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The aqua guards

As 10 parched states in India gasp for water, drought-hit farmers commit suicide and poverty-stricken families sell off their minor daughters.

Published: 14th May 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2016 07:44 AM   |  A+A-

As 10 parched states in India gasp for water, drought-hit farmers commit suicide and poverty-stricken families sell off their minor daughters, an 80-year-old man in Mumbai takes it upon himself to fix leaking water pipes in the City of Dreams. Every Sunday morning, Aabid Surti and his two-member team of a volunteer and a plumber head out to a residential colony in Mira Road area. The plumber’s job is to plug leaking water pipes in houses. Since 2007, Surti’s Drop Dead Foundation has been providing this service for free. At his age, Surti seems an unlikely poster boy for water conservation.

His refrain is that if he can, so can you. To the last count, this national award-winning author, playwright, cartoonist and water conservationist has saved three million litres of water from going down the drain. Passionate about saving water, Surti calls it “liquid gold”. Water certainly is worth its weight in gold, as drought raises its ugly head, putting millions to hardship and the economy in peril. People in some rural parts are paying heftily for drinking water. Recently, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare drought as a national emergency in view of the rising number of affected children in rural areas.

After being caught on the wrong foot, the government responded with immediate measures; a water train was sent to Latur in Maharashtra, one of the worst drought-hit areas in the country.

Water woes have been hogging newspaper headlines, pitting the Central and state governments against farmers, water conservationists and NGOs. It has also brought out the ‘water warriors’, who are putting their knowledge and expertise to the best use possible.

Ranjan Panda, known as the ‘Water Man of Odisha’, knew long ago of the impending trouble. He had given the state government statistics about the impacts of climate change. “In 2006, we had warned that the state’s lands are degrading at an alarming rate and the water crisis may go out of proportion. In 2015, we had said 2016 may become the hottest year ever,” says Panda, adding that the warnings were taken casually.

Panda, who founded Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO), has pioneered the revival of traditional surface water harvesting bodies in several drought-prone villages of the state. He believes water harvesting is the key to solving Odisha’s water scarcity. “Water bodies have been there since centuries, but have been neglected post-Independence. We have developed vegetation cover in and around our villages and made them  water secure through the revival of surface water bodies and rivulets,” says Panda. He cites the example of 37-year-old Sitaram Majhi who, from being a distressed migrant kiln worker, is today a successful farmer. WIO brought about the turnaround for Majhi, as it has done for many others.

Down south in Karnataka’s Gadag district, Ayappa Masagi’s cellphone does not stop ringing as queries pour in from drought-struck Telangana and Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. Masagi, the ‘Water Man of Gadag’ and a mechanical engineer by profession whose mother walked long distances to fetch water, has pioneered the recharging technique for water sources and the creation of artificial ponds spanning 15-20 acres, which  is benefiting many dry areas in Rayalseema and Telangana. His NGO, Rain Water Concepts Pvt Ltd (I), had constructed 600 artificial lakes till 2012.

“Water wastage is the real culprit,” declares Masagi. “Urban areas waste water on a large scale and don’t do anything to recharge ground water. Merely making water harvesting compulsory will not solve the woes. Rain water collected on rooftops can go into sumps, with filter waters making it potable. The excess water can shore up the ground water supply.” He adds that even water from bathrooms can be filtered and reused.

For every aggrieved farmer, there is a questioning, irate water conservationist. “Policy-makers, Met and water departments should have known that the heat wave after three years of low rainfall would translate into water shortages. Delhi summers are going to be catastrophic,” says Jyoti Sharma, founder of Force, an NGO that works towards water conservation and potable water. Each state, she insists, is just doing band-aid support, sending tankers from lesser-stressed to deep crisis areas. Force’s programme encourages adoption of the five R’s: reduce waste, reuse, recycle, recharge groundwater and respect water.

“For many years, we have been trying to create a paradigm shift from demand-led planning towards self-sufficiency-based planning. States, cities and villages should put a freeze on the amount of water they source from outside their civic limits and maximise using rainwater, recycled waste water and their allocated share of river water,” says Sharma, whose organisation has been working with Delhi Jal Board.

Saurashtra’s water warrior and diamond merchant, 50-year-old Mathur Savani, believes that only efficient water management can solve the problem of drought. “Whenever there is drought, the government starts thinking about water management, but once it rains, the issue is put on the backburner,” says Savani, who has 20 years’ experience in water management. Savani, who founded the Saurashtra Jal Dhara Trust in 1998 to tackle water scarcity, is a votary of ‘tapak sinchal’, or micro irrigation. “Our country has 30 crore hectares of arable land. By using only 25 per cent of the water stored, one can irrigate all the arable land, while the remaining could be stored by constructing dams and underground tanks,” he says.

Construction of check dams is another initiative of the trust, with Savani’s village Khopala reaping the benefits. “The Khopala model is followed in 3,000 Gujarat villages. In Ugamedi village, we worked on linking Keri and Sonal rivers,” says Savani.

In the dry Deccan plateau, the Visakha Agency area in the Andhra coastal belt has not been spared. The most common problem here was that people had to walk long distances for water, and even that was not potable. NGO Visakha Jilla Nava Nirmana Samithi (VJNNS), which operates from Visakhapatnam, did much to mitigate their woes. About 90 area-specific and need-based water devices—including gravitational water flow systems, filter wells, iron removal plants, filter walls and spring wells—have been constructed by VJNNS. With no government warning, the latter dug deep bore wells for storage. “This is helping us combat the drought,” says Siva Kumar, project director of VJNNS. “The only way to make the state drought-proof is by protecting natural sources. The government should make developments in the ground water system.”

Another NGO believes that harking back to the traditional methods of water management will pay dividends. Coimbatore-based Siruthuli is involved in restoring the Noyyal river that flows through the city. “In the olden days, every household used to have a well and courtyard, where rain water was collected. River and water body management was followed by our kings with ponds for cattle, pools for people to bathe and lakes for agriculture,” says Vanitha, the managing trustee of Siruthuli.

Siruthuli has built over 500 rain water harvesting structures and a check dam across Nandangarai stream, enabling storage of nearly 200 million litres of water. It has also restored an important anicut, Chithirai Chaavadi. Siruthuli’s chief operating officer K Mayil Swami says, “Besides water harvesting, we practice afforestation, which precipitates rain. When people started dumping garbage into the drainage system, we got involved in waste management as well,” he says.

Septuagenarian Amla Ruia has also fallen back on the knowledge that our ancestors possessed. A TV show on drought-stricken farmers in Rajasthan so moved Ruia that she decided to fight for their cause. She stumbled upon the idea of check dams, which hold rain water and help it seep into the ground. “Our ancestors in Rajasthan adopted this method and called it ‘khadeen’,” says Ruia, who founded the Aakar Charitable Trust. It has transformed the lives of farmers by building and repairing 200 ‘kunds’ in Shekhawati region. They supply over two crore litres of drinking water (‘pallar paani’) to villagers every year.

Community involvement is the key in Aakar’s projects. “We ensure that farmers provide all the stone, gravel and water for masonry and bear one-third cost of the earthen work,” says Ruia.

It’s not just water that is crucial, but access to safe water as well. WaterAid International has been transforming the lives of the poorest by improving access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. Nitya Jacob, WaterAid India’s head of policy, is worried at the falling groundwater levels in the country because 85 per cent of drinking water comes from there. “Agriculture is the biggest user of groundwater, and overuse needs to be controlled. We should promote community-led decentralised systems to ensure sustainability,” says Jacob, who believes the best bet for water security is rain water harvesting.

Water issues are also close to Shripad Dharmadhikari’s heart; his organisation Manthan Adyayan Kendra (MAK) is involved in water advocacy and analysis. MAK, which operates from Badwani (MP) and Pune, also deals with the privatisation and commodification of water, analysing various projects and making a strong critique of them. A mechanical engineer from IIT Bombay, Dharmadhikari was part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. “Our demands on the water system are increasing, and because of climate change, its scarcity can have a sharper impact,” says Shripad, adding that the problem is with the neglect of long-term drought-proofing. “Drought is an important topic until the rains arrive, and then it is forgotten. That mindset has to change,” he says.

“Measures to handle drought have been around for 35 years. Contour bunding with small nalas and wells can be done, as well as shifting to organic practices, which enriches the soil. Elimination of water-intensive crops in drought-prone areas is another remedy,” says the 53-year-old, whose firm is looking at the impact coal mining has on water.

Much before pictures of parched lands and people waiting in long queues armed with buckets, pots and pans caught the attention of the nation, there were some who were on the top of things. In January, Ernakulam District Collector M G Rajamanickam started a volunteer group called Anbodu Kochi to revive ponds filled with sludge and waste. Through project Entekulam (my pond), the group revived 52 ponds with funds from the disaster management scheme. His wife, Vigilance Superintendent of Police Nishanthini, and several actors participated in the cleaning drive. “We have sufficient water bodies, but many are in a bad state. Due to that, we have to spend `10-11 crore for drinking water. The lack of water literacy is the major reason for this, with people using drinking water for bathing,” says Rajamanickam.  Now, he plans to expand the project to other water bodies.

In February, Puducherry saw a seven-week festival encompassing the Puducherry-Auroville-Villumpuram-Cuddalore bio-region, titled ‘All for Water for All’. Each week was reserved for each of the seven sub-regions—Cuddalore, Bahour, Villianur, Pondicherry, Auroville, Vanur and Marakkanam—wherein activities such as water pledge, community pond cleaning, water heritage rally and competitions for schoolchildren, etc. took place. “Water and sanitation issues kept bothering us, so we decided to translate talk into action, and thus was born the water festival,” says Probir Banerjee, co-founder of NGO PondyCan and one of the organisers. The festival will be a yearly affair.

During the water heritage rally, Banerjee found that lakes in Bahour, which were drinking water sources earlier, were now filled with sewage. “Earlier, water would flow from one tank to another. But real estate has now gobbled up those tanks with sewage lines being connected to irrigation canals,” he says.

Whether the government’s myopic attitude or some agricultural practices or the evils of urbanisation exacerbated the problem, the reasons for the ongoing drought could be many. Each of us can make an effort to save water, harvest it, recognise that it is a life-giving force and respect it.  “Save every drop or drop dead. I think someone from the United Nations said that the next war will be fought over water,” reminds Surti. with Ayesha Singh, Ratan K Pani, Sujitha J, Sree Chandana, Anilkumar T and Amit Upadhye

“In 2006, we warned that the state’s lands are degrading at an alarming rate and that the water crisis may go outof proportion. In 2015, we warned that 2016 may be the hottest year in history.”Ranjan Panda, founder,Water Initiatives Odisha

Turning parched lands into green fields is what Panda has been doing by tapping into the method of traditional surface water harvesting. Kharamal village in Odisha’s Bargarh district is today water sufficient, thanks to his NGO.

“For storage tanks, we ensure that farmers provide all the stone, gravel and water for masonry and bear one-third cost of the earthen work”Amla Ruia, founder, Aakar Charitable Trust

Ruia, who has emerged as the saviour for farmers in Rajasthan, also swears by the traditional methods like check dams, known in local dialect as ‘khadeen’.  Her trust is carrying out all kinds of water conservation schemes.

“Policy makers, Met and water departments should have known that the heat wave after three years of low rainfall would lead to water shortages” Jyoti Sharma, founder, Force

Sharma’s NGO has a five-point ‘R’ programme: reduce wastage, reuse, recharge groundwater, recycle water and respect water. Force wants water planning based on self-sufficiency, not on demand.

“Water and sanitation issues kept bothering us, so we decided to translate talk into action, and thus was born the festival”Probir Banerjee Co-founder, PondyCan

He organises the Water Festival in the Puducherry-Villupuram-Auroville-uddalore bio-region to promote water conservation.

“Measures to handle drought are not new, they have been around for 35 years”

S Dharmadhikari Founder, Manthan Adyayan Kendra

“Water bodies are in a bad state, due to which we have to spend `10-11 crore for drinking water”M G Rajamanickam District Collector, Ernakulum

Through the group Anbodu Kochi, he got ponds cleaned up in Kochi in January. Success of that has inspired him to include unused wells and mini check dams in his next cleaning drive.

“The biggest user of groundwater in India is the agriculture sector, and overuse needs to be controlled”Nitya Jacob, WaterAid India

As the organisation’s head of policy, he is responsible for water quality and believes people should encourage rain water harvesting.

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