There is never enough water

These are amazing statistics but if you are interested in the subject of water and recognise its importance for human survival and development, they are a major warning call. I was in Kerala last week for the release of our new book Making Water Everybody's Business: Practice and Policy of Water Harvesting . P Basak, executive director of the Kerala government's Centre for Water Resources Development and Management ( cwdrm ), who helped to organise the meeting reeled out one water statistic after another. We all know that Kerala is very rich in rainfall. It receives around 3,000 mm of rain every year compared to the national average of around 1,100 mm. You would probably be quick to think that Kerala cannot have any water problem. But you are sadly mistaken. Kerala today has such a high population density that its total per capita rainwater availability is less than that of dry Rajasthan.

All the rain that Kerala gets immediately rushes off to the sea because of its peculiar topography. From the rain-rich Western Ghats, the elevation falls by as much as two kilometres in a span of just 60 km. As a result, very little water gets stored in groundwater aquifers and the situation has worsened with deforestation. In other words, as Basak puts it, there is high surface runoff, low groundwater recharge, high erosion and sedimentation, and frequent landslides. The state is commonly known to possess many rivers - as much as 44 rivers. But there is no major river, there are only four medium rivers, and the remaining 40 are minor streams.

With deforestation and growing use of water, groundwater levels are reported to be falling in a few districts and summer flows in the streams and rivers are much lower than what they were two to three decades ago. Seawater intrudes into the rivers upto 10-30 km every summer. More and more dugwells are going dry during summer and the failure rate for borewells and tubewells is also quite high. Basak says that many government borewells would be considered failures if the standard norms were applied to their flow rate. They are considered successful only because the norms have been revised downwards.

Apart from depleting groundwater resources, the quality of groundwater is also declining. Kerala has traditionally had the highest open well density in the world - as much as 200 wells per sq km. In other words, you can find a well in every 70 metre by 70 metre plot. But given its high population density, Kerala also has a very high toilet density. The result is bacterial pollution together with increasing fluorides, iron and salinity because of groundwater depletion. Deaths are low in Kerala because of its excellent health services but illness rates are quite high. Human suffering, says Basak, is heavy.

Jayakumar, state irrigation secretary, put it aptly: "For six months every year, we cry floods and then the following six months we cry drought. These cries of floods and droughts are now becoming an unending tv drama."

So what is the answer? I told a press conference later that it is time that people of Kerala start learning rainwater conservation from the people of Rajasthan. Not surprisingly, they found it hard to believe me. When we have so much water, how can Rajasthan be relevant for us?

This question is one that, in fact, every part of India will soon be asking itself. With growing population, agricultural development, urbanisation and industrialisation together with adverse environmental changes like deforestation and groundwater depletion, water is going to become a scarce commodity everywhere and human beings even in areas with a huge amount of rainfall will have to redefine their relationship with water. The first thing that will happen is that people will no longer be able to take concentrated water sources like rivers and aquifers for granted. They will have to harness their rainwater resources and monsoonal runoffs to ensure that there is enough groundwater reserve and summer flow in the streams.

The journalists in Thiruvananthapuram did not believe me that given the high rainfall rooftop harvesting of rain was an excellent way of getting clean drinking water. I showed them my calculations that all that a family of five which consumes 150 litres of water per person per day needs is a roof area of nine metres by nine metres to meet its water requirements during the dry six months even in an extremely dry year with only 2,000 mm rainfall. But they did not sound convinced. What about the cost of the tank, they asked!

But just across the Ghats next day, on the dry side of the hill range, in Madurai, journalists responded much more warmly to the idea of the rainwater harvesting. Not surprisingly, the low rainfall has long engendered a tradition of rainwater harvesting in the form of tanks.

Basak believes that if Kerala is to meet its water needs on a sustainable basis, it needs to build checkdams and tanks in a big way, harness its springs, and ensure sustainable groundwater development. Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments with far less rainwater resources also want to do the same.
-Anil Agarwal