Making each drop count | Book Review: Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It By Mridula Ramesh

A book with a powerful message: ‘We are responsible for the water crisis and we need to manage it’

In as early as 2019, all water samples collected in Delhi failed to conform to BIS standards, and Kolkata and Chennai were not too far behind.
In as early as 2019, all water samples collected in Delhi failed to conform to BIS standards, and Kolkata and Chennai were not too far behind.

By Bharat Sharma

The crisis we are now witnessing in India’s water systems is not just one of demand-supply imbalance and heavy pollution of rivers and streams. This crisis is the manifestation of short-term considerations and pressures to tackle food security, migration and urbanisation, and industrialisation and not paying heed to the silent voices of the environment. For a long time, especially since the British regime, our development pathways have viewed the natural resources of water, land and forests as instruments of development instead of viewing humans and resources as part of sublime nature. Our development targets and trajectories tormented India’s water. And now water is tormenting us through deficit, depletion and scarcity, floods and droughts, storms and landslides, pollution and contamination. This book helps the reader to understand what and how we can change to come out of this spiralling crisis.

Watershed has two main parts of ‘understanding’ and ‘action’ describing the facets, faultlines, and stressors of India’s water resources. Understanding the science and temperament of the unique Indian monsoon—the foundation of our total water—establishes that populous, developing, and one of the most vulnerable countries in this warming world, India must manage its water differently.

The better we understand the monsoon, the better we can plan what and when to cultivate, where to habitat our population and economic centres, and how to guard against storms or droughts. When policies and major programmes (called revolutions) disrespect the variations and cultivate crops that can’t be feasible with a region’s water endowments, we develop a deep water faultline.

The Green Revolution, indeed, helped put the famine and costly food imports behind us for now, but plunging groundwater tables and mounting energy subsidies make us question how much longer can we walk this road. India must look to widen and diversify the foundations of its food security. Water-related crises in agriculture relate to procurement policies favouring rice and wheat; farmers sticking to geographically unsuitable crop choices; falling groundwater levels; unequal access to irrigation, and a lack of storage and value-addition for harvested crops. Crop and water technology and energy subsidies have made farmers more dependent on what the government buys from them. The nation lost a good opportunity by repealing the three farm laws and bowing down to status quo.

Our rivers are under siege and at the same time the low and falling water storage—both above and underground—is a serious hydrological faultline. Deforestation of the upper catchments of rivers and sand mining and encroachments in the flood plains have drastically reduced the capacity of rivers to hold and recharge aquifers. As the author quotes from the Madhav Gadgil report, “…it has been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence”.

A river must flow and nourish. If it does not flow, it is not a river. Our cities face annual crisis cycles when municipal taps run dry, but the contours of the crisis are shaped by wealth, geography, and patterns of water use. For the wealthy, water is peripheral; for the rich or middle class, water is important but not yet central, and it is only for the poor that life revolves around water. When the cities swallow their lakes, ponds and wetlands, the water resilience disappears. This pattern is repeating itself across most Indian cities. Given the paucity and unpredictability of municipal water, households have access to water through tankers and borewells. Households and tankers mine groundwater, and after several years, as borewell after borewell begins to run dry, populations face a serious challenge. A 2019 study by World Resource Institute showed a tanker water to be 52 times more expensive than piped water in Mumbai, and 12 times more expensive in Bengaluru, and the poor are hit the hardest.

Trying to solve the water crisis without managing the demand is like trying to clap with one hand. Without a good handle on data on the actual demand (policy planning still uses three-decade-old projections by the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development), we can’t even agree if there is a crisis. The collateral damage is also the questionable quality of the supplied water. In as early as 2019, all water samples collected in Delhi failed to conform to BIS standards, and Kolkata and Chennai were not too far behind.

“The future depends on what we do in the present” and this aptly applies to managing the water futures of India. Plentiful and free groundwater and canal supplies have sculpted India’s growth story thus far. If dams were our temples, borewells were perhaps the answered prayers. However, without appropriate curbs, prices and demand management, the power of the technology can be destabilising. The real power of technology is unleashed when we manage it. Three technologies hold key to India’s water security—improved forests in the catchments, a natural technology; rejuvenated tanks for storing monsoon water, a time-tested traditional technology; and large-scale sewage and wastewater treatment, a modern technology. Further, water needs to have an economic value to support its development and distribution, and as a way of signalling respect for India’s water.

The brilliance of the book lies in its convincing reasoning, evidence, and research-based arguments, and a well-organised discourse providing a 360-degree view of the important water issues of India. Each chapter starts with a carefully curated quote, which at times is provocative and at others, witty, like “a fool with a tool is still a fool”. The flow of the chapters is smooth and the prose alternates between shades of philosophy, fact-of-the matter, argumentative, and, at times poetic. Still, the author could have been concise. The mismanagement and improvement of public irrigation systems could have been covered in greater detail. Watershed is a must-read for water policy planners, professionals, civil society organisations, and everyone interested in understanding and improving India’s water.

Bharat Sharma is Emeritus scientist, International Water Management Institute, & senior visiting fellow, ICRIER, New Delhi

Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How We Can Save It
Mridula Ramesh
Hachette
Pp 415, Rs 699

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