Water, Water, Everywhere…..On the Brink of a Crisis!



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Water Scarcity in Manipur . image courtesy: e-pao.net

Water Water Everywhere…

(This write-up is about the water crisis looming large in the Southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Water is a vast subject with multiple ramifications and hence there is much that is/could be still left unsaid.)

Most of us know the facts about water or are broadly aware of them. But very few of us perhaps realize, the grave reality.  The following data points may be sobering: (source Wikipedia and USGS).  More than 70% of the earth’s surface is water. But less than 3% of this entire water available is non-saline. Of this very small portion, more than 68% is locked in icecaps/glaciers, about 30% is ground water and just 1% is surface water.

The 1% surface water is increasingly polluted and the 30% ground water across many cities is getting increasingly depleted. The fresh water locked as polar icecaps is slowly melting to be part of the saline oceans, thanks to Global Warming.

water, everywhere,
image courtesy: USGS

More Mouths To Quench and Feed

In the 100 years between 1900 and 2000, humans have grown from 1.5 Billion globally to more than 6 Billion.  We now number about 7.4 billion. We use water in the following proportion – 70% for Irrigation, 20%+ for Industrial Use, 8% for domestic use (drinking, cooking, bathing, toilet usage etc). Recreational Usage is very small but growing.

It is estimated that for growing food for an average person’s daily dietary intake, a minimum of 2000 litres of water is needed. Meat production needs (by a long way) more water per kilogram of produce than vegetarian items.  The fact is that there are more humans living today than ever before  and more of these are eating meat. The corresponding amount of water increasingly used would only put additional pressure on an already depleting natural resource.

image courtesy: zanran.com
image courtesy: maps.com

As seen in the map, large parts of Asia, the Middle-East and Africa are already struggling with poor water availability. And these regions are where most of the world’s population lives.

India and Tamil Nadu – Farmers’ Fortune Fans our Economy

It is a platitude that India has traditionally been dependent on the monsoon for its economy. It is increasingly getting Services dependent /industrial in nature, with less than 30% of its GDP coming from agriculture. But just about a third of its billion population is urban. A considerable proportion live in rural settings with a huge dependency on agriculture.  A decent agricultural year is critical to manage the socio-economic fabric here. A less than satisfactory agricultural season can play havoc on rural India here and has a cascading effect on Urban life as well.

The South-West monsoon which is critical for the over all well being of the Indian economy has not been very poor in 2016. But it could have surely been better in a few states like Karnataka and surely more on time. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu, which receives a significant amount of water through the North East monsoon is staring at a crisis. Being fairly industrialized, less than 15% of Tamil Nadu’s Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) is dependent on agriculture. However water is still needed for Agricultural, Industrial and Domestic consumption.

The Rains, Ground Water and Cauvery – Tamil Nadu’s water pots

The strong agricultural belts in TN depend on the monsoon, Cauvery water (flowing from Karnataka) and  ground water. Karnataka’s stance on Cauvery has been a sore point over the years. But the lack of monsoon coupled with depleting ground water levels threatens to disrupt rural life in TN. Unlike Karnataka (which is also affected by a poorer monsoon this year), TN is far more dependent on the Cauvery. Karnataka may be affected more from its plans to provide a growing Bangalore City with Kaveri water. But we are already reading about farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu. Unless properly handled, the situation could spiral downwards with more attempts.

Each suicide not only reduces the knowledge/worker/manager base for agriculture, but also warps the family’s thinking. The suicide victim’s progeny may be permanently dissuaded away from agriculture. Reports in the media already talk about water scarcity affecting 40% of the agricultural land in TN. More than 90% of the agricultural land holding in Tamil Nadu is with small and marginal farmers. We can well imagine their abject helplessness in the face of capricious Nature.

How the Rural affects Urban

What if the agricultural sector is impacted?  The very obvious effect at one end of the spectrum is the urban consumer not getting the ‘produce’ he or she is so used to being supplied with, by the Villager. At the other end is the rural self-sufficient producer becoming an economic refugee and being forced to migrate to Urban centres. Our towns and cities are already grappling with the limited infrastructure that our administrators/planners/politicians have deemed fit to create or are struggling to create in all these years post-independence. Increased migration into towns/cities not only stresses the civic infrastructure, but could also result in Law and Order issues. A farmer and/or his son in their frsutrated status are more likely to deem it ‘just revenge’ if they get ‘easy opportunities’ to break the law in Urban areas.

How the Urban impacts the Rural

Urban Power Centres typically decide for the country or the state as a whole. There may be some rural representation, but, for the most part there is a stronger Urban influence and thought process than otherwise. Often (maybe unwittingly)  these decisions may impact rural life without those affected having any say. Like the decision taken to provide water to Chennai from the Veeranam reservoir. Did the locals have any say? Were they ok with their precious resource being utilized for a distant Urban Agglomeration? In what way was the rural community in Veeranam benefited by this decision?

If 2015 December had seen Chennai and nearby parts reeling under a deluge, 2016 December saw Cyclone Vardah blowing Chennai’s green cover away besides damages to the physical infrastructure in many places. But decent rainfall has eluded Chennai and Tamil Nadu this season till now. If the situation continues, water-starved Chennai may seek more Veeranams. How ready or equipped are the outskirts of Chennai to pander to Chennai’s parched tongue?

Cool Chilli’s Views

Man has progressed by virtue of his ability to leverage (or exploit) his surroundings/ eco-system. But altruistic philosophy that is increasingly seeping in thanks to enlightened souls and organizations tell us that not all of man’s ways are above board or sustainable. Some are down-right cruel, self-serving, very short-termish. But that is Man. That self-serving man lives in each of us and can continue to, if we don’t realize and be cognizant (in time) of the madness we are capable of.

A couple of decades back, while at college, we used to criticize America for its 4% of the global population, consuming 25% of the world’s resources. But today, I, as a resident of a high rise building with a few hundred flats believe it is fair to sink a bore-well a few hundred meters deeper. That I may impair the ability (to draw water) of the individual houses in the settlement nearby is beyond me. That I am ok with paying more so that my son or daughter can stand under the shower for hours or soak in the bath-tub is all that matters.

In Ending

A bucket of water is too less for my kid for his bath could be my thinking. If the kid across the street cannot get water to drink, it is sad, no doubt. But it is hiskarma‘ or his parents’. As I think of the neighbourhood, the city may think of the country side, the politician, his constituency. Each of us can ‘sink’ into self serving depths.

What is needed and very much possible is that we ‘synch’ with those around us, with what is around us, for the greater good of the greater number. Ancient Indian concepts like ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or ‘Loka  Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu’ are increasingly relevant. The feudal mind lording over the lesser fortunate serfs outside the castle, cannot count on the serfs’ tolerance for ever.

Related Reading

Cauvery- Why this ‘Kolaveri’?  interesting write-up with data points in Quora

What we eat does matter 

TN’s Crop Patterns Need Better Management ?

Chennai faces crisis