As another World Water Day flows in , India faces multiple challenges to meet its increasing requirements. That requires, science, conservation, and perhaps most importantly, education of its people.
When we speak of the wisdom of the masses, it usually strikes a chord. No one should dispute that communities that survive off forests for example, know how to use their resources best. Or the intimate knowledge of crop cycles with a farmer in the vocation for generations. But when it comes to water, India finds itself at a crossroads. With over 100 million Indians living in areas with poor water quality, and a further 600 million in areas with differnt stages of water ‘stress’ or shortages, we have failed the water test.
Clearly, water wisdom, much like a lot of ‘our’ water, has evaporated. The mistakes have been many, and notably, involve no shortage of blunders, both historic and ongoing, from central planners who should have known better. To give one example, European bankers we have spoken to expressed amazement at the alacrity with which we have ‘whitelisted’ complete sectors when it comes to environmental concerns linked to water use and treatment, without understanding the ramifications of the same. While a trade off between development to meet aspirations and the environment is understandable, the guaranteed stupidity of destroying future resources for the present doesn’t make any sense, in any context.
Add to that a general apathy to the precious resource, slated to become even more precious in the coming years as the country heads towards higher water stress in the coming years. 50% of the population is expected to be hit by water stress by 2025. Forget climate change, forget global warming. That 2025 figure is almost here, when seen in the context of our ability to take corrective measures, and even reverse our inexorable march.
For 50% by 2025 might make for a strong headline, but along the way, even 30% stressed by 2021, or 40% by 2023 can hardly be reasons to put this off any further.
Make no mistake, much like the Swacchh Bharat Movement, which attacked a seemingly impossible task like open defecation with amazing results, it will take no less than a movement on a war footing to fight for our water too. With similar backing, timetables, incentives to perform and strong measures to enforce common sense.
It’s one of the greatest tragedies of the water crisis that farming, which has borne the brunt of central planning for its own ‘benefit’ and come out the worse for it, has actually become one of the biggest culprits in the water crisis. From ‘subsidised’ power leading to wasteful extraction, to the use of what is called ‘flood irrigation’ to farm key crops, the story of water in our agricultural sector is a story of unbelievable waste and destruction. One of the reason why doomsayers have predicted that India will become a net importer of food by 2025.
One of the reasons quoted for such predictions has been the scarcely believable difference in productivity between India and the leaders, when it comes to key staples and beyond. Thus, India, despite leading in total output for multiple crops, rarely comes up above even the AVERAGE productivity per hectare for the same crops. This, despite being blessed with an abundance of natural advantages like fertile soil, ‘free power’ and of course ‘free water’.
Not that industry has cut a better picture. If water use has been conservative, industry has to carry the blame for immensely destructive practices like polluting sources, rivers and the ground with their untreated filth. The law on waste treatment is still followed more in the breach, than letter. Punitive measures have followed only after demonstrable and blatantly visible impact on communities in the form of spikes in illness and diseases, which is frankly, shameful.
What this indicates is a clear need to build awareness, understanding and a respect for our water resources early on, for every Indian, rather than a ‘source’ led approach. Thus, in city after city, as water needs have expanded to keep pace with rising populations, planning has invariably veered towards identifying new sources of supply, rather than augmenting, or better using existing sources, forget recycling and reduction. A water expert used dark humour to explain the issue better. ‘ Awareness and respect for water in this country is inversely proportional to access to piped water. The pipe, when it brings water to a house, seems to become the sole focus of attention, not what flows in it, where it comes from, and how it reaches”.
As always, it seems like the time for harsher measures will be right when expectations are lowest, ie, when users are willing to compromise most.
Our education system needs to wake up this reality, of making people more eco-aware, to make behavioural change voluntary rather than fiat driven. The earlier we start teaching our children about the consequences and the urgency, the better it will be. Until then, let us hope that the work of many of our water warriors makes an impact, both in changing mindsets and opening eyes. Learning from crisis to crisis has not been our best tactic so far, and is best dumped as soon as possible.