Air, fire, water and earth – of all the four primary elements that support life on our planet, water perhaps is the one resource that we tend to take for granted the most. After all with more than two thirds of the globe filled with this liquid there is no reason to fear the running out of this precious liquid. Or is there?
The answer to this all-important question can be traced back to a report prepared by the World Bank Institute in 1999 as part of its Water Policy Reform program. The report states, “Over the past few decades, use of water has increased, and in many places water availability is falling to crisis levels. More than eighty countries, with 40% of the world’s population, are already facing water shortages, while by year 2020 the world’s population will double. The costs of water infrastructure have risen dramatically.
“The quality of water in rivers and underground has deteriorated, due to pollution by waste and contaminants from cities, industry and agriculture. Ecosystems are being destroyed, sometimes permanently. Over one billion people lack safe water, and three billion lack sanitation; 80% of infectious diseases are waterborne, killing millions of children each year,” the report adds.
More than a decade later, the umpteen warnings sounded by reports such as these have gone largely unnoticed and the devastating results are there for all to see. With rapid industrialisation across the globe that gave scant respect for the environment, droughts are now more frequent than ever before. Ground water levels across the world are depleting faster than they can be replenished, driven purely by the need to feed and quench the thirst of a rapidly ballooning population and in the guise of development.
The Indian connection
In the words of Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute, “Scores of countries are over pumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs, including each of the big three grain producers namely China, India and the US. More than half the world’s population now live in countries where water tables are falling.”
Closer home, for a largely agriculture-driven economy such as ours that is already gearing up to tackle the after effects of a weak monsoon, water shortages assume serious proportions also because the margin between actual food consumption and survival is so delicately balanced. A recent survey by a team of American hydrologists from the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Nasa) & University of California has revealed that groundwater levels in northern India have been declining by as much as 30 centimetres per year over the past decade.
According to information made available by Nasa, 109 cubic kilometres of groundwater disappeared from aquifers in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and the national capital region of Delhi between 2002 and 2008. This is enough water to fill Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the US, three times. The findings are based on data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a pair of satellites that sense changes in earth’s gravity field and associated mass distribution, including water masses stored above or below earth’s surface.
Researchers have concluded that this massive loss is almost entirely due to human activity. "The region has become dependent on irrigation to maximise agricultural productivity. If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water," the study has warned.
Causes & Solutions…
So what are the key factors responsible for the widespread pollution and contamination of water resources in India? “In the Indian context, dumping of industrial wastes containing heavy metals, harmful chemicals, by-products, organic toxins and oils, into the nearby sources of water is one of the most visible causes of water pollution,” opines Carsten Pachnicke, CEO, Lavaris Lake, a subsidiary of Soil GmbH, Germany and a leading global player in the water management & solutions space.
The company is currently in talks with state governments and bodies to market its technology used in cleaning water of most impurities making its fit for human consumption, prawn & fish culture and agriculture purposes.
“Another cause for water contamination here is the improper disposal of human and animal wastes,” continues Pachnicke. “Effluents from factories, refineries, injection wells and sewage treatment plants are dumped into urban water supplies, leading to water pollution. A number of pollutants, both harmful and poisonous, enter groundwater systems through rain water. The residue of agricultural practices, including fertilizers and pesticides, are some of the other major sources of water pollution.”
It’s the massive scale of the problem and changing weather patterns that demand an urgent solution from the authorities in India, he stresses. “Local government bodies and players have woken up to the very real possibility of a massive global shortage of fresh potable water in the coming years. But the challenge lies in saving existing water bodies since the fresh water from the monsoons will only add to the contaminated water thereby worsening the situation. The first step therefore should be to stop the extinction of water bodies which are the prime sources for water across rural India.
It is here that the government has to bring together all the important stakeholders to preserve water by creating awareness on the issue which seems to be lacking at the moment. “Unfortunately, the awareness levels on water conservation are very low here, especially in the cities which need to act responsibly,” feels Pachnicke.
“It is time that an effective government media campaign to save water is initiated. All municipal bodies which supply water have to act responsibly. The government needs to join hands with corporate, infrastructure development companies and other stakeholders to ensure clean drinking water in the years ahead which are going to be crucial.”
Projects at a glance
It’s an important perspective that assumes added significance in light of the thrust on water and sanitation projects by the government under the newly approved scheme for development of satellite towns and counter magnets around seven megacities.
In his keynote address at the recent National Urban Water Awards 2009, S Jaipal Reddy, Union Minister for Urban Development informed that the water and sanitation sector which covers water supply, sewerage, solid waste management and storm water drainage accounts for about 73.43% of the total number of projects sanctioned under JNNURM as on date and 80.81% of the total cost of projects sanctioned.
“In absolute terms, the number of such projects sanctioned is 340 out of a total of 463 projects sanctioned under the scheme. In addition, 4 projects with an approved cost of Rs116 crore have been sanctioned for preservation of water bodies,” Reddy said.
He added that under the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT), out of a total of 969 projects, the water and sanitation sector accounts for 828 projects i.e which is as high as 85% on terms of the cost, the share of the water and sanitation sector would be 92% i.e Rs18409.91 crore out of Rs19833.11 crore. “In addition, 9 projects at a cost of Rs30.03 crore have been sanctioned for the preservation of water bodies,” he said.
Elaborating on the government’s readiness and initiatives to encourage water conservation Reddy said, “We are also conscious of the fact that the phenomenon of climate change will throw up fresh challenges in the water and sanitation sector necessitating the need for mainstreaming practices such as conservation through low water use toilets, water audits, achieving higher energy in water and waste water pumping, recycling of waste water, desalination, reduction of methane gas emission etc.
“The National Mission for Sustainable Habitat piloted by my Ministry and the National Water Mission piloted by the Ministry of Water Resources which are components of the Prime Minister’s Action Plan for Climate Change will address these issues.”
Private sector initiatives
With concerns over rampant abuse of precious water resources gaining momentum, infrastructure development companies active in the water projects domain are stepping up efforts to minimise the ecological impact of their ongoing projects.
A case in point is the Kolkata-based Subhash Projects & Marketing Limited (SPML), which has successfully executed several mega projects across water management, distribution, lift irrigation, waste water treatment, combined effluent treatment and sewer pipeline rehabilitation projects.
Elaborating on the water management initiatives implemented by the company across their vast portfolio of ongoing water projects, Subhash Sethi, vice chairman, SPML says, “As a total water solutions provider the conservation and efficient management of water is one of our foremost objectives. We ensure minimal wastage and optimal utilisation of our resources to gain maximum productivity in all our projects, irrespective of it being in the water, power or infrastructure segment.”
As part of its endeavour to bring more efficiency and utilisation solutions in the water domain, SPML has allied with Cyprus-based Hydro-Comp Enterprises, a specialist in this field. “We also conduct regular environment days and camps for our engineers and contractors at our project sites sensitizing them to environment protection norms and safety measures,” informs Sethi.
These efforts in turn have made their projects eligible for prestigious carbon credits through UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Sethi cites the example of the company’s mini hydel power plant at Kabini, Karnataka, which has been recognized as an eco–friendly, non-polluting project that taps surplus water which otherwise would not have been utilized.
“The project has been consistently getting carbon credits from UNFCCC,” he adds. “Further, the Government of Karnataka, Department of Energy and Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited certified Subhash Kabini Power Corporation and ranked it second for highest capacity installation in small hydro power projects for/during the period 1996-2004.”
Other players like the Neev Group, a Mumbai-based real estate and infra services company that has recently bagged water development projects in the city worth more than Rs150 crore from the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) also claim to have checks in place to minimise potential eco damage.
“During the project execution process, we regularly monitor the progress to prevent zero contamination and leakage and ensure a continuous supply of pure water. Efficient water resources management is normally handled by the regional state and central government bodies,” explains Jitendra Jain, the company’s CEO and MD. Neev has been appointed a contractor under the Hydraulic Engineer department by the MCGM for executing water distribution improvement programmes for select zones across Mumbai.
Stressing on the need to conserve water Jain says, “A multi dimensional approach needs to be adopted to manage precious natural resources like water. The use of water has to be measured and a reasonable fee can be charged for water supply for industrial and commercial use. Further sewage treatment plants and waste water management systems have to be made compulsory for such segments. ”
Drawing attention to the rampant wastage of water during supply in urban cities Jain adds, “Almost 30% of water is wasted due to leakages in the pipelines. This needs to be prevented on an urgent basis. The government also needs to develop a policy that monitors the execution of upcoming realty projects in metros and upcoming cities. It’s time that cluster development supported by basic infrastructure like sewage treatment plants and rain water harvesting facilities that can conserve water are made mandatory.”
Quite clearly while private players are doing their bit, the gravity of the situation calls for a collaborative effort from all the concerned parties. As Sethi puts it, “These initiatives have to be backed by strong government policies. Policy makers need to take informed decisions on contributing factors like ensuring our rivers do not widen on their way to the sea, plugging distribution losses and putting an end to the dumping of hazardous effluent and waste discharge into our water bodies. These are just some of the actions required on an immediate basis if sustainable development is to become a reality in our country.”