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Pathetic state of affairs, 'mismanagement': Water conservation, wetlands in urban India

By Abhilash Khandekar* 

The scarcity of water, how we use and misuse it and thus the very importance of this very precious resource is yet to dawn upon most Indians. Not that different awareness campaigns in various parts of the country are not held regularly. The media stories about deep water crisis, the plight of most of our rivers and lakes is all known yet criminal neglect of the water sector continues.
Be it drinking water in our homes or hotels and other uses like factories, agriculture – all come from the very limited fresh water available to the mankind -- 0.5%. Over 96% water lies in seas and oceans and is salty; of the 3% of fresh water available, much is locked up in ice, snow and glaciers. So, the humankind have to rely only on the 0.5% water for survival.
Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, who teach sustainability at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, in their new book, “Shades of Blue — Connecting The Drops In Cities”, have argued scientifically the case of water conservation through protecting the wetlands in urban areas while providing rich histories of rivers and their current (sad) state of affairs.
Previously they published a highly readable book — "Cities and Canopies" -- which talks about a select number of important species of trees mostly found in urban areas.
They say, water is a ‘sticky’ liquid. Water molecules adhere strongly to each other, giving water the highest surface tension of all liquids. Water may be one of the most abundant molecules on earth, but little is fit for consumption. Most aquatic life thrives in a pH (potential of hydrogen) range of 6.5-9.0, while drinkable water lies in the pH range of 6.5-8.5. Yet, factors such as acid rain and chemical pollution have altered the pH of water bodies.
The book is divided into 24 informative chapters, some of which deal with cities such as Bengaluru, Guwahati, Udaipur, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata — highlighting their respective past and issues faced by the people today due to mismanagement. Starting off from Yamuna and its pathetic state, despite which, as authors point out, many boatmen make money from the dirty waters of the Ganga tributary.
The book also takes stock of step wells in various cities. ‘Few of Bengaluru’s wells now remain. Most are polluted, crumbling and no longer in use. They lost their importance when piped water began to be provided to the city in the 1890’, aver the authors.
‘Thankfully, cities like Vijayapura have begun to revive their wells. When Jodhpur experienced severe drought in 1985, citizens came together to clean up Tapi Bavadi. The revived bavadi began to provide water during drought. After a heavy monsoon in 1989 the local water supply improved and the bavadi was again neglected. However, in recent years, INTACH, Mehrangarh Museum Trust and elderly Irishman Caron Rawnsley have cleaned up and revived many Rajsathani wells’, say the authors.
Book talks about pros and cons of river interlinking projects, something the government is pushing
In Udaipur, two iconic waterscapes Pichola and Fatheh Sagar Lakes comprise the cultural, social and economic core of the city. Tourists visits these lakes which are also great bird habitats. There are many others Rang Sagar, Swaroop Sagar and Dudh Talai—and several majestic stepwells and open wells.
The authors talk about destruction of Aravallis by mining activities. Soil from denuded hilltops is silting the lakes, they note. Efforts are currently on to declare Udaipur a ‘Wetland City’, just like Indore – with two Ramsar Sites – and Bhopal. Proposals for three cities have been submitted to Government of India.
Talking about Guwahati, authors regret the shrinking of famous Digholi Pukhuri and say a state which is surrounded by water (Bramhaputra river, one of the largest) is facing crisis. Gradual disappearance of water bodies in Guwahati is resulting in near-extinction of its aquatic wildlife.
About the Chennai water scenario, the authors capture: ‘From December 2015 to June 2019 (3.5 years), Chennai transformed from a flood-ridden disaster zone to a city that was bone dry. By end of 2015, water had flooded the roads, boats were taken out to recuse the stranded; by mid 2019, Chennai was using good trains to import drinking water from other towns.’ Chennai again faced floods this Dec 2023, reminding one of the December 2015 floods.
The book talks about the pros and cons of river interlinking projects, too, something the government is pushing. Controversial Ken-Betwa Interlinking in MP and UP, said to be aimed at teaching water to parched Bundelkhand region of the two states, is also being pushed, violating all the norms of prudent decision making.
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