The challenge of ensuring the availability of adequate drinking water of acceptable quality has for long faced the government and the public agencies concerned in our country. The reason why it has been centre–staged in recent times is the concern expressed by the Supreme Court of India about the possibility of the city of Bengaluru following in the footsteps of Cape Town in South Africa and, consequently, ordering a cut in the availability of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu state and proportionately increasing the quota of Karnataka state.
The Government of South Africa declared recently that effective from 15 July (referred to as “Day Zero”) no more than 25 litres of water would be given to each citizen of Cape Town. One uses that much of water while having a shower for four minutes. Remembering that a person uses close to 300 litres of water daily, one can understand how meagre that quota is. Our neighbouring city, Bengaluru, is fast approaching the “day zero,” as the United Nations (UN) has warned. The similarity between the situations being faced by it and Cape Town is worth noting.
Unchecked population growth, severe drought conditions and climate change proved to be the curses that plagued Cape Town. The water level in that city’s reservoirs is fast depleting. The citizens, sadly, did not heed repeated warnings by the government to limit their usage to 50 litres of water per day and brought this situation upon them. So, from July 15th, no water will flow through taps.
Arrangements are being made to supply water through 200 water stations each of which to caters to 20,000 people. A ban on filling up of swimming pools, watering gardens and washing cars is imminent. Water theft and, even water storage, will entail exemplary punishment.
Cape Town is, in fact, like an oasis in a desert. The location, the Mediterranean-like climate and natural beauty have attracted substantial numbers of tourists, increasing the wealth and prosperity of the city. Here is where one sees a close resemblance to Bengaluru city designed by the legendary M Visweswarayya. Beautiful parks, copious water availability and the salubrious climate attracted people from many places to settle down there, leading to the proliferation of skyscrapers and increasing pressure on the availability of water.
The administration failed to take precautionary measures of digging more tanks to address the growing need. Interestingly, such failure cannot be attributed to the administration in Cape Town – a city which won several international water management awards. The administrators of the city went to the extent of even shaming excessive users of water by publishing their names. Only, they made the mistake of assuming that past rainfall patterns will not change in the future, or at least, not too quickly. It was a bit like driving a car, only looking into the rearview mirror!
And this is not the problem being faced by Cape Town alone. There are reports that Melbourne in Australia reported, last summer, that the city could run out of water in a little more than a decade. Similarly, Jakarta is drying up and sinking faster than the seas are rising, as the residents are sucking up groundwater unsustainably.
And São Paulo in 2015 reported such low levels of water storage that pipes drew in mud; emergency waters trucks were looted and domestic water supply was severely curtailed through taps to many homes and was limited to just a few hours. The situation was salvaged at the very last minute by fortuitous rainfall.
A United Nations estimate has it that, in 11 metropolitan cities of the world, there is a danger of “day zero” arriving. And a BBC report, based on that projection has listed Bengaluru in the second position, after São Paulo.
The city‘s population will reach 20 million by 2031, when 88 litres per day per capita would be available in the city as against the accepted norm of 135 litres, prescribed by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation of India. A committee appointed by the Indian Institute of Sciences traced the crisis to disappearance of lakes and inability to adopt adequate water conservation measures.
Curiously, its history of continued mismanagement of water proved to be a boon to the state of Karnataka! The Supreme Court, feeling that the needs of the citizens for drinking water are much more important than those of farmers for irrigation, and keeping in mind the current shortage in Bengaluru, directed that 4.75 tmcft of Cauvery water be cut from the quota of the neighbouring Tamil Nadu State, and transferred to Karnataka.
A view has been expressed is some quarters that the Supreme Court, while rightly sympathising with the citizens of Bengaluru, should also have pulled up the Karnataka government. And then there are those who say Karnataka is being favoured on account of impending elections, as the ruling party at the Centre wants to take credit for the additional allocation.
This is the reason why Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu have begun to agitate against the verdict and stalled the proceedings in Parliament, resulting in the no-confidence motion against the ruling party not being taken up. All this has also proved to be a convenient weapon for the new political entrants, Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth, to make the central government their whipping boy.
Globally, water scarcity is not an issue that will be resolved in the near future. In India today, 630 million people do not have assured access to water of good quality. The Water Aid report of 2016 has ranked India among the worst countries in the world in this regard.
The Asian Development Bank has also put out a forecast that by 2030 India will have water a deficit of 50%. The Union Ministry of Water Resources has also forecast that the country’s current water requirements, which are around 1,100 billion cubic meters, will grow to around 1,200 billion cubic meters by 2025. And no visible steps appear to have been taken to deal with this emerging challenge.
All that one can see is the rather amusing search for the subterranean Saraswati river which, for long, has remained invisible! This expedition started in 2003 and was shelved in the following year following a change in the government. Now that the earlier government returned to power in 2014, it has revived the effort. In fact, in the state of Haryana, crores of rupees have been spent in the name of the Saraswati Heritage Development Board.
When asked how that state is connected with the project, the response is that that it is believed that Saraswati once flowed in the Adi Badri area of the state and got cut off from the Himalayan glacier around 2000 BCE on account of tectonic factors. It is believed that the Saraswati river flourished about 4500 years ago and, having flown through what are Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat today, met the sea in the Kutch area of the present Gujarat state.
To the question that is it not that Saraswati river meets the Ganga and Yamuna rivers at Prayag, these historians reply that, around 2000 BC, the river split into two tributaries, one though Haryana and the other to Allahabad. In any case, all this is a matter relating to the discipline of archaeology.
If only adequate funds could be found for the preservation and protection of natural resources, including water, and programmes launched for the supply of drinking water, we would neither have “day zero” s nor inter-state disputes!