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India already late in 'properly managing' water resources: Case for rainwater harvesting

By Proshakha Maitra, Megha Gupta, Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

Every World Water Day is a call for reflection on where humanity stands in the water matters. While the natural water crisis linked to the climate change conveniently, the humanly constructed crisis of access to water is a result of the socio-economic fabric of any given society, be it developed, developing or under-developed countries.
Safe and affordable access to water is among the most crucial necessities for human health and well-being. It is in the global agenda from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals also known as the 2030 agenda through SDG 6. Water, in proper quality and quantity is required for almost every human use, from drinking, domestic, agriculture, industria to even recreational purposes.
According to the World Health Organization, globally more than 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces today despite all the technological developments. In India, less than half of the households have access to sanitation facilities. Only a third quarter of the urban wastewater and sewage originating are treated.
The UN General Assembly in 2010 recognized that every human has a right to safe and affordable water for both drinking and domestic uses. The call for universal access to safe and affordable drinking and domestic though SDG 6 seems a far fethched agenda to achieve by 2030. We are midway into our commitment with globally 771 million people struggle for clean water close to home and almost 1.7 billion people do not have a decent toilet for their homes.
This is largely affecting the health and well-being of the population with increasing cases of diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid. For example, hald the world diseases and death are based on water epidemics. In India, an estimated 0.4 million children under five years of age succumb to water-borne diseases annually. To avoid catastrophic effects on the health of millions of people, immediate action is required on both global and local levels to ensure that everyone has access to safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene.

The session

The Wednesdays.for.Water session organized on, ‘Accelerating Change for SDG 6’ invited Aditya Pundir, Colonel (retd.) Shashikant Dalvi and Shubhi Kesarwani as the speakers for the on the special occasion of World Water Day. Aditya Pundir is the Country Manager for the Climate Reality Project India and South Asia since 2010 and trained with the Ex Vice President of the USA, Al Gore in 2009 on Climate Change. Active in community leadership, he served as an Honorary Warden for Civil Defence, and represented on consultation committees on climate change in India formed by UNDP, World Bank and UNESCO. Shashikant Dalvi served as Indian Army personnel until 2002 and since then he has implemented several (650+) roof-top rainwater harvesting in housing societies, schools, colleges, hospitals, and industries as a major operation after making his housing society free from Tanker Water. Through Parjanya, he volunteers with the Climate Reality Project and is the National Convener for rainwater harvesting. Shubhi Kesarwani started GuruJal as a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) to address the challenges of water security in Gurugram. She has worked at the Chief Minister's Office of Haryana and Youth Alliance besides being part of many initiatives such as, working group of NITI Aayog on defining Water Neutrality for standardising water audits in the country. The one hour session was moderated by Dr Fawzia Tarannum and the session video is available here.

Urgency of accelerating change

India has witnessed rapid growth of population followed by a steep rise in urbanization in the recent decades. These changes have increased the water demand, pushing the global water resources to a critical stage. Unpreceedented human activities have resulted in over-extraction of ground water which have also resulted in significant drop in the water table besides depletion and deterioration of surface water sources.
The overall water demand in India was about 710 billion cubic meters in 2010. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development (NCIWRD) estimated an overall water demand of 1180 billion cubic meters by 2050. Water demands of the country are expected to be twice the available supply by the year 2030.
Dalvi warned that we are already late in properly managing our water resources. The coming days are forecasted to bring more challenges and severe water crises await us with Chennai, Bengaluru showing a glimpse of that especially to the cities that Niti Ayog has already alarmed in its Composite Water Index report of 2019.
Despite numerous policies and measures, the situation on the ground has not changed significantly. The plethora of existing policies but with weak implementations and outcomes needs proper assessment on implementation, operation and maintenance. It is challenging to make people conscious of how they use and manage water in every sphere of their life. Change is possible only when the governing authorities and the people work collectively. This calls for immediate action and requires the stakeholders to be proactive in accelerating the change.
As a youth, Shubhi posed this urgency by stating, ‘If not now, then when?’ If in 75+ years of independence, we have not met with access to safe and affordable drinking water for the entire population, we need to question where the society is trying to progress. It poses questions on the objectives of the development of the country and especially makes it delusional to the youth. With climate change being further accelerated, there seems no clear destination to where the society is trying and in transition.
Aditya further added that climate change is intensifying our problems of food, water, health, and infrastructure, with its impact on water being phenomenal. The recent IPCC report poses to be a dire warning for the world and shows us how our actions and measures are not yet on the right track. We still have a long way to go and require proactive efforts and drastic changes in our outlook to achieve our global goals. People across the country are facing acute water crises with water problems looming in almost every state be it rural or urban areas.
For example, Uttarakhand had nearly 60,000 sources of natural water of which 11,000 have completely dried up. Several villages that had come up only because of such water sources now do not know how to sustain themselves any further. This alarming state is affecting agriculture and crippling the economy besides denying the people of their basic need of adequate and clean drinking and domestic water. In addition, ironically there is not enough water going into our aquifer systems. Deforestation is one of the prime causes of this issue. Clearing large tracts of forests for developing commercial, agricultural, industrial, and residential properties is slowing down ground water percolation.
The current alarming situation is calling for immediate and accelerated actions to conserve and manage water to adapt to climatic changes. Amidst the sad state of affairs, there are individual and institutional actions that set optimistic examples towards local adaptations to water crisis. Some local actions where the speakers of the session are involved are discussed here as they share their experiences.

Tanker free society

Dalvi shared an inspiring experience of how his efforts transformed the water supply situation in Viman Nagar, Pune since 2003. After his retirement in 2002, Dalvi noticed that his region was getting increasingly dependent on tanker water spending a large amount of money on the same. He commited to take some measures to make his society building independent of tanker water supply. He had witnessed several successful rainwater harvesting projects in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and decided to adapt a technology in his society.
After his long efforts, almost 9 lakh litres of rainwater is being collected and channelized into the borewells from a 12000 square feet area rooftop of the society building. This transformed the water supply in the society from tanker to borewell and the dependency on water from tankers has been completely done away with. This helped the Resident Welfare Association in monetary terms and raised the water table in the region. In addition, it reduced carbon emissions that would otherwise be generated from the old diesel vehicles. This transformation has set a benchmark for rainwater harvesting and used as a model to spread awareness in the region.

Rainwater harvesting is also useful in the suburban and rural areas where obtaining water from other sources is more difficult due to lack of funds makes. In the present times, high groundwater extraction rates, polluted surface water, reduction in the water table and reduced percolation rates have rapidly induced water scarcity. Since groundwater remains the main source of water, artificial recharge of groundwater is crucial. However, this is still unrecognized by the residential, commercial, institutional cmapuses. Dalvi’s initiatives through Parjanya has channelized more than 26 crore litres of rooftop rainwater harvesting into the ground and thus stands as an example of community action and adaptation to water crisis.

Climate Reality Project

Aditya shared about the Climate Reality Project (CRP) which focuses on mitigating climate crises through global responses across all spheres of society. A primary step towards catalyzing a global solution begins with advising the people on various interconnected aspects such as, the problem of water cannot be solved without adequately addressing the issues of biodiversity, pollution, waste management, groundwater and other related problems. Establisehd in 2008 in India, the CRP team also strengthens the sectors involved in energy, biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality. As a part of its educational program, the team is involved in insisting the institutions set up rainwater harvesting systems on the rooftops or any water body nearby by facilititating the infrastructure and knowledge for the same. The Green Campus project of CRP is a well know initiative. It takes interactive approach to enable people to carry the knowledge further. People can physically check out the various steps and this helps them to gain confidence on how any system functions. It also engages with policymakers to deliberate the issues in depth and provide holistic solutions to tackle the effects. In this way, the CRP helps to spread awareness on the deteriorating environmental conditions and the ways to address them across South Asian region.

GuruJal

Shubhi shared how a young and dynamic team at GuruJal is helping bring transformational changes at the grass root levels. While working with the Chief Minister’s Office in Haryana, she noticed that the second-highest complaint in the state was related to water. There were two main issues raised by compalinants- one of massive flooding of the agricultural lands and the other of the request for tankers. Despite heavy networks of canals in the state, people still complained about the unavailability of sufficient amounts of water.
The government was spending hefty amounts on draining water from the fields during the rainy season and pumping water during the drier seasons. This situation developed a nexus that largely affected the governance and finance of the state. It was not solely an issue of the policies, instead the poor enforcement and compliance of the policies. This is also because the the state, like many other regions in India, lacked a robust review and monitoring system. The people working on the ground were not getting adequate support and were not specialized in bridging the gaps.
This was when GuruJal was established with a dedicated team of professionals working under the officials and getting a public opinion. The initiative created a special-purpose vehicle with a focus on water security and strengthening water governance. Addressing the water issues allowed addressing the flaws in the policies. For example, despite the madate of rainwater harvesting in Haryana, there were neither measures to penalize defaulters or those who did not follow nor any proper mechanism for incentivizing the practice. The designs for the systems were shared with the people but they were not made aware of which one would be appropriate for them. The administrative process of seeking approval was also unclear. Thus, the communities lacked the direction in which they should move and were not motivated.
GuruJal team invited people to pilot all their technologies for wastewater management in Gurgaon. As they proceeded, issues related to finance and communication also started to surface. GuruJal involves youth from various disciplines to collaborate and investigate an issue from a wholistive perspective to figure out how individuals can contribute towards keeping the government and corporates accountable for environmental works.

Challenge of change in urban and rural areas

People’s attitudes towards natural resources changed after they began to feel disconnected from them. This shift can be traced during the British rule. The administrative boundaries across villages to divide the territorial jurisdictions for ease of governance transformed the community’s way of looking towards a resource. They are narrowly concerned about the area coming under their respective villages and consider everything else to be the government’s responsibility. They lost the touch of ownership of their resources.
With continued disassociation and increased appropriation of the resources, the environment around is changing constantly towards negative impacts. The measures to address such changes are insufficient and slow. Further, community engagement is a challenge. It is more pronounced in the urban areas as compared to the rural areas. Since, on the one hand, urban population with high density and heterogeneity has greater demands/needs and lesser time to spare towards environmental concerns. Citizens, if pushed, may be more inclined towards paying or compensating in monetary terms rather than spending their time. It requires more efforts to make people aware and realize the consequences of actions and the responsibilities towards corrections.
On the other hand, the rural population are often short of financial and human resoruces at their disposal and are more dependent on the government for the provision of their demands/needs. The tradtional knowledge and dependence on the natural resources of the region helps them realize the importance of nature as life-sustaining entities and thus are willing/pushed to look after them. It is therefore comparatively easier to implement community measures among the rural population as compared to the urban population. With urban aspirations things are changing in the rural areas which is a concern.
There is also a discrepancy in socio-economic cost to environmental issues between urban and rural. For example, while the urban water is mostly facilitiated from the nearby rural areas, the urban people pay lesser than the rural people for the water services. Since, water is a highly subsidized as a social good, the difference in the pricing of water services between the urban and rural areas occur due to infrastructural possibility on economy of scale. To put an infrastructural set up in high density area of city is cost effective as compared to the same infrastructure for same density in a village. This also hints that there is more focus required in the cities regarding optimizing water usage and minimizing waste besides more impetus to conservational schemes and measures.

Why is often a question more than how rainwater harvesting

Since the monsoons are a seasonal phenomenon, it is often challenging to convince people for implementing rainwater harvesting systems since those will be non-functional for around half the year. Showing that the greater purpose of setting up a rainwater harvesting system is to raise the groundwater table with the water that would have otherwise flown into nothing. Even if the system is functional for only few months during the monsoon, through the recharge of the aquifer people will continue to get their water supply throughout the year. Apart from recharging aquifers below the ground, the percolated water also helps to dilute the concentrations of several minerals which are not desirable for human consumption. This also reduces water salinity and increasing the accessibility of water within safer limits.
There is a need to initate and expedite extensive awareness programs with guided methodology for people to understand the water crisis situations and use smart social engineering approaches to convince people to implement local adaptations/solutions. Rainwater harvesting techniques being among the simplest of such solutions. All it requires in implementing is that people come together and contribute some time and money for collective good.

Discussion

In the present times, despite realizing the problems and availability of solutions, people pretend to not understand the problem and are thus not proactive in understanding the solutions to adopt/adapt. We need to understand that behavioural change is a slow process whereas, climate change and allied negative changes to environment is now at much faster pace. For example, the rate of groundwater extraction and percolation efforts have serious mismatch. The challenge lies in putting such interrelationships and dynamics across to the society.
As a community, we are also challenged with the intention to work towards environmental conservation. Several awareness campaigns (online and offline) are taking place which are attended by many, yet hardly much is translated into actions on the ground. By n large environmental problems lack prioritizing and given that the solutions require engagement and behavioural change disengages people. Even, many of those who are motivated and willing to work towards such issues also give up over time as the social-ecological process to engage and seek change is slow, cumbersome and overwhelming.
There is indeed shortage of water workers on the ground who can provide real solutions for the deteriorting resources or other environmental concerns coupled with the lack of finances. For example, several rainwater harvesting techniques to tackle urban water crisis are now available, however the shortage of implementers, influencers, and funds make the outreach of the system challenging for both the government and the pratitioners.
Accelerting positive change requires acknowledging and appreciating the good and small efforts made by individual and insitutions. Since, proper policy measures, proactive and responsible actions from the communities are yet to be fully realised let achieved. There is a need for radical change in the mindset of the people to bring about positive environmental changes.
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*Proshakha Maitra and Megha Gupta are Independent Scholars and Fellows at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor at Environmental Design Consultants, EDC, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. www.mansee.in, www.wforw.in, www.edc.org.in
***
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water workers through dialogues, discussions, and debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Monami Bhattacharya (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Prof Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

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