Convert Wasteland into Water Sanctuaries

Our country is facing water crisis. Perhaps more of a man-made crisis! Most of surface water bodies have been heavily polluted. The ground water reservoirs are slowly becoming unfit for human consumption, partly due to anthropogenic and partly due to natural causes.

Fancy for water bodies has been a part of the human nature. All major cities came up on water front whether of sea, lake or a river. The fancy continues even today and people want a house overlooking a water body. It has been water and oxygen on this planet that made the survival and evolution of life to its highest form, human beings possible.

Initially a hunter gatherer, man evolved to become a cultivator. In areas with rich soil conditions agrarian societies developed. In India agriculture in many parts suffers due to development of wastelands. Statistics show that about 63.85 million hectares of land has become a wasteland. It makes a whopping 20.17% geographical area of the country, excluding Jammu & Kashmir. The J&K part because of accessibility reasons has not yet been covered says a website of Indian Institute of Technology and University of Western Ontario, Canada. 

There are various types of wastelands, for example, Gullied or Ravinous land; Land with or without scrub; Waterlogged and marshy land; Land affected by salinity/alkalinity-coastal/inland; Shifting cultivation area; Underutilized/ degraded notified forest land; Degraded pastures/grazing land; Degraded land under plantation cop; Sands-Inland/coastal; Mining/Industrial wastelands; Barren rocky/stony waste/sheet rock areas; Steep sloping areas; Snow covered and/or glacial areas. Out of these wastelands, with or without shrub forms the largest chunk covering almost 194014.29 square kilometer area which equals to about 6.13% area of the country. Mining or Industrial waste land on the other extreme covers about 1252.13 sq km area or 0.04% area of the country. 

Many agencies are working on reclaiming the wastelands and various measures have been adopted by them. Most of the measures include plantation and also development and conservation of micro-water sheds. Recently Vikram Soni of National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi has come up with an innovative idea of converting wastelands as water sanctuaries for the country. 

Most water sources of the country have been irreversibly polluted he says. He is very right in saying that groundwater reservoirs even under agriculture lands have been polluted because of heavy quantities of pesticides used therein. A study conducted by the Geological Survey Of India, a few years ago revealed that high fluoride content in groundwater in Rai Bareilly and Unnao districts of Uttar Pradesh coincided with a high purchase of pesticides by the farmers of these areas. Pollution of groundwater by the industries is nothing new here. In Faridabad, Haryana it is reported that some industries bored holes in their compounds to discharge the toxic effluents clandestinely, which has lead to higher number of cases of fluoride toxicity. About the surface waters, lesser said the better. Ganga and Yamuna once considered to be pious rivers are now the worst polluted. Their tributaries too have not been spared.

Due to lack of effective punitive laws for pollution of surface and subsurface water bodies the polluters go scot-free, oblivious of harm they are doing to the society. The population boom has lead to reduction of forest covers. The root system of trees otherwise, acts as a potent filter to check infiltration of pollutants to sub-surface. Pollution of water sources via Urban and Industrial wastes has been observed to rise in developed areas. Under the situation, Vikram Soni says that we can get better quality groundwater in wasteland rather than from prime agriculture land.

Wastelands constitute about 20% area of the country. Usually considered a kind of derelict land, they are sort of neglected. However, being a potential source for clean groundwater they can become a useful resource. Quoting K. Chopra and B.N. Golder's (20000 report prepared for the U.N. University, Soni says earlier attempts at estimating the wasteland by National Wasteland development Board (NWDB) were based on a reclassification of the standard land-use data. Thus total estimated waste land was 129.57 million hectares (m ha) with non-forest wasteland estimated as 93.69 m ha. Over a period of time the Remote Sensing techniques using satellite data collected by the countries remote sensing agency (NRSA) an alternative and apparently more reliable classification of wastelands has emerged.

Two sets of data have been obtained by the NRSA. First set is based on the pictures provided by LISS-I satellite with the help of which maps of wasteland on 1:1 million scales could be prepared. This map showed an area of 53.30 m ha as wasteland. Whereas the data obtained from LISS-II helped to produce a map on 1:250,000 scale and that showed an area of 75.53 m ha area as wasteland. Soni has not depended on these figures. Instead he has used the figures of LISS II/III satellites. Maps obtained from these imageries have clearly identified gullied and ravine land, land with or without scrub, degraded notified forest land, degraded pasture, degraded land under plantation, sands inland/coastal, barren rocky/stony waste/sheet rock areas and waterlogged and marshy land. These areas add up to make a total of 518201 sq. km area classified as wasteland, which can be safely used to extract ground water. Statistically this makes up to 17% of the country's area.

Wasteland has unpolluted aquifers under it says Soni. He calls it a resource that can be exploited to combat the water shortage that has hit the country. No doubt it is a novel idea, but not free from hindrances. For example many of the wastelands like gullied and ravenous lands have the problem of approach. In order to drill to depth in a rocky terrain lot of water is required. During normal exploration for gold in the Sonbhadra district of U.P. author remembers water had to be hauled from long distances in tankers to keep the machines working. At times water had to be pumped from a source and carried to the site through pipeline. Since those exploratory drill holes were of shallow depth and narrow in diameter carrying water was affordable. For a tube-well the cost of carrying colossal amount of water will add up to the cost of the well. 

But yes the wastelands do have a good amount of clean water at depth. Some techniques have to be developed to bring that water to the surface and utilize. Many of the wastelands were green lands till a few years ago. For example, Banda district of U.P. now almost becoming a wasteland because of water scarcity was full of greenery recalls a Mr. N.P. Tripathi a retired Conservator of Forests. Such areas with little effort can be made green again with the help of proper watershed management at the micro level. Howsoever scanty rainwater is lost as a runoff in such areas. Therefore proper rainwater harvesting measures can help to make the area green again.

In this endeavor the old method of dug com bore ponds should prove quite useful. These ponds have narrow diameter bore holes in the deepest part which serve a two way purpose. They charge the water table through the water in the hole and at some stage keep the pond level maintained by providing water. Such dug cum bore ponds used to exist in Mehrauli area of south Delhi, now perhaps buried under mushrooms of multistoried apartments!

It is time to think and come out with novel ideas like Vikram Soni has done and to implement them in letter and spirit. Else the future of Indian society could be thirsty! 


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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