Fluoride Action Network

Here’s why India may be on the brink of an unprecedented full-blown water crisis

Source: The Economic Times | July 5th, 2015 | By Rahul Sachitanand & Sandhya Ravishankar
Location: India

A steel wheelchair occupies pride of place in the home of A Swami, a resident of Kottala village in Nalgonda district of Telangana. When you walk into the small two-room dwelling, you immediately see why. Swami is barely a couple of feet tall, with an outsize head and a shrunken body. He contracted fluorosis as a baby and that stunted both his mental and physical progress.

The government’s balm has been a Rs 1,500 monthly pension and the wheelchair, but he and his father (who has a debilitating neurological variant of the illness, which has forced him to give up his job as the village barber) are both prime examples of the hazards of overdrawing groundwater resources.

The fluoride count in Nalgonda is as much as 100 times the permissible limit and the likes of Swami and his family have suffered for generations from this overuse of groundwater.

A tour of villages in and around Kottala shows what can happen when water-hungry residents overdraw on limited groundwater. According to multiple estimates, there are some 25 lakh borewells in Nalgonda, three-quarters of which have run dry. Farmers say they have to dig to at least 400-500 feet to hit water — that too if they are lucky.

One local, Panchakutla Suresh, says he struck water at about 400 feet, but in the neighbouring village farmers went as deep as 1,200 feet to only hit hard rock. “We have suffered for decades from locals overdrawing on water and the resultant fluorosis,” says Suresh.

“The local administration is now dealing with a full-blown crisis of water levels literally hitting rock bottom.”

According to water and fluoride expert Srinivas Chekuri, last year Nalgonda witnessed severe drought. “[There was a] shortage of rainfall by almost 42 per cent.

It only received 440 mm as against 758 mm average rainfall. Three-fourths of the area was declared as drought hit,” he says. “Ten years of rainfall data shows a steadily declining trend.” While forest cover is low [below 5%, according to government data] activists say in reality it may be next to nothing. “The demand for water for drinking as well as irrigation is at a peak and the rainfall situation is alarming,” claims Chekuri.

While the local administration has tried to convince farmers to consider using lesser water and alternative sources to groundwater (pumped over ground), there are dozens of farmers losing their entire earnings in this desperate hunt. What’s worsened the scene is inconsistent rainfall. In the past five years, monsoons were above average only once.

Nalgonda town itself has around 40 operating reverse osmosis plants and there are some 150-200 in the district. “In a place with already severe water scarcity, wastage of more than 60-70% water from these plants aggravates… the skeletal fluorosis situation even more,” says Sunderrajan Krishnan, executive director at INREM Foundation, a water advocacy and advisory company.

Water Crisis Everywhere

The villages of Nalgonda district are a microcosm of the water scenario in India. According to a World Resources Institute estimate, in 15 years, the national supply of water is expected to fall 50 per cent below demand.

According to the Central Water Commission, the demand for water will climb from 634 billion cubic metres (BCM) to 1,093 BCM in 2025, to 1,447 BCM by 2050.

Despite this rocketing rise in demand, India’s supply remains constrained. While agriculture accounts for around threequarters of all water used in India, rapid urbanisation and heavy demand from commercial and industrial users have placed undue stress on already fragile resources. According to the ministry of water resources, industrial demand is expected to rise four-fold by 2030 to 196 billion kilo litres. What’s worse, India Inc uses water inefficiently.

Over the past decade, Narayana Gowda, a small landowner in Devanahalli, near Bengaluru, has watched with a mixture of bemusement and alarm the drying up of the water table around his five-acre farm.

“We used to be able to hit water at 100 feet a decade ago,” says the 50-year-old, as commercial planes scream overhead. “Today, with some luck, you may hit water at 1,000 feet.” As Devanahalli has become a real estate magnet — rates have shot up 50% in the past couple of years — water levels have plunged. While some farmers have cashed out in this real estate boom, the ones who didn’t are now suffering.

“Borewell-drilling activity almost never stops around here,” Gowda adds. But the water woes plaguing such residents is hardly news to long-time residents of India’s technology capital; it’s just the heightened intensity that has knocked them off their feet. Water researcher S Vishwanath points out that there are some 30 million borewells across India and hundreds more being dug, only harming India’s limited groundwater. He adds that the 30 million borewells pump out some 250 million cubic metres of groundwater annually.

“This makes India a groundwater civilisation… 65% of India’s water use is from groundwater,” he says. “We need to manage this precious resource better.”

“There are 3,600 irrigation tanks around Chennai in Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts,” says S Janakarajan, professorial consultant, Madras Institute of Development Studies and president, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERS). “80% of these two districts is already urban as per the 2011 census. So what will happen to these water bodies?

Who will regulate the buildings and industries? Only if we protect these water bodies will we be able to prevent thirst in Chennai,” he adds.

Janakarajan has spent over 50 years researching Tamil Nadu’s aquifers and depletion of water resources. “These estimates by Water Resources Institute are based on the assumption that our water resources are clean, protected and unpolluted,” he added. “Therefore available water resources may be much less than estimated… We have thousands of industries, all of which are dumping solid waste, biomedical waste and effluent into the water bodies. It will not take 15 years; in another 10 years itself we may face a severe water crisis,” he says.

Forty-eight-year-old Rani Francis, a resident of Nallan Kuppam slum in Chennai, has been buying water from private tankers for the past two years. “Earlier we used to get water in the common pump in our street,” said Francis. “Not a drop is available in the past two years. Every day we buy water for `1 for three kudams [a kind of bucket that holds around eight litres of water], so we spend around `6-7 a day on water for our daily needs,” she said.

Francis is not alone in her lament. Most homes in and around Greater Chennai buy water from private tankers as government-supplied water is not available and borewells have run dry. In the tony neighbourhood of Old Mahabalipuram Road, home to Chennai’s IT corridor, residents of apartment complexes pay up to `2,000 a month simply to buy private water.

With the city’s expansion, Chennai’s demand for water skyrocketed too. According to data from Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, demand for water has increased from 1,326 million litres per day (MLD) in 2006 to 1,481 in 2011 and is expected to hit 1,763 MLD in 2021. Over a decade ago, in 2004, the authorities initiated two projects, one to draw water from Veeranam Lake, 230 km away (to add 180 MLD of capacity) and the second to build check dams to stop rainwater running off into the sea and add another 20 MLD of capacity.

Much to Worry About

Notwithstanding such initiatives, Chennai has much to be worried about.

At the entrance of the IT corridor is Pallikaranai, a small patch of preserved marsh in the midst of the city. “I remember when I was a boy, there was water everywhere,” said S Murugan, a resident of Pallikaranai since 1973. “We used to catch truckloads of fish from the kazhiveli [Tamil word meaning marsh] and samba rice used to grow to a height of 5 feet. We used to be able to scoop up fresh water from the ground just by digging with our hands but now we do not find water even though we sink borewells to depths of 120 feet,” he said.

Experts say that the destruction of Chennai’s wetland ecology by rampant concretisation, encroachment and pollution are the key causes for depletion of groundwater levels. “Out of 474 wetland complexes in Greater Chennai, only about 43 can be used today,” explained Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee of Care Earth, a non-profit which works with the state government in conservation of wetlands. “The rest have been converted for terrestrial use, encroached and silted. Wetlands soak in rainwater and hold it in like a sponge. They are the main cause for groundwater recharging in the city.

But now only a little over 10% of the original 5,500 hectares of marshes have been rescued,” she said.

A senior state government official told ET.com that the state wanted to graduate from rooftop harvesting to campus-level harvesting.

Chennai’s local water board wants to increase piped water supply to homes, to decrease reliance on tankers and improve the maintenance of tanks so that there are no obstacles in inflow channels and no leaks in sluice gates.

But Chennai is not alone in this battle for water. According to some estimates, while there are some 65 to 70 million people drinking fluoride-laced water in places such as Nalgonda, across Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, some 15-20 million people are consuming water with significant traces of arsenic. As more and more water is pumped out of limited reserves, experts think India is at the brink of a full-blown water crisis. “Indiscriminate ground water use, no controls on tariff, contamination of sources thanks to rapid urbanisation… the situation has become much worse,” says Hoshang Subawalla, APAC regional executive — Water and Process Technologies for GE Power & Water. “India’s water footprint no longer matches its human footprint and old best practices in groundwater discharge have disappeared.”

Rapidly urbanising India can’t only be blamed for the current state of affairs. According to experts, the agriculture sector not only accounts for nearly three-fourths of water use in the country, it is also an extremely inefficient user of the resource. The planting of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in arid regions such as Marathwada in Maharashtra, leaning on vested political interests in the sugar industry, is just one example of the ineffective use of the resource.

As India races to try to right this water imbalance, some activists say priorities may be misplaced. “We have more than 5,100 large dams, many thousands of smaller dams, and are the third largest dam-building nation in the world,” says Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

“There is hardly any post-facto analysis of how this infrastructure… is functioning.” Maharashtra is the largest dam-builder in the country, even though the average irrigated area is barely 17%, she contends.

Much of this spurt in demand from Maharashtra comes from the agriculture sector, especially for crops such as sugarcane — and is reflective of the strife facing Indian agriculture. In Beed region, there are 66 sugar factories in operation, fed by a sugarcane crop spread across 2.5 lakh hectares.

Dandekar argues that this skew is hindering rather than helping the sector. “The issue is not about dams… but about using the available infrastructure effectively,” she argues. “That’s not happening because of a number of reasons, most important being lack of democratic and participatory management in dam operations.” In August 2011, four agitating farmers were allegedly shot dead by the police outside of Pune, as they protested the diversion of water to a nearby industrial area. A Dwindling Resource With 16% of the world’s population and barely 4% of its water, this squeeze is unlikely to improve anytime with the existing water infrastructure. Companies looking to target this opportunity say that rather than pour more funds into the existing infrastructure, India may need to consider alternatives.

For instance, experts say cities need to consider alternatives to pumping water for hundreds of kilometres to reach its residents. Critics also say that the government’s policy — especially around the ambitious, yet contentious river-linking programme — needs plenty of work. A national water policy unveiled three years ago immediately attracted the ire of states for being too centrally controlled. More focus needs to be put on waste water treatment, recharge of aquifers and enhancement of storage facilities. GE’s Subawalla says that the traditional focus has been on ground and surface water, with scant thought for alternative means. For example, he says India needs to expand the use of desalination units, enhance the use of recycled water and decentralise its water infrastructure to make ends meet. GE, for instance, is hawking a range of low-cost decentralised sewage treatment plants and has bagged some 125 deals to fit water reuse and recycle units across the country.

Subawalla adds that GE is also leveraging its expertise across power and water to provide cheaper and more efficient solutions for customers. “Producing a barrel of oil takes 3-9 barrels of water… desalination of water costs `50 per kilo litre, of which `32-35 is the power cost,” he explains.

And it isn’t the behemoths only hogging the headlines. Far smaller startups are proffering their own innovations to try and solve this vexing problem. Nexus Venture-funded Jaldhara, for one, offers plug-and-play water treatment units for companies. Others have also attracted investor attention — Waterlife India has raised money from Matrix Partners and Aavishkaar Ventures for its community water systems, water harvesting solutions and waste water management products.

Back in Nalgonda, district collector Satyanarayana Reddy is looking for drastic solutions to fix the region’s water woes. Rather than try to fix the groundwater, the local administration is trying to give it a break. Water will be pumped from nearby reservoirs to provide water to houses and an ambitious afforestation programme, fed by some 450 nurseries, will try to stop leeching of water, in an attempt to stabilise water levels in the region. “We are going at 100 kmh to try to solve the water crisis facing this region… this is not just my focus, but the top priority of the state government,” says Reddy.

The close link water has with India’s economic fortunes was amply demonstrated on June 2. When Union minister for science & technology and earth sciences Harsh Vardhan forecast a poor monsoon, it triggered a two-day drop in the stock market indices, which shaved $23 billion off its value. While over 600 million Indians face a threat to their surface water supply, water-hungry businesses are pushing prime minister Narendra Modi for assured supply as he promotes his Make in India initiative. Trying to balance these delicate requirements for water may be India’s biggest development challenge yet.

Corporates take the plunge

Soft drink makers are among the heaviest users of water and have a spotty record of overdrawing and polluting groundwater. Between 2003 and 2006, PepsiCo faced repeated accusations that its soft drinks were unsafe for consumption. The firm had then denied all charge. It says it has improved water efficiency by 20%, four years ahead of schedule. However, when the company claimed it was water positive in 2009, activists argued it used much more water than it claimed. PepsiCo projects aimed at adding to the water table include the one in Nelemangala, Karnataka, where water harvesting structures have created the ability to recharge 1.5 billion litres annually, and 13 check dams near Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

It takes around 300 litres of water to produce a litre of beer. It is little surprise then that beer giant SABMiller is working hard to whittle this number down.

In Neemrana, Rajasthan, SABMiller has initiated a programme with the likes of industry lobby CII in 2013, which has resulted in recharge of around 3,00,000 m3 of ground water annually, the same volume its brewery in Rajasthan uses annually.

Elsewhere, in Cuttack, Odisha, the brewer has constructed six water harvesting structures, while in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, a community water management programme has resulted in 500 m3 of water conservation.


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