By Vijay Darda | 14-09-2015
To say that we are living in an era of water crisis is to make an understatement of mammoth proportions. To observe that our responses to this situation are knee jerk and lack the depth and understanding required to solve the problem is to be more than generous in criticism. The reality is that when it comes to water management, we have been petty, narrow minded, selfish and downright incompetent. The daily dose of death and disaster that is administered to our people in the Marathwada region is only a tiny example of the tragedies that await us all in future, if we continue to live the way we have been doing so all along. To believe that this is a calamity for the people of Marathwada, and the government will find some way to tide over the crisis, with whatever losses that take place, and the rest of us can be content with our lives is to delude ourselves that never in the future we shall also have to face similar problems. Well, not long ago, there was no one who ever imagined that Punjab the land with five rivers would have any water woes. But it has its own water crisis and also witnesses farmers’ suicides.
Maharashtra’s young chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is right on the dot when he says that water should be treated an economic commodity. Just as we don’t let even the smallest coin go down the drain, it is time we internalised the concept that we cannot let even a drop of water to be wasted. This is the only way we can fight our unending water woes. All the noble intentions that we have discussed in the past from rain water harvesting to recycling of water, and from changing crop patterns to conjunctive use of water have to be put into action without any delay. Unless, we make every village self-sufficient in water we are not going to mitigate the water woes in any meaningful way. We have examples of villages that have achieved this goal even with very less rainfall, and it would be good to remind ourselves that if we stick to this approach then even the most deficient monsoon would not be able to inflict the kind of misery that we are going through for years.
We have seen the problems that have been created by our approach to water management through mega irrigation projects. This of course is not the right time to enter into an acrimonious debate that has always dominated the discourse in Maharashtra about the regional imbalances or the scams that have visited this sector. But this is the time for course correction and a realisation that there are inexpensive ways of ensuring water security. Individual villages based on the initiatives of the residents and some support from different organisations have shown that even with half of the normal rainfall of Marathwada (the most distressed region) it is possible to provide water security with a fraction of the money that has been sunk into the big dams. Of course, there are no mega bucks to be made by politicians in such projects, and nor is the idea very attractive for the babus and contractors who have been the prime beneficiaries of our big dam approach.
Given that climate change has moved from the rarefied environs of seminars and academic events into the domain of our everyday life, we can be certain that extreme variations temperatures, rainfall and all the parameters connected with weather would keep impacting us in various ways. Thus a drought is not just limited to water scarcity or crop failure, but now has wider socio-economic implications and all these call for governmental as well as societal interventions to ensure that our lives are not disrupted. Insulating every person from the impact of such disruptions should be goal of any meaningfully inclusive growth.
In the context of water woes, it would be useful to analyse our use of water in different activities. For instance producing 1 kg of rice needs 3,000-5,000 litres of water and thus exporting 10 million tonnes of rice is equivalent to exporting 30-50 billion cubic metres of water. Can we afford this? Likewise, it takes 1,500 litres of water to produce 1 kg of sugar, should Marathwada with perennial water shortages encourage sugar mills? The examples can be added from every sector including industry and there would be questions about the sustainability of any region to support that commercial or industrial activity. The conceptual problem is very simple and has been defined for us by the force of circumstances – we cannot now afford to be living like kings when it comes to water. At every stage, the use of water should be dictated by an overall rationale to make sure that there are no water woes. So, we should change cropping patterns, alter industrial landscapes and strike the right balance between all the competing claims on water.
It is not just an alarmist statement that we are likely to witness water wars. Indeed, one of the lesser known aspects of the conflict in Middle East is that the so-called Six-Day War in 1967 arguably had its origins in a water dispute – moves to divert the River Jordan, Israel’s main source of drinking water. At the end of the war Israel had acquired the water resources – the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee -which give it about 60% of its fresh water, a billion cubic metres per year.
Now a water war may not always end up being fought with guns, but there is no denying that the water crisis with the kind of death and devastation it causes is not less than a war. It also calls for a different approach from the Central government and the present bureaucratically structured response of damage assessment and relief hardly serves any adequate purpose in so far as mitigating the pain is concerned. Whether it is crop insurance, or payment of remunerative price for the produce, we are far from a situation that tilts the balance in favour of the farmer. Indeed, right now from the nature to the government machinery and the market mechanism every element is loaded against the hand that tills the land. Our water woes would end only if this balance shifts in favour of the farmer.
Before I conclude…
There has been a tremendous hue and cry about the meat ban. All kinds of issues are being raised from freedom of choice to the government’s desire to impose a way of life. But no one has paused to reflect that this a temporary restriction, not on consumption but on sale with due deference to the sensitivities of the practitioners of the Jain religion. The laws have been there for decades, and there is nothing new about them. However, it is a sign of the times we live in that only such ephemeral issues engage our attention. We seem to forget that when life style diseases strike the urban chatterati their first thing that the doctor advises them is to be off non-vegetarian food. So, even for the sake of their own health, they would not lose much by keeping off this stuff during this brief period.