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Rains a modern tragedy?

July 22, 2003

Till a few days ago, most parts of India reeled under drought. Cities thirsted for water. The country seemed to await the first drop of rain to hit its baked earth.

It has rained. And now the same cities are full of it. Flooded, life disrupted. Dirty and unhealthy, as rainwater mixed with sewage water flows through crowded urban habitats.

Rain has literally become a curse. But the real tragedy is that in a few months, once the rains are over, these same cities will be thirsting again. Once again, their water greed will make them poach for water in surrounding areas.

Today, our flatulent cities get their water supply from further and further away -- Delhi, gets Ganga water from the Tehri dam, Bangalore is building the Cauvery IV project, pumping water 100 kms to the city, Chennai water will traverse 200 kms from Krishna river, Hyderabad from Manjira and so on.

The point is that the urban-industrial sector's demand for water is growing by leaps and bounds. But this sector does little to augment its water resources, it does even less to conserve and minimise its use.

Worse, because of the abysmal lack of sewage and waste treatment facilities, it degrades scarce water even further. Groundwater levels are declining precipitously in urban areas as people bore deeper in search of the water that municipalities cannot supply.

So, when it does not rain, it cries and when it does rain, it cries. What a tragedy. This is when we can do so much more. The water imperative is that cities must begin to value their rainfall endowment.

This means implementing rainwater harvesting in each house and colony. But it also means relearning about the hundreds of tanks and ponds that built, indeed nourished the city. Almost every city had a treasure of tanks, which provided it the important flood cushion and allowed it to recharge its groundwater reserves.

But urban planners cannot see beyond land. As a result, water bodies in our cities are a shame -- encroached, full of sewage, garbage or just filled up and built over. The city forgot it needed water. It forgot its lifeline.

 Lakes are the vital sponges of the city. Every city gave its land for rain. Bangalore, at the beginning of the 1960s had 262 lakes, now only 10 hold water. The Ahmedabad collector -- on directions from the high court -- listed 137 lakes in the city but also said that over 65 had been built over already. In Delhi, 508 waterbodies were identified -- again on court orders -- but are not protected.

I find that the hue and cry about water harvesting and rejuvenating lakes still remains a chimera. Urban planners simply don't believe how important these activities are. They flirt with the idea but have not even begun to integrate the city's water needs with its rainwater wealth.

There are also other problems. First, builders and architects have simply never been taught the many ways of holding water, that exist outside the syllabi they conned as students. They have been trained to see rainwater as waste and to build systems to dispose it off as fast as possible.

Of course, given the sheer mess of urban India, even the stormwater drains have become conduits for sewage or are choked or in many cases just never get built. A whole generation of Indians will have to be retrained into understanding water once again.

This is, when cities in many other countries are profiting from our traditional wisdom. In Germany, to save investing in stormwater drains, authorities provide incentives to households to harvest and recharge rainwater. It charges a tax based on the calculation of the paved area and the water-runoff coefficient.

If rainwater harvesting is done and the load on the city's stormwater drainage is reduced, the burden of tax on the house-owner is reduced accordingly.

Second, the business of land is far more powerful than the business of water storage. In spite of all the efforts of civil society groups to use judicial intervention, the movement to protect and revive lakes is facing an uphill battle. The administrative framework for managing a water body just does not exist in our cities anymore.

In addition, the city will have to learn to minimise its water use and work on conservation and reuse. Politicians and planners believe that water is God's gift to their election promises.

People must now begin to believe it is something they can gift to themselves. We are mindless about wasting water; now let's get mindful of retaining it.

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