Water Scarcity: Is the glass half-unfilled or full-empty?

Ever noticed a drawing of nature done by a young kid. It will be vivid, imaginative and optimistic; the yellow sun, the green trees and yes the crystal blue waters. In fact, kids seem to give water a lot more importance in their drawings, a flowing river, a well, or even the sea. The primacy given to water at this young age is a proof of how water-consciousness is embedded in our very being. A dream of a good life is always accompanied by blue-clear water.

Sadly, the dream is turning into a nightmare, as our world is gripped with a water-crisis, that is only going to turn into a catastrophe. The signpost of the impending cataclysm is right there in front of us. It can be found in the coastal city of South Africa, Cape Town. The city with a population of 4.3 million is currently struggling to keep its taps flowing as reservoirs run close to dry following a three-year drought. Without rain, Cape Town could run out of water by July 9, city authorities predict. Dubbed as Day Zero, this is the day when the water supply to 1 million households (approximately 75% of the city’s total population) will be shut off. The citizens have been asked to ration their daily water consumption to 50 liters, and Day Zero will halve that allocation to just 25 liters. Post Day Zero, Capetonians will need to collect water from 200 points throughout the city, each of which will serve 20,000 people and guarded by armed police.

Yet, while it is the first time in our modern history that a mega-city like Cape Town will go dry, water scarcity is now a recurring theme across the globe. Take the case of the Millennium drought in Australia or the case of California going dry. According to a 2016 study in the Journal Science Advances, 14 or the world’s 20 megacities are now experiencing water scarcity or drought conditions and as many as 4 billion people already live in regions that experience severe water stress for at least one month of the year.

But that is not all, around 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are running out too fast to be replenished; an additional 13 are declining at a faster rate, says NASA. More than half the world’s wetlands have already disappeared, whereas some of the world’s major water bodies such as the Aral Sea, the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake and Lake Chad are disappearing at a faster pace. If the estimates are anything to go by, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages as a daily reality by 2025.

With global population increasing at a steady-untenable rates and the rise of urbanization, the crisis has only worsened. The WEF’s Global Risks Report (2017) has highlighted the World Bank’s forecasts that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050.

Closer home, the scenario is no better. The Global Runoff Data Centre, University of Hampshire and International Earth Science Information Networks have predicted that close to 30% area of India falls in the extreme water-scarce zone, having less than 500 cubic meters per person of renewable freshwater supply. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 50% of water is reportedly lost in the distribution system due to various reasons, according to the National Sample Survey.

Take the case of Mumbai, of the 4500 Million Litres per Day (MLD) requirement of water, only 3,750 MLD is available. The city depends upon the supply from the 6 lakes that store water within and outside the city. These lakes are dependant on the monsoons for water supply. In case the rains fail, the workaround is to tap groundwater. In fact, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from groundwater. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to a reduction in groundwater level.

Given such an alarming situation, a World Bank report reveals that at least 21 Indian cities are moving towards zero groundwater level by 2020. If the present rate of groundwater depletion persists, India will only have 22% of the present daily per capita water available in 2050, possibly forcing the country to import its water.

In the light of this dour scenario, the World Water Day is celebrated today is of much significance. This is the 25th year in running since the World Water Day has been observed. The theme for this year is “Nature for Water” to encourage people to “look for the answer in nature”. Given the rich natural and cultural history of the Indian subcontinent, there is much that can done. Take the case of the ancient ways of water conservation like building kul, johad, eri, etc. The story from Alwar of how a single man Rajendra Singh aka “Waterman of India” changed the landscape.

Back in 1985–86, the rains had failed and led to the worst droughts in the history of Rajasthan. The district of Alwar, one of the poorest in the state, was severely affected. The groundwater table had receded below critical levels, which led to Government restrictions on any further groundwater extractions. Rajendra Singh established the Tarun Bharat Sangh, that helped build communities of concerned villagers and helped them to solve the crisis through the building of water bodies like johads.

Water supplies were re-established in 1,000 villages across the state; five rivers that used to run dry after the annual monsoon season began flowing again and fisheries in them re-established; groundwater levels rose by an estimated six metres; productive farmland increased from 20% to 80% in the catchment area; crucial forest cover, including in farmlands, which helps to maintain the integrity and water-retaining capacity of the soil, increased by 33%; and the return of wildlife such as antelope and leopard has been observed.

The story from Alwar is a brilliant example of how we can collectively work towards a solution. All one needs is an unwavering belief and the ability to inspire people. The future may seem bleak at the moment from a watery outlook, but time and again, humanity has come together and resolved the crisis in a collective manner. Hopefully, the kids drawing those pictures with blue water bodies, will not be horrified to find that none of the ones they painted exist. If not for anything, we at least owe it to them.

Shashwat DC


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