A Unquenchable Water Crisis and the Jal Sahelis
Artwork - An anonymous mural
Written by Poorvi Gupta
India’s population stands at a whopping 1.3526 billion as of 2018 according to a World Bank report. And to support this growing population, we have a system of eight large rivers with almost four hundred subsidiaries. India, a country with a mix of both temperate and tropical regions isn’t deprived of water resources clearly- the southern peninsula is surrounded by three different oceanic bodies and the Indian monsoon typically lasts from June-September with large areas of western and central India receiving more than 90% of their total annual precipitation during the period, and southern and northwestern India receiving 50%-75% of their total annual rainfall.
These are some unequivocal facts before we skim onto the point that even though India has a bounty of water resources, yet water scarcity in our nation-state affects nearly 1 million people each year. People across India face critical drought conditions and water shortages. As of June 25, 2019, nearly 65 percent of the country’s reservoirs were running dry.
And yet somehow the water crisis never makes the News (if only there was time left after zeroing in on all the celebrities in India and every ‘positive’ action of our current government).
India is a developing country, so it should (obviously) keep its earnest focus on defence, with an expenditure of Rs 4, 31,011 on it which accounts for 15% of the total budgeted expenditure of the central government. Even though nearly 600 million Indians face high-to-extreme water stress – and about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the priorities of our government and policy makers are set in stone.
India's water crisis can be accredited to a lack of government planning, increased corporate privatization; industrial and human waste dumping and government corruption. In addition, water scarcity in India is expected to worsen as the overall population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by year 2050.
The benighted reluctance of the authorities to give equal importance to climate change is vexing and unacceptable. This topic is always put on a backseat- an issue to be dealt with at the last because there are more dire problems to tackle with; statues to be built, Ram Janmabhoomi to be reinstituted, new [non-consensual] laws to be passed.
Even though the culpability of the water crisis of India is not on the shoulders of merely the government in power but a result of years of trickle-down effect, the steps that can actively be taken to mitigate definitely are.
The Union government formed a new Jal Shakti (water) ministry in May 2019, to tackle water issues with a holistic and integrated perspective on the subject. The Prime Minister announced an ambitious plan to provide piped water connections to every household in India by 2024. But this just went on to show the pompous nature and path of solution chosen by our government- who always focus on fancy goals and yojna (plans) but never at the accessibility and reach of those plans.
The issue remains in the implementation and judicious utilization of the existing infrastructure and resources. As of 2019, about 65% of India’s population lives in rural areas, where some might have access to water supply but most of them still rely on local water bodies and wells.
To set this target at a time when most Indians don’t even have clean drinking water, because the water bodies are either compromised or untreated instead of catching the problem by its root manifests that the government is only interested in showcasing surface work and no in depth solution exists as of yet .
In a nutshell, aiming at laying huge pipeline networks for water supply means that yet again, we are giving more preference to infrastructure instead of accessibility. What if there is no water supply- what help would the pipelines be?
A survey was conducted by Gaon Connection conducted a survey in 19 states. They interviewed around 18,000 people and asked them about the issues that are plaguing rural India. The most important issue that emerged was water -- or lack of it. This is exactly the problem that India has been grappling with, that has gone unaddressed for a long time.
An incongruity between water, society and the economy can be seen. Building more dams, laying large networks will not solve India’s water crisis but only increase the carbon footprint and displace people.
Most of the rural India relies on local water bodies to collect water, which have either gone dry or are too far and cut-off to access.If 42% of India’s land is facing a drought that goes unacknowledged, according to data from the Drought Early Warning System, then clearly India is focusing on techniques that aren’t resolving people’s problems. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, parts of the North East, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are the worst hit by these droughts. These states are home to 500 million people, almost 40% of the country’s population.
India has experienced widespread drought every year since 2015 except 2017. Yet the central government did not declare drought in these areas, nor did they plan rescue and aid treatments, send water tanks or built reservoirs- they just declared another goal that would shine on their repertoire and get them copious amounts of vote bank. And even though a drought might not be the consequence of the centre’s work, it is under their purview to deal with it so as to alleviate its effects to the best of their power.
The water crisis in India is not just characterized by a lack of sanitation and accessibility, unclean drinking water and droughts but is also highly gendered in nature. In most parts of the world, women are supposed to be the caretakers of home, domesticated and trained to be responsible for all the household chores and concerns including management of water, health and sanitation. Because of this reason, they are expected to fetch water for the household, both women and young girls, after walking for miles from their homes to the nearest fresh water reservoir (in rural areas).
Yet all too often these decisions about the design and location of water facilities are made without the involvement of the female users, who have most at stake in this regard. Despite their number and their prominent roles and responsibilities in relation to water and sanitation, women often have no voice and no choice in decisions about the kind of services they need or are receiving.
According to the survey, 39.1% women living in rural India have to step out of their homes to fetch water. Sixteen per cent women -- 3,000 of them -- have to walk between one kilometre and 5 kilometres twice a day to fetch water. And the younger ones have to comprise on their work-time and studies. “I spend half of my day fetching water. I don't have the time to study,” said Suman, 18, who lives in Rajola village in Satna district in Bundelkhand.
In Bundelkhand, water has evaporated from most rivers and ponds. Tube wells and handpumps have gone dry here, in one of the most underdeveloped regions of central India. This is the story of just one area in one state; however most rural and remote parts of India are familiar with this tale.
And so the onus of gaining access to water was taken by the women of Bundelkhand by involving the other women of the village for a 25-day massive digging exercise and revived a dying two-acre pond by converting it into a check dam before the monsoon season. They retain excess water flow during monsoon. The pressure created in their catchment area helps force the impounded water into the ground, resulting in the replenishment of nearby groundwater reserves and wells.
They call themselves the Jal Sahelis, continuing on the tradition started in 2005 in Uttar Pradesh, the network of Jal Sahelis across 200 villages in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh is reviving water harvesting structures and traditional water bodies through community participation. Over 670 rural women are working actively to change the fate of 200 villages.Through this initiative the villages not only have access to water, all year around but are also channelizing it into farming through irrigation.
It is the women who suffer the most in Bundelkhand because of water scarcity," says Shirkunwar Rajput, the woman who led the Paani Panchayat in Udguwan, Lalitpur. “In Bundelkhand, fetching water is entirely a woman or girl’s job. Hence, women have the first right on water resources. And its women who can ensure water security for the community.”
These were all uneducated women, who understood (the hard way) that no one was coming for them- not the authorities, the Centre or even their own families. Thus, they decided to rescue themselves and ameliorate their everyday lives.
Why is it that the government incessantly chooses to ignore local and foundational issues and rather prefers to focus on the superficial? The government brings about ‘yojanas’ that gives them a free-card to get out of the public scrutiny, whilst only participating in a perfunctory manner.
The real problem still stands to be the ignorance towards the plight of the remote rural. Because in order to understand their needs, the people in question need to be actively involved (like the Jal Sahelis). Cursory solutions to their problem can only be applied in the short-term and temporarily save the government from denouncement. However, if the situation of India’s water crisis is to be attenuated then more fundamental reforms and strategies should be established, for that will be sustainable in the long haul.