Ever since the human civilization embarked out of the caves have time and again realized that for the living of all species on the earth, water is most indispensable. It is a natural right to access it for basic living. Nobody whined until a half-century ago that the world would face an acute shortage of water for basic living. But still, the world is made up of three quarters with water and one-quarter of the earth for a living. Of the most species on the earth, the human being has been known for its hard strives to preserve the natural resources by various forms for centuries but the last half of the century has been a difficult time for negating the scarcity of water to ensure for all. It is folly to blame on population!
Throughout the civilization, nature has been more of the neutral player generously with immense potential for access to water but some segments of the human civilization have emerged as scarcity penetrator instead of nurturing the water conversation with which the human beings were so obsessed for centuries to enable access for all species.
In India, it becomes quite strange that how the Government policies have promoted for social and economic development during the last half-century have caused unprecedentedly towards the deepening of water scarcity. At the same time, the local community ownerships over natural resources were misguided by the wrong policies of the governments across the country. Also, the government’s policies were discriminative on both social and economic perspectives leave alone the environment and natural resources management for peril. For example, by 2015, more than 90 percent of people in urban areas were getting access to basic drinking water but only one-third of India’s wastewater was treated leaving large water-borne diseases affecting the large segments of poor people.
So far, the only woman Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Elinor Ostrom who scientifically studied the governing institutions of common properties resource wrote a classic book titled “Governing the Commons- The evolution of institutions for Collective Action” (1990) after decades of field-level experiments in different countries about the common property resources and vividly observed that “What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.” This is a great warning for policymakers who often think about government interventions is the antidote for saving common property resources like water bodies.
In the first week of August, a new study titled “Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South” (2019) was released by the US-based The World Resources Institute which paves some lights on the way forward for better water management in urban areas. According to the report, among the 17 water-stressed countries studied, India has been ranked at 13th which is neither good nor bad but the big warning is needed. The Report has termed that India is fast emerging with threats of water scarcity. India has more than three times (1.36 billion) the population of the other 16 extremely highly stressed countries combined (1.75 billion) which have been studied to map the city level comparable data.
In India, on an average 80 percent of surface and groundwater is used in Agriculture, Industries, and municipalities. Nearly 40 percent of groundwater is extracted for the utility which is more than what we recharge. However, as compared to industry and municipalities, agriculture uses probably a large quantity of water for food grains production but leaves the least amount of wastewater to drains. While it has been a serious concern that the wastewater let out by both industries and municipalities across the country has been polluting every kind of natural resources- land, air and water bodies.
Though, the Report leaves out the Maharashtra state, the top 10 most water-stressed States/UT are Chandigarh (1), Haryana (2), Rajasthan (3), Uttar Pradesh (4), Punjab (5), Gujarat (6), Uttarakhand (7), Madhya Pradesh (8), Jammu and Kashmir (9) and Puducherry (10). It is interesting to see most of the northern States are fast running to dry up the aquifer. Indeed, these are the States in the north are catching up with western and southern States on the social and economic ladders. At this juncture, the north needs more water than ever before to save millions of poor people who are living with the bare minimum and need to uplift themselves out of abject poverty. However, it is interestingly to note, the officials of WRI in India mentioned that “There is no lack of water in India; it’s just that we lack the best practices in managing our demand and supply. We need to improve our efficiency in water consumption in all sectors, most importantly in agriculture.”
The Report has 15 case studies in Global South including two important Indian cities, the Mumbai and Bengaluru which are financial capital and IT capital of the country giving the most dynamic attention globally. As per the report, both are fast emerging with threats of water scarcity.
The Bengaluru city case study has been based on the water situation at Koramangala Slum, which is the largest slum in the IT capital city. Bengaluru city has a population of close to 8.4 million with the average household size is 4.0. About 30 percent of the population settled informally without land titles with the filthy environment but has 60 percent workforce doing all kinds of odd jobs to meet the ends. The population of Koramangala Slum is 38,500 with a family size of 4.5. While Bengaluru city’s average income is Rs.43,000/ per month and Koramangala Slum’s income is Rs.15,000/- per month.
According to the Report, “The informal settlement in Bengaluru, where 60 percent of households receive piped supplies (compared to 71 percent of households in the city as a whole), has higher piped water access than other slums because it is a formally “declared” slum.” However, 56 percent of households citywide do not treat their wastewater. Though, Bengaluru gets water from its reservoirs situated in the long-distance through pipes not only at higher elevations but also in an energy-intensive manner. Alas, the Report mentions that there are “presence of powerful water mafias that control water valves in Bengaluru”. It is not surprising to see such things given the nexus between the governments and the bigots of lawbreakers for vested interests.
The case study of Mumbai was chosen at Siddarth Nagar. The population of Mumbai city is 1.24 crore with average households size of 4.5. The city has 40 percent of informal settlements which is called slums with a poor living environment. The population of Siddarth Nagar is 2160 with an average households’ size of 4.2. Informal settlements face unique challenges that are different from those that characterize water access in the city as a whole. In Mumbai, 8 percent of households relied on surface water, groundwater, and rainwater.
Unlike in Bengaluru’s Koramangala slum, Siddharth Nagar did not get piped water for families settled in slums which are not recognized by the government. Hence, mostly the Siddarth Nagar gets water either through surface/groundwater/rainwater or tanker trucks. It is interesting to note the average household income per month in Mumbai is Rs.15,728/- while for Siddarth Nagar, it is Rs.13,000/-.
In order to overcome the lack of access to water noticed in the above two city’s case studies, the Report urges the respective city government and all stakeholders to act on the following four vital aspects to reduce the fast-emerging threats to water: (i) efficient infrastructure management system for universal access to water for all with innovative models like “Kiosks and standpipes”; (ii) reduce uncertainty causes to common people due to irregularity of water supply which impacts on employment and other aspects of people, governments have to regularly maintain infrastructure, which helps to prevent, detect, and resolve leakages; (iii). Low-Income households suffer the most because they are not connected to the piped water system. Thus, there is a need for subsidies for either free basic water or reducing the cost for different slaps with adequate frequency of water supply; and (iv) more importantly the “Local and national governments need to support informal settlement upgrading to improve water access to the urban under-served in the short and medium terms.” The households settled in unrecognized slums are too paying indirect taxes to the government by way of purchasing goods and services.
However, the scarcity of water issues has become global after the Durban city experience in South Africa. But most of these debates are either about government provisioning universal access to water or human rights-based approach. These approaches will not help to solve the water crisis and rather it will blow up more for less water!
Though, India’s Niti Aayog’s Reports on Water Management has been strongly emphasizing the need for local community-led intervention for rejuvenation of bodies and creating a new one wherever feasible. However, it did not spell out the roadmap for financing and enabling the local community-led organizations across the country.
During the last few years, there have been several community-based interventions for rejuvenation of water bodies in Tamil Nadu which have helped to increase access to water for not just drinking but also for irrigation and other utilities. The efforts of Siruthuli, an NGO working last 16 years in reviving several water bodies in the Coimbatore district. Similarly, the efforts of the Olirum Erodu Foundation and Erodai Trust in Erode district, Environmentalist Foundation of India in Chennai, People’s Forum in Salem, Vettri Trust in Tiruppur and more recently the Olirum Krishnagiri Foundation in Krishnagiri have all done tremendous works to improve the groundwater table.
Moreover, the Madurai based Dhan Foundation has been pioneering the water management systems covering 2000 tanks and104 watersheds across all south Indian states in the last two decades. The community-based approaches are more sustainable for improving access to water for all segments by improving the groundwater table. Further, these models of community-led rejuvenation of water bodies were effectively stakeholders driven involving the local community, farmers, philanthropists and close coordination with government officials. We need to scale up these models across the States and country to effectively implement the water conservation intervention to improve the groundwater tables.