Thursday, February 29, 2024
Home Cover Story Focus News Drop of Life

Drop of Life

Drop of Life
People fill plastic pots from a well in Chennai which is experiencing severe water crisis; a restaurant in the city remains shut due to water shortage/Photo: UNI

Above: People fill plastic pots from a well in Chennai which is experiencing severe water crisis; a restaurant in the city remains shut due to water shortage/Photo: UNI

As India grapples with a severe water shortage and a deficient monsoon, conserving this precious resource is the only way out. But for that, the centre and states have to be on the same page

By Ramesh Menon

You only know the value of water when the well is dry, goes an old adage. And India is realising this the hard way. As the monsoon got delayed, a water crisis erupted in many parts, especially Chennai where long queues of people fought over this precious resource. Concerns about water availability for agriculture and domestic uses also increased as water tables got depleted all over India. Truly, the time for water wars had begun.

It is a wake-up call for India. It has realised that it will be sentenced to hydrological poverty if urgent steps are not taken. In his first Mann Ki Baat address after being re-elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a national effort to augment and protect India’s water resources. He said that India was tapping just eight percent of the rainfall it received and every drop of water needed to be conserved. He wanted a database created on innovative methods to conserve water. This challenge can only be met by concerted and joint action, he said.

But this cannot be done alone by the central government. SK Sarkar, former secretary, ministry of water resources, told India Legal: “Water is a state subject and the central role is limited. Any national programme will have an impact only if all the states work with the centre. At the moment, there is no legal compulsion on the part of the states to undertake water management. This has to change. There needs to be a common central approach towards conserving water. If the new Jal Shakti Ministry has to be effective, state bodies will have to be restructured. The National Water Bill, 2016, has been pending in Parliament due to lack of consent from many states who fear that they will lose their power over water.”

There are other ramifications. Water takes a lot of energy, time and money to extract, transport and filter over long distances. This ends up consuming non-renewable fossil fuels and leads to dangerous by-products like carbon dioxide and then climate change.

Surprisingly, despite numerous laws in various states and cities that call for rainwater harvesting, strict implementation is lacking. According to government sources, there is lack of commitment.

In India, individual landowners have overwhelming control over groundwater. This makes any law on groundwater redundant and ineffective.

While groundwater is the primary source of water for domestic use and irrigation, the focus of planners has largely been on surface water. It is imperative that this changes as water tables all over India are depleting. It is generally felt that people own groundwater resources. If you have a well, you naturally feel you own the water in it. More importantly, there was no punishment for over-exploiting groundwater. Mechanical pumping and free water for farmers in various states have led to overuse and wastage, affecting natural recharge systems. Even laws were drafted to give states some control on regulation, but nothing was done to stem the unlimited control that landowners had over groundwater.

Short-sighted schemes have also been floated despite the water crisis. For example, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation plans to cut more than 2,000 trees in Aarey Colony, one of the few green lungs left in Mumbai, to construct a car shed for the metro project. What environmental effect will this have and how long will it be before the cut trees re-grow?

On top of that is the sorry state of water storage. On July 3, an earthen dam in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra was breached and water washed away homes, killing 14. Villages had complained of leakages for over two years, but it was unheeded. The water resources department in the state has been facing a funds crunch for maintenance and repairs of over 3,000 dams. Only about two percent of the capital costs of dams was allocated for repairs. Hopefully, the new water bill on the anvil will look at these anachronisms.

There are ways to conserve water

  • Close running taps.
  • Put up notices in public conveniences on the need to save water.
  • Repair dripping taps.
  • Install water-efficient flushes that have sensors to control water.
  • Close the tap as you shave, brush your teeth or soap/rinse clothes.
  • Ensure overflow valves in overhead tanks are working.
  • Don’t use too much detergent for clothes.
  • Operate automatic washing machines only when fully loaded.
  • Don’t use bath tubs.
  • Don’t use a hose to wash cars or the floor.
  • Water used to wash cereals, vegetables and fruits can be used to water plants.
  • Encourage rooftop water harvesting in your colony/bungalow.
  • Become part of active water conservation programmes.
  • Minimise grass lawns; don’t overwater your lawns.
  • Use drip irrigation sprinklers for large gardens.
  • Remove weeds as they soak the water that plants should get.
  • Drink boiled water instead of using the RO water purifiers as they waste a lot of water to give you a glass of drinking water.

The Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017, recognises that groundwater is a common resource and needs to be protected. Sarkar, who is at present a Distinguished Fellow and Senior Director, Natural Resources and Climate Programme at The Energy and Resources Institute, said: “The state government must entrust power to local bodies if the national mission to save water has to work. Article 243 (G) of the Constitution says that water management has to be delegated to local bodies and self-government.”

In areas where groundwater levels are more than eight metres below the surface in Delhi and National Capital Territory, the Central Ground Water Authority has directed that roof­top rainwater harvesting systems be installed. This has to be executed by group housing societies, institutions, schools, hotels, industrial establishments and farmhouses.

The Ministry of Urban Development has made modifications to building bye­laws, making it mandatory. It requires rainwater to be harvested in all new buildings on plots of 100 sq m and above if sanction has to be given.

Cape Town Shows the Way

This South African port city has reduced water consumption in ingenious ways. Indian cities would do well to follow its example.

Even as various cities in India grapple with a severe water crisis due to delayed monsoons, they could take a leaf out of South Africa’s book. Or, more specifically, Cape Town. The way it has tackled this problem suggests what people must do to avoid a Zero Water situation. Two years ago, consumption there dropped 60 percent as people listened to constant exhortations to shower shorter, drink less and flush less.

Signs went up urging people that “if is yellow, let it mellow” to reduce toilet flushing. Public bathrooms in offices and shops removed faucets and replaced soap dispensers with hand sanitisers. Car washes—if you could find one open—switched to using spray or cleaning fluid. The city set limits on water used per person per day and heavily surcharged excessive use. People of all races found themselves queuing for public water as the drought lengthened.

While the bottled drinking water business boomed, larger grocery companies did not price gouge, though smaller shops did. Used bath water became the choice for plant watering and toilet flushing. Homeowners and businesses that could afford counter measures installed elaborate water tank systems to catch runoff from roofs if and when it rained. Hotels removed bathtub drain stoppers and suggested guests take three-minute showers.

The cause of the problem was a combination of population growth through migration as well as climate change issues. South Africa’s political climate brightened in 1994 when a new constitution brought democracy and Nelson Mandela to the presidency. It also brought people to Cape Town, doubling the population between 1994 and 2017 to just over four million people.

Almost no water reservoirs were built because annual winter rains had generally supplied enough water. In the green and vibrant Western Cape, sufficient water for agriculture and humans was assumed. But 2017 was the driest year since 1933, with local scientists saying that a drought of this severity would statistically occur approximately once every 300 years. As water levels fell, the fear level rose along with incessant messages to conserve. From 1.2 billion litres a day before the crisis in early 2016, consumption dropped to 742 million litres a day by mid-2017 and declined as Zero Day approached to about 550 million litres a day in March 2018. Finally, the onset of winter rains between April and July 2018 helped bring dam levels to 70 percent capacity. At the low point, reservoirs were at 13 percent capacity and could be mistaken for large mud puddles.

It has been tough on agriculture because wine and fruit tree farmers have cut their water use significantly, sometimes by not growing anything. Crop losses were estimated at a billion dollars in 2017.

Hardships, yes, and a new appreciation for what happens when essentials start to dwindle. Will the attitude last?

—Kenneth Tiven

Various states are now implementing some measures to save water. In Punjab, the Central Ground Water Board, the Punjab Irrigation Department and the Agriculture Department have sounded warnings about the rapidly dropping water table. They are finally being heard as Punjab’s Local Bodies Department has restricted the use of water and even slapped penalties on violators. Users cannot use the main supply line to water lawns and wash cars. First-time violators will have to shell out Rs 5,000, second-time violators Rs 2,000 and third-time violators Rs 5,000 and their connections will be disconnected.

Tamil Nadu has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for all new buildings. Water and sewer connections will be given only after rainwater harvesting plans are completed. In Puducherry, the PWD has been constructing these structures on the rooftops of all government buildings for the last 16 years. In Kerala, all new buildings will have to have rainwater harvesting structures. However, if the area has water-logging problems, the rule will not apply.

Under the Madhya Pradesh Bhumi Vikas Rules, 1984, rooftop rainwater harvesting has been enforced in municipalities for buildings larger than 250 sq m. The state has offered a six percent rebate on property tax for those implementing rainwater harvesting. In Rajasthan, rainwater harvesting is mandatory for all public establishments and properties on plots larger than 500 sq m, otherwise water supply is cut. The state is also working on a draft bill that proposes cash penalties and jail for misuse of water. In Gujarat, developers of buildings with an area between 500 sq m and 1,500 sq m will have to install rainwater harvesting structures. They will have to provide percolation wells with a rainwater harvesting system. It is also mandatory for all government buildings.

In Haryana, rainwater harvesting has been made mandatory in all new buildings by the Haryana Urban Development Authority. Drilling of tube wells has been banned in certain areas. Violators would be prosecuted under Section 180 and 181 of the Haryana Municipal Corporation Act, 1994. Rao Narbir Singh, Haryana’s minister for public works, said that the state wants to bring in a law against wasting water. It proposes a fine of Rs 10,000 or a three-month jail term. The Union Territory of Chandigarh has made it mandatory for all new buildings to implement rainwater harvesting irrespective of the size of the plot or roof.

Global crisis

Water shortage and management are now becoming a worldwide issue. In some African countries, the per capita availability is as low as 47 litres a day, while in the US it may be as high as 578 litres. But no country today can ignore the impending water crisis.

It is amazing what the city-state of Singapore, which does not have its own water source, has done with rainwater harvesting. Interestingly, 20 years ago, it was illegal to use rainwater for personal use there. The rationale was that rainwater was a common resource and so its collection, storage and re-use would be done only by the Public Utilities Board. But now, individual collection and use has been permitted. Singapore heavily relies on treated wastewater. It is passed through numerous stages like membrane-based filtering, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection to make it fit enough for drinking and cooking. The quality of this wastewater exceeds the drinking water standards of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency. This treated wastewater is today meeting around 40 percent of Singapore’s water demand and is projected to meet 55 percent of the demand by 2060.

Qatar has stiff fines going up to QR 20,000 for wasting water. Residents cannot use a water hose in gardens or to wash cars. It is also against the law to neglect damaged pipes causing leakage. Qatar uses power to run huge desalination plants to provide drinking water.

According to studies of the National Academics of Sciences, Washington, water scarcity in the US will intensify as the population and the economy grow. Learning how to deal with it would be a continuing challenge.

In Germany, there are strict regulations restricting the use of treated water for flushing toilets and landscape gardens. Germany has innovatively trapped rainwater flowing on streets by directing it into underground storage tanks. Most cities in Germany charge residents a stormwater drainage fee. But the fee is waived if rainwater is retained or recharged in the soil. Grants and subsidies are given to encourage rainwater harvesting installations.

Fourteen of the 33 countries that will be water-stressed in the next 20 years are in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia plans to import its grain needs to save water.

American intelligence has predicted that North African and Middle East countries might suffer instability because of a water crisis. In the coming years, south-western US and China’s Ningxia province could witness an increase in water stress by 40 to 70 percent. Water supply in Botswana and Namibia is limited and there are fears of it worsening in the years to come.

In Himachal Pradesh, installation of rainwater harvesting systems is mandatory for all buildings constructed in urban areas. It is also mandatory for schools, government buildings, rest houses, upcoming industries and bus stands.

In Daman and Diu, the PWD has been instructed to ensure rooftop rainwater harvesting structures. In Goa, the PWD has been asked to construct rainwater harvesting structures for both existing and upcoming government buildings. In Lakshadweep, rainwater harvesting structures are being constructed on different islands.

In Meghalaya, the government has instructed different departments to provide funds from their annual plans for rooftop rainwater harvesting structures in government buildings. While in Nagaland rooftop rainwater harvesting is compulsory for all new government buildings, in Arunachal Pradesh building byelaws are being framed to make it mandatory for government buildings.

Under the West Bengal Municipal (Building) Rules, 2007, installation of rainwater harvesting systems is mandatory. In Andaman and Nicobar islands, building byelaws are being amended to incorporate mandatory provision for these systems. Odisha is contemplating the formulation of a comprehensive water law.

Various cities too have started their own measures to conserve water. Bengaluru, which has seen an explosion in real estate and population in the last few decades, has made it mandatory for anyone owning 2,400 sq ft of land or a building with an area of more than 1,200 sq ft to have rainwater harvesting. In Mumbai, rainwater harvesting is mandatory for all buildings constructed on plots more than 1,000 sq m.

The Surat Municipal Corporation too has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for new buildings with a plot size of 4,000 sq m or more. In Kanpur, rainwater harvesting has been made mandatory in all new buildings with an area of 500 sq m or more.

In Nagpur, all layouts of open spaces, amenity spaces of housing societies and new constructions on an area of 300 sq m and above will need to have rainwater harvesting structures such as an underground storage tank or percolation pits. If these rules are violated, it would attract a fine of Rs 1,000 per year per 100 sq m of the built-up area.

In Indore and Gwalior, rainwater harvesting is mandatory in all new buildings with an area of 250 sq m or more. In the latter city, the engineer-in-charge has been authorised to impose a penalty of Rs 7,000 in case of non-compliance. In Hyderabad also, it is mandatory in all new buildings with an area of 300 sq m or more.

In Gurugram, those wasting treated water for gardening or to wash cars will be penalised. Even Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli was not spared as his domestic help was fined by the municipal corporation of Gurugram for washing a luxury hatchback outside his residence in DLF Phase-1 in early June.

Individuals will be fined Rs 1,000 and institutions Rs 2,000. Repeat offenders will be charged more. The Mussoorie Dehradun Development Authority has now included the installation of rainwater harvesting systems.

Laws are good only if implemented. Till now, there was only a knee-jerk approach to water conservation. India is entering a stage where water issues will not only dominate, but dictate events. The demand for water is going up every day, but rainfall, as this year has shown, has been erratic and climate change will ensure that it will be like that every year. Droughts have been recurring too.

In the end, only a long-term action plan with proactive steps will work.


  1. Very insightful read.. Most of the states have rules in place for water conservation but how much of it is implemented is the real question. We need to take lessons from Singapore, Capetown and Germany. Unfortunately in our country we are dealude with caste and religion and the real issues have taken a back seat.. This article is indeed a wake up call.

Comments are closed.