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Photo Essay | Who took my water?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Ananda Banerjee

Most Delhiites have no idea where their water comes from or where their sewage (90% water and 10% excreta) goes. Film-maker Pradip Saha, a specialist in environmental issues who showcased this apathy in his 2007 film Faecal Attraction, says, “I have not seen any change in people’s attitude towards conserving water in the past seven years.” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says there have not been many effective campaigns to save water.

Earth is made up of about 70% water, yet we don’t have enough clean, safe water to drink. For, freshwater makes up just about 3% of this, and less than 1% of it is available for human use. The rest exists in the form of icebergs, snow and glaciers.

On an average, an adult requires about 2 litres of drinking water daily. But where does freshwater come from in a metropolis like New Delhi? Around 70% of the Capital’s water comes from the Yamuna river, which is tapped for drinking water as it enters the city. Within the city, the river has been declared dead by environmental experts. Its water does not have the dissolved oxygen necessary for life to exist, though `6,500 crore has been spent on two phases of the government’s Yamuna Action Plan over two decades.

Today urban India is drawing water from rivers or reservoirs upstream, far from the cities, and sewage is being dumped downstream. Twenty-two drains flow into the 22km stretch of the Yamuna in the Capital. Unlike residents of waterfront cities like London and Melbourne, Delhiites do not (perhaps cannot) use the riverfront to unwind or breathe in fresh air. On bridges over the Yamuna, people only get down from cars to toss plastic bags containing remnants of a religious ceremony.

“The flow of most rivers has been interfered with. They have been diverted and their flood plains invaded; all kinds of toxic pollutants have been drained into them. The fact that a river is a living ecosystem and it can become sick like us has been poorly understood. The question is not whether our rivers can be restored. We should ask ourselves if we can survive without the restored rivers,” says Manoj Mishra, convenor, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, an advocacy group for the river’s restoration.

According to a report prepared by the Danish embassy’s trade council in 2011, the per capita availability of water in India declined from 5,277 cubic metres (cu. m) in 1995 to 1,970 cu. m today, and is projected to fall to 1,000-1,700 cu. m by 2025. The demand for water is expected to rise by 20% in the next decade.

US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) data from gravity recovery and climate experiment satellites, published in the journal Nature in 2009, showed 109 cubic km of groundwater had been lost in just six years from August 2002-October 2008 in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and New Delhi—this is double the capacity of India’s largest surface-water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga in Madhya Pradesh. The report also states that in India, groundwater accounts for 50–80% of domestic water use.

Not surprisingly, the absence of clean drinking water has propelled the bottled-water industry; its business has a compound annual growth rate of 18%, estimated to reach $3,925 million (about `23,000 crore) by 2017 (from $1,454 million in 2011), according to the Web portal

Meteorologists predict this year is going to be an El Niño year—this warming of the Pacific Ocean affects the weather and is associated with a weak monsoon in India. This may lead to further water shortage.

On 5 June we celebrate yet another World Environment Day. The campaign to save water will again be discussed. But will anything change?

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