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April 28, 1998

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UN report warns acute water shortage will drown India by 2017

India is headed towards a major water crisis, a United Nations report warns.

The UN International Children's Education Fund document says that by 2017 there would be an acute shortage of not only ground water but of drinking water too, particularly in summer months.

As of now, 44 million people suffer the consequences of contaminated water, thereby seriously affecting the health of future generations who would be vulnerable to bouts of debilitating diarrhoeal diseases.

UNICEF officials say one reason for the high level of undernourishment among Indian children is diarrhoeal diseases which, in turn, is because of consuming unsafe water, and poor sanitation.

The problem of water scarcity is worsened by sheer wastage and mismanagement. A lot of water is lost either through seepage or is diverted towards irrigation and urban settlements.

By 2017, the per capita availability of water would decline to 1,600 cubic metres -- a level defined by the UN as significantly ''water-stressed'', and holds out the threat of serious waterborne diseases.

In conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature, the UNICEF surveyed sites in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh to study the water situation.

The report lays the blame on the principle that water below an individual's property is his. This has resulted in uncontrolled extraction of water using borewells for irrigation and cash crops.

The UNICEF report also blames subsidised electricity which allows farmers to pump water out of their property, thereby dangerously lowering the water table.

It suggests a tax on ground water to prevent misuse.

Indiscriminate sinking of bore wells has already rendered the ground water level in states like Punjab unfit for agriculture because of high mineral content, according to government reports.

Interestingly, the report claims that socio-economic aspects like caste and gender would also have a great bearing on the impending water crisis. Women, who are usually burdened with the job of fetching water from remote sources, may have to walk upto five kilometres a day to fetch about 150 litres of water. Their troubles would be worsened as two-thirds of the handpumps on which almost 400 million Indians depend for water are in some stage of disrepair.

Caste considerations prevent Dalits from accessing water in the Garhwal region. Their women may have to walk several extra kilometres to get it, the report says.

It suggests that communities be put in charge of their own water sources for ensuring awareness about the need for its preservation and protection.

Basic water services should be provided at reasonable distances, rather than at a distant handpumps, the report recommended.

UNI

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