It is IRONIC that the Himalaya, often alluded to as the ‘water tower of Asia’—the source of mighty rivers that support millions, now face stress especially during summers. The rapidly reducing flow in surface drainage and the disappearance of springs are signs of looming disaster. Changes in micro-climate, anthropogenic pressures, infrastructure development, increase in the consumption and use of water, a reduction in vegetation cover—particularly diverse forests and pastures with mixed species and an unprecedented rise in tourism have all exacerbated this crisis.
To resolve the gamut of crises both at policy and at the community level is an arduous task. To begin with, we need to recognise and acknowledge the enormity of the calamity. There is not, in my view, an adequate appreciation of the impact that decreased flows, in say even the Ganges, will have on life and livelihoods, the economy, agriculture, culture and traditions of all those residing and dependent on its waters all the way to the Bay of Bengal. Better and more granular information will aid policy responses. Information about groundwater levels, the number of springs that have disappeared and the flows from those that exist; the basal flows of the major streams and rivers across all seasons; temporal changes in these; and, information about the health of our forests in catchments of the water bodies, are all pertinent to build an understanding. We need to recognise the contribution of the millions of springs that flow out from the Himalaya and launch a massive campaign to protect and revive them, especially in the western Himalayan regions.
No vegetation, no water. We need to increase the vegetation in the catchments of all the water bodies without taking recourse to promoting monocultures. Communities have lost control over their forests and there is a need for urgent and genuine policy reform to create the appropriate incentives for decentralised protection and conservation of forests. It is time that the Himalayan states understand the nature of aquifers and take lead in regulating and ensuring better management of their groundwater.
Then of course, there is the issue of India being the largest consumer of groundwater in the world, as recorded by the World Bank. Groundwater is effectively a private resource. This must change, and will require significant political will at both the national and state levels to approve legislations on groundwater regulation and management. At a minimum, all borewells that use groundwater must have meters so that at the least we start to monitor and evaluate the exact nature and extent of extraction. Ideally, there should be a price on the groundwater that is extracted. Our problem, nationally, is not one of inadequate rain. We just get too much of it in a relatively small number of days. There is thus a need to conserve rainwater and facilitate the recharge of our aquifers. Lakes, ponds and tanks in cities and in villages have historically been important sources for the decentralised storage of water and to help recharge the groundwater levels. These need to be revived nationally and the encroachments and impediments to the natural drainage channels into these need to be removed. In an urban environment, with large built-up areas, rainwater harvesting must be enabled to assist water resiliency.
Now, as we understand, agriculture is the largest consumer of groundwater and our policies have incentivised extraction and in effect the real value of water is not even considered as an input cost. Ideally, crops that are appropriate for each ecology need to be promoted and the best way to do so is to create the right financial incentives for farmers. Government policy, pricing, agricultural research and extension need to be reoriented from merely trying to maximise output to ensure we promote and adopt agricultural practices that maximise water use efficiency. There is a small and yet growing recognition of the importance of millets and traditional cereals and pulses—as they require less water for cultivation. The demand as it exists, is inadequate to help farmers change their practices in a meaningful and substantive way. The public distribution system in seeking to ensure food security has also significantly changed food habits. Procuring and distributing millets and other nutritious crops would increase demand for these crops to be cultivated dramatically. Farmers are rational economic beings and will respond to the
Most importantly, if we are to avert the impending disaster of severe water scarcity, we must recognise the fact that water is a finite and expensive resource. Making it available free and hugely subsidising it does not lead to an appreciation of the true value or cost of water. Every citizen of India – rich or poor has a right to adequate water for life and no one should be denied this simply because they cannot afford it. But who really is being subsidised and why? Do we calculate the opportunity cost of women and girls in particular struggling to collect adequate water for their families? Do all our towns and cities even recognise their responsibility to provide the urban poor with access to water – irrespective of the legality of their settlements?
Anecdotally, it would seem that the actual expenditure on water of the poor as a proportion of their total income is far greater than what the middle-class or the rich pay. Taking refuge in the poor to provide larger benefits to those better off, is mendacious. If we want consumption to change, to promote conservation or prudent behaviour, consumers must know the accurate cost of water. To ensure that water for life is available free to all or in other words a guaranteed minimum and to then price all additional consumption is a way forward.