The Drought - Urban Versus Rural Water Use

The summer is upon us and the low water availability is causing the arguments for and against the use of water come to the fore. These are the undercurrents, so to speak, even when water is available, but these are pushed further underground then, as water is available and rise to the ground when it's not.

A failed monsoon last year is one of the primary reasons for these arguments to surface above the ground. However, a quick glance on the water availability figures and it tells us that India will consistently face a cycle of either failed monsoons or failed capacity of water resources, each decreasing the per capita water availability in the coming future. The global annual average of water availability is 6000 litres per person, while it was 3000 litres a decade ago in India and it has slipped to 1200 litres per person.

The reason for writing this article, however, is to bring to the front  valid and and non valid arguments of water use. Particularly, if we are going to see a drought, more frequently, if not every year, now is the time to set some things in perspective. The urban uses of water are diversified and numerous. These do not remain restricted to the basic use of water like drinking, irrigation and basic personal cleaning like in rural areas. Constructing buildings, laying roads, using swimming pools, landscape around buildings, maintaining the areas around buildings, cleaning roads, cleaning vehicles and such seemingly ‘luxury’ water uses are in fact a necessary part of an urban life. Even the most water conscious people in the cities will agree, albeit reluctantly, that urban water use cannot remain just for the basics. Similarly, like water use in rural areas is linked to a very important economic activity of agriculture, in urban areas too, most of the water use is linked directly to or indirectly supports revenue generating economic activity. In fact, I contend that urban water use is, in fact, more productive in economic terms, than its rural counterpart, perhaps sugarcane farming coming a close second.

So, when arguments are made to stop the use of water of one particular use because the other do not get water are unfair. The reason why we are reeling under a severe drought is that we have, over years, failed to anticipate the growing requirement of water and provide for it. Period. We have capped our water availability through large infrastructure like dams around 1960s and have not added anything significant to this since then. The reasons are many, including social uprooting and environmental concerns.

But, to make urban users feel bad for the worsening water situation in the rural areas is not correct. To some extent, the plight of the rural drought has made urbanites realise the preciousness of water and that they are actually putting in efforts of conserving is a positive fallout of the situation. But to make an urban person feel guilty that urban water use is unnecessary and futile, is carrying it to an extreme. And in a state like Maharashtra, 50% of the total population lives and earns livelihoods in cities. So half of the people are directly linked to agriculture, but the other half is dependent on performance and liveability in cities as well.

Take the example of a swimming pool. Apart from being a luxury as it is touted, swimmers as sportsperson have selected it as a sport, just like cricket. They are, year round, putting in tremendous hard work and effort to excel at the sport. When such a sportsperson excels at international level, all of us are proud and indirectly take credit for it. When India does not produce international sportspersons, we blame on the lack of facilities in India. Not giving access to use of a swimming pool during summers is one such case. In a water worsening situation, to make this sportsperson feel guilty for the ‘futile’ use of water for the last year, because of which a poor farmer doesn't have enough to water to drink, is unfair. He has indirectly, perhaps, earned the right to the water allocation just as much as anyone else in this country. If we compare this to an industrial setup, then the allocation of water to an industry, whether more or less, is as much important as making it available to farmers and irrigation. All these are valid economic sectors that are helping earn a revenue, making livelihoods and sustaining people.

Although I am personally not a great fan of cricket or the IPL, it is a similar case. The overall economic benefits of urban water use are much higher than the rural water use, is my contention. It is a controversial contention, solely because it becomes an argument of the rich against the poor, the haves versus the have-nots rather than being just  the urban versus the rural.

This may sound like a very callous argument when the fact of the situation is that literally thousands of rural households are on the brink of starvation, thirst and economic ruin due to the drought. But, there is also a need to place the other side of the argument that the urban water use cannot be consistently shamed into believing that it is futile, serves no apparent purpose, and seems just like a resource being wasted.

Augmenting water resources is the only logical step. Initiatives like the Jal Yukt Shivar, micro watershed bunds, rainwater harvesting are decentralized and sustainable solutions which will lead to making us water positive. Similarly, recycling and reusing of wastewater, managing storm water and most importantly improving the distribution network of water supply are some of the water augmentation measures that the government needs to invest in very very fast to yield immediate results in the next year. In the rural areas, shifting to better irrigation practices, changing cropping patterns to conserve water, shifting to crops that use less water can be initiated to reduce the water footprint of farming as well.

Lastly, we need to recognise that some areas in our countries are just not meant to be farmed and cropped. Shifting this agrarian population and the lands to a more fruitful sector and use should be a priority for the government. It's like continuously putting money in a loss making business that can yield no positive outcomes. But, this argument will invite a wrath from many, as farming is looked upon as the only ‘pure’ and ‘non sinful’ activity and people professing this activity need to be kept at it at the cost of them losing their lives.

Countries with far less water resources have done this and India has plenty. This needs a concerted and focused effort, driven by the government, but implemented across the country by small private agencies that can turnaround the water situation for the better. The most recent example that comes to my mind is the use of recycled waste water by Nagpur Railway Station to save more than 400,000 litres of water. Many Green Buildings across the country are putting up infrastructure to recycle and reuse wastewater. But we also need this at an urban scale to better use the treated water.
And all this, we need to do as urgently as possible. If we don't, every year, the April-May season will see ‘Water Wars’ surfacing and governments falling due to this single most pressing issue that impacts each and every person personally.

Comments

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