Fifth columnist: Water wars
The country’s famed rivers, the main source of its food, drinking and irrigation needs among others, are drying up at an alarming rate

Of the fears that have risen alongside a warming planet, perhaps none has attracted more attention than the hypothesis that sooner than later, wars would be fought over water.

While its worldwide application has ecologists and scientists tearing their collective hairs out, its impact in India is no less scary. Reason? The country’s famed rivers, the main source of its food, drinking, and irrigation needs among others, are drying up at an alarming rate.

Consider the following. India has about 400 rivers. Theoretically, if laid end to end, their length adds up to nearly 2 lakh km, enough to go around the earth five times. They carry an enormous 1,869 billion cubic metres of water every year, enough to submerge all of India under two feet of water. Needless to say, this river network has sustained life style and ecology over the millennia.

Yet, despite this obvious bounty, water is getting increasingly scarce in India. With a burgeoning population and its never-ending demands, water is becoming scarcer.

In 1951, 5,200 cubic metres of water was available to every Indian ever year. In 2011, this had dropped to an alarming 1,545 cubic metres, which by 2050 is expected to touch a shallow 1,191 cubic metre-mark. India accounts for about 17 per cent of the world’s population, but has only 4 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. At present, irrigation consumes about 84 per cent of the country’s total available water with industrial and domestic sectors using up a tiny 12 per cent and four per cent respectively.

A meeting of water experts and activists in December last year christened the India Rivers Week revealed some chilling details. Of the 290 rivers under survey at this get together, 205 or over 70 per cent of them, including most of the big rivers, were in the ‘red’ category. Their water flows were diminishing, tributaries were dwindling, pollution levels were of a horrific order, rivers banks were nearly wholly encroached and catchment areas denuded of forests.

The experts were unanimous on some findings that applied to most river systems in the country. A majority of the rivers were overexploited by constructing structures like check dams, weirs and dams so that the minimum flow or environmental flow, required for the river eco systems is not materialised. According to them, the current minimum flow is only one-third of what is needed. In addition, many small tributaries of rivers are disconnected due to intense population pressure and haphazard developmental processes.

Add to it the litany of issues that is common to any developing country - but applies to India more than any other developing country in terms of degree. These include construction of hydro power projects, lack of appreciation of rivers and their roles, dumping of waste, climate change, river front development and destruction of bio-diversity on an unprecedented scale.

Some activists put the blame of rivers slowing down to an excessive dependence on the construction of dams, but it is here that the lack of consensus among environmentalists becomes most glaring. If dams are not constructed, how does the country meet its irrigation, food and energy needs? Activists counter it by saying that a more sustainable model with less wasteful consumption is needed.

But that again, is easier said than done, given that the country is still in the developing mode. A theoretical construct reveals the inner dynamics of the country’s water equation. Imagine that 100 litres of water falls as rain over India. Roughly 53 litres is lost as it either evaporates directly or through plants and trees or gets retained in the soil. The remaining 47 litres follows into rivers, but only 28 litres is actually available as the rest gets locked away in accessible places or turns brackish. Of this 28 litres, 17 flows into rivers and 11 ends up as rechargeable water. How’s that for the downward filtration theory?

The other ecological claptrap, as ever, remains the state of India’s forests. Not only are forests catalysts of rain, they also act as pumps that draw in the rain-laden winds from the seas. Forests also provide tiny articles like pollen and spores round which raindrops can condense. Though forest cover has improved marginally in the last few decades, thanks to decades of public awareness programmes and government-initiated afforestation plans, it is still not what it used to be.

Moreover, dense forest of the yesteryear has been replaced by open forests with much less density. Deforestation in catchment areas is particularly high leading to deprivation of water flows to rivers through run offs. In other words, the country’s self-sustaining rivers are not just dying a slow but also a painful death.

Restoration, rejuvenation and renovation of water bodies need to be given high priority in water scare areas. Inventory of water bodies in villages and surrounding areas needs to be prepared and geo mapped. The warning signals for the water wars are there, quite clearly. It depends whether we want to see it or not.

Ranjit Bhushan