Our survival is linked with availability of water on this planet. Isn't it an irony that once upon a time more than three fourths of this planet was water and now today often reports of strife for water appear in the media and many green fields have become dry. Govindasamy Agoramoorthy of College of Environmental and Health Sciences, Tajen University, Yanpu, Taiwan, says in his paper published in the June 2008 issue of the Current Science that water is one amongst greatest looming commodities in 21st century. The conflict between ever rising population on this planet and availability of fresh potable water has already started and may worsen with time!
India, China, Mexico, Thailand, USA, northern Africa and Middle East are facing the problem of falling water tables. To make the matters worse there are 260 trans-border rivers that flow from one country to the other worldwide and are potential security threat. Unlike human beings, water and air can not be restricted to political boundaries. The problem of availability water has attained gargantuan proportions.
Govindasamy has recorded the excessive and aggressive pumping of water by the farmers from two check dams located in the Ahu River a tributary of Kali Sindh in Jhalawar District, Rajasthan. Such check dams constructed on the rivulets in Rajasthan have revolutionized many areas. Arvari, another River in Alwar district used to be bone dry, but the efforts of Tarun Bharat Sangh led by Magsaysay Award winner, Waterman of India Mr Rajendra Singh the river has started flowing again. The revolution is curtsey the check dams constructed by the villagers, supported by the NGOs or the government.
In case of Ahu River two check dams have been constructed by the villagers with funds provided by the government and Tata Trusts. The check dams increased the area of irrigation by 500 acres. Not only irrigation, 25 million cubic feet water impounded by the check dams also benefited 107 households and catered to their drinking water demands. But alas, the farmers treated the impounded water in Ahu River like the golden egg laying hen. Seeing the benefits, people from villages from distances as long as three to six km) placed hose pipes and started to draw water. Excessive drawl of water dried up the source. Ignorant villagers even dug up holes in the river bed in the hope of getting water, but of no avail. Amongst the semi-arid regions Jhalawar is one of the most poorly developed districts. The acute need for water deprives people of the logic. Hence such actions are routine.
In order to manage such situations there is a need for the strategy of water for people and people for water. If we take a transact across the country from extreme north to the southern tip we find the rocky Himalayan terrain which also includes the rocky desert, Laddakh and the rainless, cloudless country of Lahul and Spiti to several river valleys with abundant vegetation. Finally the alluvial plains of Indus and Ganges river systems emerge formed by the alluvium brought by the rivers and deposited as vast flat grounds. These are the granaries of the country. Further southwards, in the Deccan plateau the terrain gets hilly and rocky with sparse patches of alluvium. The rivers traversing through these hills have their own valleys which are often fertile.
Problem is that in rocky terrain there is dearth of agricultural land and in alluvium country there is dearth (read mismanagement) of water.
Water for irrigation or drinking is like a bank account. If it is an open account from which everyone tries to withdraw money, the account will soon go into red. That is what had happened in the Ahu River. If the account holders are made to understand that the money in the bank belongs to all of them and limits of withdrawal are fixed and days are also fixed and above all if everyone sticks to the guidelines, then the chances of account becoming bankrupt are less. Similarly, if there is a recharge mechanism and people adhere to the set guidelines of not withdrawing water beyond specified limits the chances of depletion of water levels beyond redeemable point are reduced.
In the agriculture sector there is a dire need for research in the field of less water consuming crops. Farmer's co-operatives manned by farmers to set up regulations regarding withdrawal of water will go a long way in controlling the misuse of the available resource. During irrigation of fields lot of water is wasted. Educating the farmers on techniques of checking wastage of water will be of great help.
When the demand increases, often the villagers try to raise the heights of the check dams. This might augment the water storage, but simultaneously it also increases the chances of submerging more land and may be habitats at times. Thus civil construction activities should be done only under the guidance of competent engineers.
Much of the alluvial country in India depends on tube-wells for irrigation. In tube-well also the problem of recharge remains. Ground water recharge depends upon rainfall and to some extent upon the rivers, where they feed the aquifers. Because of laxity or lack of stringent laws more water is pumped out through legal, illegal bores than what goes in. Again as said earlier, in the farming sector if people manage water situation might improve. But of course before such practices are adopted thorough training of people will be required and some check measures also, so that all the water is not usurped by those who matter!
As per a report of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), London around 700 scientists involved in managing agriculture water round the world have conveyed the same message, 'manage the resources now before it is too late'. The water shortage is growing by the day. In 50 years the food consumption amongst humans has more than doubled. People are consuming more calories than before. IMWI's report has some interesting facts that make the statistical terms understandable by a lay man. It says 'Imagine a canal, 10 meters deep, 100 meters wide and 7.1 million kilometers long'long enough to encircle the globe 180 times. This is the amount of water it takes each year to produce food for today's 6.5 billion people". Total global freshwater withdrawals are estimated to be 3800 cubic kilometers. Out of which 70% are used to irrigation, 20% for industry and 10% are used by the municipalities.
India being a developing nation deserves a special mention. Water management is need of the hour. P. Nandakumaran of the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB) reports in the June issue of the Current Science that dynamic groundwater resources of India have been computed as 433 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM). Keeping 34 BCM for natural discharge the net annual groundwater availability for the entire country is of the order of 399 BCM.
Considering the limitations in availability of 'blue water' water from rivers, lakes, ponds, ice and snow and subsurface waters, it is important to prioritise conservation of 'green waters'rain water and water from evapo-transpiration. In other words, every drop of water that falls from the skies needs to be accounted for. Similarly trees and vegetation are the most vital part of the ecosystem of this planet that maintains the water balance. Obviously their conservation will help is augmenting the water balance.
It is the poor farmer's lot (farmers with small holdings) that faces the maximum brunt of water shortage for irrigating their lands. Thus countries like India need a pro-poor infrastructure development. This means developing techniques for providing them water easily and cheaply.
As the demand for food is increasing globally, more and more areas are likely to be converted in to agriculture lands. More agriculture will naturally mean need for more water. Again people have to understand their water rights and responsibilities too.
The productivity of water needs to be increased. All types of agriculture systems can sustain with types of crops that consume less water. In other words develop crops that would consume less water but yield more food.
Rejuvenation of ancient Indian systems of rain water irrigation with the help of modern technology is required. The tanks of Rajasthan and Karnataka are a classic example of the past. They were the ideal storehouse for water. Alas, instead we have opted for high rise buildings and now struggling to impose 'roof top rainwater harvesting'. Well no harm with that, but strategically located tanks would go a long way to revive the water scenario.
Small co-operatives to manage local water resources or micro-water resources will go a long way. Initially they might require support from the governments, but ultimately people will realize that 'water for people and people for water' is the only option to survive.