WHILE we look to Copenhagen and Cancun and Durban for the world powers to save the planet from global warming, time is, quite literally, slipping beneath our feet. If the United Nations’ World Water Development Report 2012 is anything to go by, “India faces an unprecedented crisis in the next two decades” which “threatens the country’s food and water security”. It is the biggest crisis of our lifetime.
Water, though, is everywhere. Nearly 70% of the earth is covered by oceans and much of its land in permanent ice. But only 3% of it is freshwater, no more than a few drops that we can drink. Groundwater is the largest volume of the unfrozen freshwater but accounts for just 1% of earth’s total water. It is a scarce, invisible resource, always taken for granted.
In an age obsessed with greenhouse gases, water emerges as the biggest victim of human growth. In the two and half centuries since the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide formulations in the atmosphere have gone up by approximately 36%, methane by 150%, and nitrous oxide by 16%. In the 20th century alone, human population increased by 300% and the use of water by 700%.
But this is not about numbers.
When I grew up in Calcutta, half the city bathed in its numerous ponds and the Ganga. My family belonged to the other half that looked down on public bathing as subaltern. Never allowed to take the plunge despite living by an expansive pond, I soon stopped longing for the adventure.
More than two decades later, when Calcutta has lost most of its water bodies to a real estate boom, the significance of those bathing ponds dawned on me. Even today, few Asian cities have waste water treatment plants. As a result, huge quantities of wastewater keep polluting our freshwater systems. Ponds are a low-cost, natural wastewater reuse and treatment system that also supports local fishermen.
Public bathing in ponds may not appear a pleasant or even practical urban solution in 2012, but the sheer presence of these water bodies is absolutely vital for replenishing the groundwater stock, particularly in cities where impervious surfaces such as paved streets, parking lots and roofs restrict rainwater percolation.
But this is not about an urban crisis.
Across India, the mean rate of drop in the water table is one metre in every three years. In a list of six hot spots identified by the United Nation’s World Water Development Report 2012, India comes first. But merely turning off bathroom taps may not save the day.
Today, 72% of water use is for agriculture and another 22% for industry, leaving out only 6% to meet the domestic demand. Since Independence, subsequent governments have offered subsidised electricity to farmers for pumping out groundwater. During 1970–94, groundwater-irrigated lands in India have increased by 105%.
As a result, the UN report notes, “aquifer depletion and inefficient water use are now endemic” in India. The International Water Management Institute describes this as “the anarchy of uncontrolled groundwater exploitation”. By 2020, severe groundwater shortage will hit several Indian states (Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana) and cities (Delhi and Mumbai). By 2025, many parts of India could simply run out of groundwater.
But the crisis is not India’s alone.
Globally, 1.7 billion people lack access to safe water and more than 3 million people die from water-borne diseases each year in developing countries. About 245,000 sq km of marine ecosystems feature ‘dead zones’ caused by the discharge of untreated wastewater, which affects fisheries, livelihoods and the food chain. The poor are the first and worst victims.
The major water pollutants produced by us include microbial pathogens, nutrients, pesticides, oxygen-consuming substances, heavy metals, and persistent organic matter that enter water systems through agricultural run-off, domestic and industrial effluents, wastewater discharge, mine and landfill leachate and so on.
Approximately 2 million tonnes of human waste are released into rivers and streams every year. Water contaminated by microbes is the biggest single cause of human death. In the US, industries produce more than 36 billion kg of hazardous organic chemical-based pollutants every year. In India, it took a Supreme Court order to ban the use of endosulfan after decades of abuse.
Studies indicate that a population over 500 million in 569 749 sq km of the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra plain may be at risk from arsenic contamination. Also, 17 states in India are endemic for fluorosis with an estimated 62 million people already affected.
Global warming may or may not end the world in the near future, but the water catastrophe is already upon us.
The UN World Water Development Report 2009 noted that impacts of climate change “are likely to be small (and possibly negligible) compared with the stresses placed on groundwater systems by current socio-economic drivers”. The same UN declared 2005–15 as the International Decade for Action (Water for Life) “to enhance international cooperation in addressing the exploitation and degradation of water resources”.
Yet, there is little effort to move towards binding regulations that will protect trans-boundary freshwater systems. At home, there is no policy shift to treat groundwater as a community resource, instead of an individual asset, or to discourage subsidies for inefficient harvesting.
From Kolkata, I shifted to Delhi and watched the capital surrender its water bodies that nurtured champion swimmers like Khajan Singh, one by one. By 2025, Delhi’s demand for groundwater will touch 0.57 billion cubic metres (BCM). At present, only 0.28 BCM is available annually and the rate of replenishment is 170% in the negative.
This has long ceased to be about a green cause, it’s about survival. Now is our very last chance.