Only look for answers

  • 30/01/2004

I happened to attend, recently, a jan sunwai (peoples court) on water, convened by the National Federation of Indian Women. Women came from over 15 states to report on the state of their water. There was distress in their voices, and what they said. Water was scarce, increasingly polluted. Many wells had fluoride. Many had dried up. Government promised to build pipelines and tanks. But if they were built, they turned dry. Otherwise, the plans remained on paper. Women suffered. They walked long distances to draw water. To draw from wells and handpumps, not theirs. It was their task to manage with little - to cook, clean and drink sparsely and carefully. They talked about children who missed school because they had to collect water. They spoke of disease. They spoke of their failed and futile attempts to secure water from government files.

This cannot and should not be. But if we have to work towards water - clean water - for all then we also have to accept we don't have the answers as yet. The way of the present is to build pipedreams. Take the government's accelerated rural water supply programme. It has spent under Rs 10,000 crore in the last five years, with Rs 1,700 crore allocated for the current year. But, in all, only about 30 per cent of villages targeted were covered under the programme. And this is only part of the story. The bigger problem is that the so-called 'covered' village finds soon enough that its water source has dried up, its pipeline has broken, its handpump is not working or now increasingly polluted. The end result is that the numbers of "problem villages" - without a source of water in the vicinity - do not go down but up. The mathematics in this case is: 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages = 200,000 problem villages. No wonder water remains a terrible want.

Therefore, we will have to find new ways. We will have to revive old methods of holding and storing water in each habitation to build and recharge groundwater reserves. As we keep stressing, as little as 100 millimetres of rainfall caught over just one hectare of land would harvest 1 million litres of water. The women reminded me of this. Even as they spoke of destitution, they confirmed they were rich in rain. More importantly, they were rich in the land to hold the rain. But they pointed out that the land did not belong to them - it was government property, forest or revenue land. They also did not have the wherewithal to hold the rain - tanks, ponds, dams and other structures and devices. The rain god fails them now and again; the modern gods fails them all the time.

The advantage is that answers exist. We know what has to be done. We have also seen that if this approach is worked upon, painstakingly, it works. It requires building community structures of water harvesting, which in turn requires community ownership and community institutions, to manage the local endowment of water. You decentralise supply. Therefore, the system is planned to optimise on the local and immediate resource, before drawing upon the external and unreliable sources of water.

But if there are some answers, we are equally clueless about others. At this meeting women also talked about new investments in water. They spoke about the dam being built upstream of their village. Of the new scheme sanctioned for their irrigation tank. Schemes not meant for them. Meant for the city, for people living there..

City water need is fast becoming a concrete source of destitution and tension. As yet, most planners don't account for this water-guzzling creature as a key competitor for water. But it is. And it will grow, suck and destroy water resources. We have to find new ways of managing this creature's needs.

My visit to the Jaisamand lake in Rajasthan was very instructive in this regard. The high court wanted to know if a particular resort should be built in this fabulous and ancient water body. I knew the pollution challenges. But I found a much bigger challenge was the challenge of the survival of the lake itself. The city of Udaipur is its neighbour. It has massive water scarcity. Bringing a pipeline from this lake to the parched city - 50 kms away - was the promise that won elections. It has cost money. It stills costs - Rs 25 lakh a month in just electricity bills. But the city is a powerful electorate. In the name of the poor, it does not pay for this cost. Meantime, the lake is officially dead. Now Udaipur planners are running around to find new lakes and pile up concrete new dams.

But why only talk of Udaipur? Delhi is going to get its water from the Tehri dam. A cost its citizens will certainly never pay for; new politicians in Bhopal are promising the waters of Narmada to the city. The list goes on and on.

We will have to reinvent answers for these powerful enclaves. Cities use water and they also discharge waste. The waste pollutes the water bodies. Can there be an answer here? Looking at the state of sewage treatment in Delhi, it is clear that disposal of partially treated water creates additional problems of waste management. The "treated' water is disposed off in polluted drains leading to more pollution, not less. Can Delhi, therefore, think of treating its water to make it usable again? Can it - Udaipur, too - leapfrog in terms of technology and go from the partial treatment to full treatment so that it makes water again?

There will be challenges in this: of technology, of affordability, of possible contamination. But solutions exist in the problems. We only have to look and experiment.

- Sunita Narain

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