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Is India Facing a Water Crisis? 'Apathy Toward Water' to Blame, Says Water Warrior Dr Fawzia Tarannum

Dr Fawzia Tarannum

Dr Fawzia Tarannum

Dr Fawzia Tarannum realized that due to the diversity of a nation like India, where culture, belief, values, sentiments and aspirations, change every 100 kilometers, the philosophy of 'one size fits all' could not be applied to water conservation programs.

For the past fifteen years, Dr Fawzia Tarannum, an assistant professor at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), has worn the mantle of a warrior - a water warrior. With a primitive interest in the conservation and rejuvenation pf rivers and water bodies in India, it pained Dr Tarannum to look at the collective wisdom of the country going to waste when it came to water conservation.

Within just a few years of working in the field, Dr Tarannum realized that due to the diversity of a nation like India, where culture, belief, values, sentiments and aspirations, change every 100 kilometers, the philosophy of "one size fits all" could not be applied to water conservation programs.

Ever since 2005, Dr Tarannum has tried to bridge this gap between India's rich heritage of water conservation and current programs and policies for the conservation of water. Despite no background in Mechanical or Marine Engineering, Dr Tarannum has worked closely on building of shallow water excavator dredgers for desilting of lakes, ponds and rivers across India.

Not one to stop at just introducing and trying out new techniques of conservation, Dr Tarannum has also taken it upon herself to teavh future generations the importance of water conservartion and sustainabality. For the past five years, the "water warrior" has been working as a faculty member in the Water Department at the TERI School of Advanced Studies, where she has sensitised over 3,000 young persons about water conservation practices and rainwater harvesting.

Dr Tarannum has also employed her expertise at local levels. She is an advisor to the GuruJal Society, established under the District administration of Gurugram since its inception and has advised them on the technology and the interventions required for pond rejuvenation in the Gurugram district.

As part of its Mission Paani iniative, News18.com got in touch with the water warrior to understand whether India is currently in the middle of water crisis and what it needs to do to meet the global goals of sustainability when it comes to water management and conservation.

Do you think India is currently facing a water crisis? If so, why and what can we do about it?

Yes, India is facing a water crisis. India has been water-stressed for over a decade now as the 2011 Census brought out that the annual per capita water availability in India was mere 1545 cubic meter. A country is said to be underwater stress when the annual per capita water availability reduces below 1700 cubic meter. The NITI Aayog report on Composite Water Index published in 2018 brought out that 21 cities in India shall run out of groundwater in 2020. The finding is echoed in the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2019 which placed India at the 13th position among the world's 17 'extremely water-stressed' countries. The Chennai drought, the day zero in Shimla, the alarming decline in the groundwater in the breadbasket region, the prolonged droughts in several states and the suicides by more than 60,000 farmers in the last 5 years, all bear testimony to the looming water crisis in India.

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world and uses an estimated 230 cubic kilometers of groundwater per year which is over a quarter of the global total. More than 60% of the irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water supplies in India are dependent on groundwater. The reasons for water crisis in India can be attributed to poor water governance, government subsidy on the use of electricity and diesel to extract water for irrigation, inappropriate selection of crops, lack of groundwater extraction policy, weak implementation of regulations, inadequate economic instruments, high (35-40%) non-revenue water, reduced water storage and recharge capacity due to indiscriminate development and loss of natural and traditional water bodies. The Monsoon Season in India lasts for four months and the average rainfall received by India is more than the global average of 1000mm. However, there is a huge spatial and temporal variation in the rainfall. With the emerging climate crisis, the country gets very intense rain in just fifteen days leaving very little scope for recharging of the groundwater and surface water bodies due to rampant concretization and loss of natural hydrological channels.

The focus should be on decentralising water management, appropriate and progressive water pricing, strengthening water institutions and governance, enforcing regulations, adopting efficient water management and irrigation practices, putting in force rainwater harvesting, reusing wastewater, investing in community sensitization programmes, undertaking blue-green interventions, creating pervious surfaces, and reviving traditional water structures.

India is rich in indigenous water conservation techniques. What can modern conservationists learn from ancient or regional Indian techniques and how can they get more play in mainstream policies?

For centuries, communities have been the custodians of water bodies and they have conserved, managed, and governed water through local institutions and laws. Water is considered sacred in various customs and has a distinctive position in people’s life. The community disconnect and apathy towards water began in the 20th century with water becoming a state subject and the advent of piped water system.

The indigenous practices were in harmony with nature and were sustainable as they were controlled and maintained by the community members. Traditional water management systems like Johad, Tankas, Tanks, Kunds, Stepwells, Zing etc. were designed to suit the local climate, lithology, and topography. The irrigation systems like ‘Kuls’ of Himachal Pradesh, ‘Ahar Pyne’ of Bihar or ‘Phad System’ of Maharashtra were gravity-based with zero carbon footprint. Concepts like ‘Warabandi’ and ‘Bhaichara’ ensured equity in the distribution of water used for irrigation. Environmentalists have been advocating the integration of these traditional practices with the contemporary methods of water conservation for two decades now and the country has witnessed a sporadic revival of these systems in several states in India.

The renovation of the traditional water management system is one of the mandates of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, a campaign undertaken by the Ministry of Jal Shakti to harvest the rainwater. The Mission Kakatiya, a programme for restoring all the minor irrigation tanks and lakes in Telangana State that started in 2014, is another example of the government shifting the focus to revival of the traditional structures. The Atal Bhujal Yojana launched in December 2019, also lays emphasis on the revival of traditional structures through a people-centric approach. Several state governments are also adopting constructed wetlands and nature-based solutions like root zone treatment for rejuvenating ponds using wastewater. Notwithstanding, the translation of these policies to grassroot level action remains a challenge. Clear guidelines must be laid down for operationalisation of these policies, monitoring and evaluation of projects and accountability of each stakeholder to ensure that the policy trickles down to the people at the last mile.

Water conservation is a matter of national and state policy. And yet, at a domestic level, the responsibility to procure water often falls on women alone - especially in rural areas. Experts find that impact of water shortage and water scarcity impacts women most in terms of education of young women, their health as well as agency. To what extent do you think this is true and why?

I completely agree with the statement. We have a meagre 18% of the households in rural India with water connection on premises. For the rest, it is often the women who bear the burden of collecting water for household consumption. Statistics suggest that women are responsible for collecting water in 8 out of 10 households, that do not have water on the premise adding up to a whopping 150 million workdays every year. Girls in the rural areas often accompany their mothers for fetching water which adversely impacts their health and education. In addition, the lack of access to proper sanitation in schools result in girls dropping out once they start to menstruate. A report by WHO/UNICEF brought out in 2019 stated that one million deaths each year are associated with unclean births. Infections due to poor sanitation account for 26% of neonatal deaths and 11% of maternal mortality. The drudgery of the women further increases when the nearest water source dries up, for example, women have to travel longer distances to fetch water in the Himalayan Region, as over one and a half million perennial springs have either dried up or become seasonal due overuse and climate change. The plight of women is no different in urban areas, where they have to wait for long hours at the public stand post or water tanker points for collecting water.

What is the role that women have traditionally played in water conservation in India? Can it be argued that the movement for water conservation can lead to women's emancipation also?

Women have traditionally been the caretakers of the water resources and the custodians of the associated knowledge by virtue of their proximity to the resource. They have played an active role in managing and maintaining the water bodies. There are examples of women groups taking active participation in environmental movements like ‘Chipko Aandolan’ and women-led self-help groups like ‘Kudumbshree’ executing water conservation projects. However, most policies and schemes treat women as the beneficiaries of development projects rather than the agents of change.

While water conservation may result in availability of water on-premise or time-saving in terms of water collection but may not necessarily result in the emancipation of women. The gender discrimination prevalent in society is deep-seated and linked to the prevalent patriarchy. For liberating the women and the marginalised, it is pertinent to look at the intersectionality, that is the different axes of social power, such as gender, class, ethnicity, and caste and how they operate simultaneously and interact with each other to perpetuate discrimination in the society.

What are the challenges in sustainability that India faces when it comes to water conservation? What is the government's role in increasing sustainable practices? Could you elucidate on all the stakeholders involved?

The first challenge is public apathy. People act when it starts to pinch them. While water has already joined gold and oil on Wall Street, we are still debating between treating water as an economic good or a social good or both. The second challenge is related to water pricing. It is time we moved from populist measures to strategically pricing water to drive water-saving behaviour. The irony is that the poor and the slum dwellers who can least afford are paying to the tune of INR 80-100 every day to purchase water, while the elite are getting away with paying a trifling amount. The third challenge is weak regulations. There are building byelaws on practicing rainwater harvesting (RWH), but most of the structures are non-functional due to poor enforcement of laws and regulations. The draft water framework bill and the groundwater bill were prepared in 2016 but they are yet to be enacted. The fourth challenge is lack of readily available information on technical expertise related to installation, cost, and incentive/subsidy/government support for water conservation practices.

The government has come out with several policies to promote sustainable water use practices by industry, agriculture, and domestic sectors. The National Water Mission has a goal on 20% water use efficiency across different sectors. The implementation of these policies needs to be strengthened. It must be ensured that industries undertake water audits to optimise their water use and declare their water footprint. Wastewater recycling and reuse should be made mandatory. Adequate monitoring measures to check compliance must be set up and the defaulters must be penalised. The government is also promoting water use efficiency in agriculture by giving subsidy for adopting water-efficient practices like drip and sprinkler irrigation and encouraging the use of solar pumps. Nevertheless, access to these schemes and adoption is an uphill task, as 85% of the farmers in India have small land holdings (less than 5 acres) and have no information on how to avail these schemes. Likewise, rainwater harvesting has been made mandatory for all public buildings and houses with roof top area equal to or greater than 100 square meters. However, there is no robust mechanism in place to monitor the functioning of these structures and penalise the defaulters.

How can young persons be made interested in taking up water conservation and become water warriors like yourself?

I strongly believe that youth is the last flicker of hope. They have the zeal and the potential to bring about change. The millennials and generation Z are bearing the brunt of the crisis created by earlier generations and hence are motivated to act. The challenge they face is lack of holistic understanding of the issues. Also, those who are desirous of contributing are clueless about where to begin and whom to approach. Water conservation should be made an integral part of the curriculum and a way of life in all educational institutes. The pedagogy should be experiential learning to gain practical insights into the grassroots challenges. Water conservation could also be offered as a graded assignment/course in colleges. Interested youth should be identified and given comprehensive training in various water conservation techniques including traditional water management practices and the design and installation of rainwater harvesting structures. They must be involved in awareness campaigns. Government and Private sector may consider selecting youth fellows through a competitive process and support them in executing water conservation projects.

With regard to your own experiences, what you think it takes to be a water warrior today?

My interest in the water sector is passion-driven. To be a water warrior, one needs to feel the connection with the water bodies, have compassion for the environment, passion and commitment to the cause, perseverance till the accomplishment of goals, and unwavering focus on the task.

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