07 Aug 2015 15:56 IST

Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink

Even as Chennai was awash almost every second evening this week, its four water reservoirs have been turning dryer. And the story is similar in other parts of India

The timing couldn’t have been better. The day after my landlady said that the supply of drinking water, by the Chennai Metrowater, has become erratic; my less-than-a-year-old RO purifier (I won’t mention the brand, not yet) started behaving strangely and is now on the verge of collapse. Then, reading the papers, I realised that the poor purifier wasn’t the only one to act, in the words of Lewis Carroll, things got “curiouser and curiouser”.

One of the city newspapers had reported on Tuesday that Chennai Mayor Saidai Duraisamy had claimed that “not a single street in the city faces drinking water shortage.”

Perhaps, it has been sometime that the Mayor had paid a visit to the streets of a city that is well-known for its perennial water supply problem. A day later, The Hindu had this to say about the city’s current water status: “According to sources in the Metrowater, on an average, 580 million litres of water is supplied everyday. As piped water supply has become erratic owing to dwindling resources, Metrowater is operating 530 tankers to supply 40 mld (million litres per day) of water to streets and on payment. To meet the demand, Metrowater officials say tanker trips have been increased to 4,900 a day.”

Becoming scarce

To add to the drama, even as Chennai was awash almost every second evening this week, its four water reservoirs have been turning dryer. And the story is same across India The Cholavaram reservoir went dry several months ago and at Poondi, the water is at 54 million cubic feet (mcft) against its capacity to hold 3,231 mcft. “The combined storage in the reservoirs has touched a dead storage of 988 mcft against capacity of over 11,000 mcft,” says a report. Dead storage is when the water level goes below the lowest outlet.

Pan-India phenomenon

The irony is mirrored across the country. While places in Andhra Pradesh are facing drought-like situations and Kerala faced a deficit in rains, people in West Bengal and Manipur are trying to save their lives and belongings from floods. It is a story that plays out in India every year; the consistency is remarkable. And it speaks volumes on the lack of political will.

Look at the situation in Chennai. The Metrowater is planning to bring water all the way from Erode, which is 400 km away. And as an immediate step, it held a meeting with private water suppliers to check the price of the precious resource supplied in tankers. Reports say that private operators have agreed to charge Rs 2,200 to supply 20,000 litres of water and Rs.1,200 for 12,000-litre. That is already way above the Rs 700 for 12,000 litres that residents in many parts of the city pay.

Chennai's last credible attempt at finding a long-term solution to the water crisis was in 2003, when it was facing its “worst water crisis in 400 years.” Two water desalination plants came up that now account for quarter of the city’s water supply. Thought, clearly, the two are not enough.

Clock ticking

Nationally too, we are sitting on a water time bomb. India might become a water-scarce country by 2025, says a study by EA Water, a consultancy firm. The report, which was released in May, says that India's demand for water will exceed its sources of supply. Another report by the World Resources Institute says that by 2030, the supply of water in the country will fall 50 per cent below demand.

The story uses three maps so telling that it should setoff alarms the corridors of policymakers. The three maps say that 54 per cent of India’s ground-water wells are decreasing and the same per cent of the country is witnessing ‘high-water stress,’ or competition for surface water. Moreover, over 100 million people live in areas of poor water quality.

It is in this background that the administrators should seize the offer from the Government of Israel to help in water management. Israel, where more than half of the land is occupied by the Negev desert, has overcome an arid climate and scare sources to meet its water needs.

Quoting a paragraph from the study:

“Israel’s successes to date speak for themselves. As of 2015, approximately half of Israel’s water supply comes from reused treated waste water, brackish water and desalinated water, and the agricultural sector is a world leader in water use efficiency and conservation. Israel’s successes as such arise from the continuous need for and support of innovative methods, technologies, holistic water resource management and strategies for sustainably providing for the nation’s water needs.”

Compare this to the village in Uttar Pradesh that has Wi-Fi but no portable water. This is the story of Tila Shahbazpur. And if this unexplained blindness to the stark reality continues, this could be the story of the rest of the country.