contamination. In coastal areas salinity increases as we deplete the aquifers. Due to lax pollution control, industries in many parts of India are known to pump untreated toxic effluents into the aquifers. The untreated effluents released into the streams and rivers also affect the groundwater. Such impacts are irreversible on long term basis.
It has been reported this year that the western zone bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Pune has prohibited unauthorized extraction of groundwater for commercial use by businesses dealing with packaged water. This measure was taken following a petition filed by city-based Sahayog Trust stating adverse effects of high levels of fluoride in groundwater on people’s health. It stated that high levels of fluoride in groundwater were affecting villagers’ health in 12 districts. This unchecked exploitation of groundwater is due to the rampant and illegal drilling of bore wells, which are dug deeper than the permissible levels, causing contamination.
According to a recent analysis of groundwater in Delhi, almost 30 per cent of the samples were found to contain high levels of fluoride which are beyond permissible limits. Areas in West, South-West and some of New Delhi are also affected by significant nitrate levels, caused most probably by the improper disposal of waste and sewage water around the wells. According to the report, with the Delhi Jal Board not being able to provide clean drinking water to all areas, the people dependent on direct extraction wells and tankers are at highest risk. Similarly in Bengaluru, a whopping 99.1% samples tested by Mines and Geology Department of the state in 2011 were unfit for human consumption due to nitrates, iron, fluoride and excessive minerals (hard water).
A rising concern for groundwater quality is the introduction of a new process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The fracking process is used to extract shale gas which is very different from conventional gas production. Unlike conventional gas extraction, which requires a well to be dug in the area where the gas is found, shale gas is found dispersed in a large area, trapped amidst impermeable rock. Its extraction requires drillers to smash rocks forcing millions of gallons of water and chemicals through cracks. The US has been a pioneer in promoting and using the technology in the hope of attaining energy independence.
Last year, the government allowed ONGC and RIL to experiment with the extraction of shale gas. Under this policy, aimed at boosting domestic output of fossil fuels,the above companies are most likely to be permitted to extract oil and gas from shale rocks. While the implementation of this technique is underway, according to a 2013 report, France has banned fracking on concern the process contaminates underground water supply, while Germany proposes to outlaw the procedure in protected areas of the country9.
It has been seen in regions of other countries which are using fracking, e.g. in the US, that it has led to serious groundwater contamination. The major problem is the generation of waste toxic water which is formed after pumping water through the cracks for gas extraction. This waste water is disposed in the deeper layers of the earth, causing contamination of aquifers.
Till now, there were no effective plans by the government for managing groundwater resources. In the 12th Five Year Plan, government aims to map sources of groundwater, i.e., the aquifers. Groundwatter regulation requires a change in the policies of governance as some important legal principles governing groundwater even today were laid down in the British common law as early as the middle of the nineteenth century and have not been updated since then.
This plan proposed an Aquifer Mapping Programme2. The aim is to bring “sustainable management of our aquifers to the forefront of policymaking”. This programme seeks to map the quality, quantity and sustainability of groundwater in aquifers and encourage better groundwater management plans at the appropriate scale. It was meant to be a prerequisite and a precursor to the National Groundwater Management Program. This started in 2012 and aimed to finish its pilot study by 2013. It includes the constitution or reformation of State agencies for groundwater and also seeks the participation of research institutes and civil society.
The government in its twelfth five year plan had also proposed a policy for participatory groundwater management2, which means that there would be implementation through collaborative approach amongst central and state organizations, research institutes, NGOs, and the local community. The management plans under this programme are to be executed by trained community workers/volunteers. This also allows for the data to be collected by grass root workers, who are also engaged in sensitizing the local population about the general trends and optimal use of groundwater. But these government efforts are yet to show any results.
It is clear that the government has completely failed on the groundwater front. First step towards recovery will be through the acceptance that groundwater is India’s water lifeline and is going to remain so for many decades to come. It needs to recognise this in the National Water Policy, Plans and programmes. Secondly, all water resources efforts need to focus on sustaining this groundwater lifeline. In this direction, community-driven management, protection of existing groundwater recharge systems and creation of many such systems have to be key elements. In spite of the serious threat to India’s groundwater lifeline, which is further accententuated in the context of changing climate, there is little progress in achieving any of these steps. It seems the groundwater situation is likely to worsen before there is any hope for improvement.