Parched Cities, thirsty countryside: 
The hidden costs of urban water piracy

Parched Cities, thirsty countryside: The hidden costs of urban water piracy

Summer has just started and most Indian cities have already run out of water. This is such a shame in a country that receives so much rainfall year after year.

Bengaluru is now in news for all the wrong reasons. What was once a charming garden city famous for its salubrious weather, charming lakes and flowering trees has become an urban hell-hole with nightmarish traffic, frequent power cuts, pot-holed roads in the last decade. Now, it has gone one step ahead and has exhausted all its water resources. With temperature touching nearly 40s, the city has kissed its famed weather too goodbye. In other words, Bengaluru has become just another dusty, dirty, chaotic urban agglomeration like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata or Delhi that pass for cities in India.

Summer has just started and most Indian cities have already run out of water. This is such a shame in a country that receives so much rainfall year after year. The irony is almost laughable. A city that once thronged with greenery is now gasping for a single drop of water. The summer rains have vanished, but even if they fall, where does the water go? Into drains clogged with garbage, eventually leading into the polluted lakes that occasionally catch fire and bubble up with noxious froth. Or straight to the sea. Not a single drop being collected, conserved or utilised in any productive way.

But who is to blame? Is it the government with its corruption and negligence or the citizens for their lack of awareness and civic sense? Everyone seems to be pointing fingers at each other while our cities slowly crumble under the weight of their own decay. While different plans are being drawn up to address the approaching ‘Zero Day’—the day in which our cities are going to completely run out of water and all activities will cease—no one seems to address the flaw in how we have conceived the urban water management so far.

Indians had mastered water management centuries ago. Kings used to expend a major part of their revenue in creating artificial lakes, ponds and wells to capture the bountiful monsoon. Bengaluru itself had more than 262 lakes. So had Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi or any village worth its name. The Cholas were famous for their artificial lakes and intricate irrigation systems that marked the South Indian landscape.

The kings of Gujarat and Rajasthan created intricate step wells that helped irrigation in an otherwise parched land. Mughals harnessed the bountiful Himalayan rivers that irrigated the Gangetic plains. Complex water management technique helped the low lands of Kerala to keep the saline water away and create the rice bowl of Kuttanad. Odisha and West Bengal used to be full of ponds dug centuries ago. It was the responsibility of each village and community to keep the water source pure and pristine. Our ancestors knew that water was life and they respected its power, its necessity, and its scarcity.

Our approach towards water changed the day our water systems ceased to be local and sustainable. Now, water pipelines stretch hundreds of kilometres from remote dams to parched cities. This not only puts immense pressure on the source but also on the environment through which it passes, with water being diverted from agriculture and other local needs. The rural parts of the country are becoming drier even as they watch their water flowing away to quench the insatiable thirst of urban populations, while the urban population have no reverence or respect for the water that comes to them from somewhere far away.

Imagine the energy and resource wastage in pumping water from hundreds of kilometres away in a country that receives four months of monsoon. The incentive to keep the local water bodies clean and pollution-free is gone. Water is available for a few paise per litre through piped lines and if half of it is wasted in leaky pipeline and the rest gets flushed down the toilet, it is of no one’s concern now. At least until the water runs out and the city faces an existential crisis like how Bengaluru is facing now.

We have lost most of our water bodies due to encroachments, neglect and rampant urbanisation. The lakes of Bengaluru are now clusters of concrete buildings, shopping malls and flyovers. The lesser said about the water bodies in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata or Delhi, the better. The ponds are garbage dumps of posh residential areas. Water that once percolated down to recharge our groundwater is now running off on impermeable concrete surfaces, creating frequent floods during monsoons while leaving us thirstier in the summers.

It is time to rethink the centralised piped water supply model that we have been following. There needs to be local rain water harvesting methods for each locality of our cities, ponds and tanks serving the vicinity and local pumping stations. This will make the local populations responsible for their own water supply and instil in them the sense of preservation and conservation that our ancestors once held. India needs to look back to its roots and learn from its history if it wants to quench the thirst of its growing population.

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The New Indian Express