Water Crisis: A Cassandra’s Syndrome

‘Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy, but when Cassandra refused Apollo’s romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions’, says the Wikipedia.

Cassandra’s syndrome denotes a psychological tendency among people to disbelieve inescapably bad news, often through denial, somewhat like Cassandra who knew about the demise of Troy in advance but no one believed her. Almost like her the environmentalists have been shouting hoarse about impending water crisis but it seems the people and the government both has shut their ears in disbelief! Is it a crisis of quantity or of management? In the Indian context it is a crisis of both. Noted scholar and biologist E.O. Wilson said, ‘The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct’. 

C.P. Rajendran a noted earth scientist at the Centre for Earth Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore wrote in one of his papers, ‘Challenges in earth sciences: 21st Century’ in the Current Science last year ‘India is already facing severe water shortages, especially in the north and northwestern regions of the country…’

Rajendran is absolutely right. Way back in 1980 during a posting at Jammu I found that there is a water supply for an hour each in the morning and evening. If you miss to stock water then you had to go without water or beg or buy water. The situation in Lucknow then was not so bad. We used to get almost continuous supply of water from morning till night. And now the newspaper reports are full of water scarcity in this town, despite being located on the surface of the ‘water bank’ of India.

Yes it is true there is a tremendous scarcity of quality, potable water in the urban habitats situated on the Ganga-Yamuna interfluve. The aquifer level in this region has declined at a rate of four centimeter per year between 2002 to 2008 says Rajendran. This is mainly due to over utilization of ground water in the region. Agriculture being the mainstay of economy of the region, use of ground water for irrigation has increased multifold. It is estimated that ground water utilization in India has increased from 10-20 cubic kilometers to 240-260 cubic kilometers in last 50 years says Rajendran. However, this is not an isolated case. It is estimated that even globally water usage will increase by more than two trillio9n cubic meters by 2030. Phew! This is alarming, as the projected figure is 40 times more than what can be tapped from the available water resources.

Some countries like China have already started taking steps in that direction and have started planning and construction of dams in Tibet region, despite the threat of earthquakes in that region. One of the dams is coming up across the River Brahmaputra too and if it comes through the downstream riparian countries like India will suffer. Brahmaputra governs the economy of the northeastern region. If a major river like the Ganga or the Brahmaputra dwindles down to a streak the valley through which it drains through will face catastrophes like severe droughts, acute water shortages and misery. 

A typical characteristic of these Himalayan rivers is that during their journey towards the sea they collect lots of water from springs and in the plains they continuously give and take water from the aquifers. The aquifers are nothing but layers of sand brought and deposited over a period of time by these rivers while in spate each year. Water from the rivers and rain water percolates through the grains of sand and moves in the form of a film in the spaces between the sand grains. In other words the rivers are intrinsically connected with the sands they painstakingly brought and deposited layer after layer. 

India, a country making great strides in development has a major non-conventional security threat looming large over it in the form of water scarcity. The issue needs to be tackled at the right earnest. In India and Pakistan we have the material evidence of great prosperous civilization of Harappa vanishing due to climate change and environmental degradation. Quoting Brundtland Commission report, Rajendran says ‘Societies have faced such pressures in the past and, as many desolate ruins remind us, sometimes succumbed to them. But these pressures were local. Today the scale of our interventions in nature is increasing and the physical effects of our decisions spill across national frontiers’. The Dam being constructed across Brahmaputra in the higher reaches by China is one of the examples.

One of the reasons for water scarcity is due to poor availability and demand ratio. For examples urban population in India has increased from 11% in 1901 to 29% in 2001 leading to the growth of urban slums says Rajendran. So much is the pressure of population accumulating in towns that metros have begun to crumble. Water scarcity, lack of sanitation facilities in the slums is common. It is amazing to read that 20% of the population has no access to safe drinking water and 58% do not have sanitation facilities. Irony is that slums have developed right under the seat of the government. The so called posh areas are fringed by slums where fights over a bucket of water are a routine. As far as sanitation is concerned the slum dwellers and the government both are blissfully ignorant about the need for the same and the residents freely squat wherever they find space. An early morning walk through some of the VIP areas of upcoming metro, Lucknow bears testimony to this.

Be it Lucknow or Delhi, the abundance of coliform bacteria in drinking water tells a lot about the apathy of the government and the society towards this issue. The human waste disposal needs a serious thinking.

Yet another problem that affects the rivers in the plains is extraction of sand for construction purposes. The depressions caused by mining affect the channel flow and in turn also upset the groundwater regime-because the river and ground water are intertwined.

The British established their trades centre the East India Company in Calcutta. Very soon Calcutta (now Kolkata) became of hub of trade. Today West Bengal is bearing the brunt of arsenic toxicity via groundwater. A stage has been reached when arsenic has crept in to the crops and even the milk. The spread of arsenic in groundwater has increased and states in the middle reaches of Ganga are also in the grip of the problem. Arsenic in groundwater is due to a natural phenomenon and it can not be wished away. It is time to identify the ‘poisoned’ aquifers and block them while tapping water. And of course a mass awareness programme is required to educate the gullible masses about the hazard. 

Rivers were sacred for our ancestors. We treat them as open water channels only-which are being used for disposing human and industrial waste. Consequently the surface water sources have been polluted beyond redemption and groundwater bodies are gradually becoming toxic. A quadruple leap in India’s water usage by 2050 is projected says Rajendran. It is high time that engineering and social solutions are worked out to solve the crisis of quantity and quality of water available.

Water security is one area which the government/s should consider seriously and take proper steps. As of now the society members are sitting quietly like the passengers on the Titanic, silently watching it sink and call it their fate. But who knows that tomorrow there may be a revolt amongst the masses for water-better that such situations are avoided. It is time that we come out of Cassandra’s syndrome and listen to the warnings and implement ways to counter the problem.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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