'Water is not an economic resource, but we treat water as an economic resource meant for the benefit of human beings.'
'Water is more of a life source than an economic resource.'
Forty per cent of Indians will have no access to drinking water by 2030. This is one of the conclusions of a NITI Aayog study.
The report warns that India is facing its 'worst' water crisis in history.
While states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh manage their water resources effectively, the NITI Aayog study reveals that the north eastern states and Kerala are at the bottom of the heap.
It is against this background that Rediff.com/Shobha Warrier spoke to S P Ravi, one of the directors at the River Research Centre, an environment support group based in Chalakkudy, Kerala.
The NITI Aayog report says 600 million Indians face extreme water stress and about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to water.
Is it because we have more people in need of water than that is available?
If you look at the overall water availability in India, per capita utilisable water availability is substantially less than the threshold level of around 1,800 cubic metres per person.
We have only 1,000 mcube per annum. Yes, as a nation, we have less water resources, but it is more about water management than water availability.
By water management, do you mean we should have saved water from flowing into the ocean especially when floods happens?
No. We need to have floods and we will have floods.
Some water has to flow into the ocean. That is part of the ecosystem.
The most important water cycle in the world are the rivers and the rivers have to flow.
If you look at the way ancient civilisations survived, they developed along the way rivers flowed.
Water is not an economic resource, but we treat water as an economic resource meant for the benefit of human beings.
Water is more of a life source than an economic resource.
Indian agriculture is totally dependent on the monsoon. After the NITI Aayog report, Dr K Kasturirangan said India needed to have an agriculture regime where water requirement came down from the current 80% to 85% to less than 50%.
Does that not mean that we treat water as an economic resource?
Yes, there is no doubt that water availability is absolutely essential in the economic development of India as it is required for life sustainability, agriculture, etc.
But treating water as an economic good is something different.
When you perceive water as an economic good, the way you treat water will be different. That is when you try to extract maximum benefit from water resources.
What we need to realise is that the available water resource is not only the right of human beings, but also the other beings in nature.
Equitable distribution of water is of prime importance. Water is not anybody's private property. But unfortunately, we are not treating it that way.
As far as managing water is concerned, the most important intervention needed is in the agriculture sector because we are still using almost 80% of water on agriculture.
At many places, the practices are highly unsustainable. Unless we are going to reduce using water for agriculture, demand will go up.
And it is possible to reduce water usage through micro irrigation facilities and organic farming.
Organic farming is an area where water demand can be reduced considerably, especially through mulching.
If you compare the water requirement of organic farmers with others, there is a huge difference.
I have a nutmeg plantation and I practise organic farming methods and my water requirement is 30% to 35% less than my neighbouring farmers and there is no difference in the yield.
Will interlinking of rivers solve the problem of water scarcity in India?
Interlinking of rivers is a disastrous idea because it will completely rewrite the water map of India.
The inputs needed for that is so huge that it will be a big economic disaster if tried.
In 2002, we had anticipated (interlinking of rivers to cost) Rs 560,000 crores. Today it should be at least Rs 20 lakh crores or much more than that.
Compared to the cost, the benefits will not be much.
I would say the idea should be avoided as the problem lies with our understanding of the river system itself.
The NITI Aayog report says Kerala and the north eastern states are some of the low performing states in managing water effectively and these are states that get the maximum rainfall.
Is it surprising that Kerala is in the red on the water map?
It is not surprising at all. The state deserves the low ranking as there is absolutely no doubt that water is not effectively managed in Kerala.
The Kerala scenario is a bit complex. It is a fact that we are facing continuous seasonal droughts or water shortage post-monsoon from 2000 onwards.
Not only water management, the ecosystem also has affected the rivers in Kerala.
Has the topography of the state anything to do with this?
Absolutely not. The topography is nothing new; it has been like this for years.
The 1983 drought in Kerala was the first one that was felt across the state.
Before that, the state had droughts in certain pockets and water shortages in certain places. 1983 was the first time it was felt that the entire state could be drought-prone.
Later, in 1987 and a couple of years in the 1990s, whenever there was some shortage in the monsoon, the next year became a drop year.
But after the 2003 and 2004 droughts, every year irrespective of whether we had normal or excess monsoon, we were having seasonal droughts after the monsoon.
It clearly shows water is not retained effectively in the soil. Originally, most of the Kerala rivers were perennial.
Irrespective of the terrain from where, rainfall can reach the sea within 48 hours.
Majority of the rainfall used to sink into the natural forests and then it continued as rivers throughout the year.
Those natural evergreen forests are completely lost today.
You mean deforestation is the major reason for Kerala being in the red?
Exactly. Deforestation has badly affected the river system in Kerala.
This is the major reason why Kerala is facing seasonal droughts.
The second reason is the large-scale reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands.
In the late 1970s Kerala had more than 800,000 hectares of paddy field. Now, we have less than 200,000h hectares.
It means almost 600,000 hectares of paddy field has been reclaimed in these few decades.
And each hectare would result in water shortage in the vicinity, at least in 10 times the area.
So, the water scarcity in the mid-land area has been contributed by the shortage of river flow and reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands.
I can also talk about our river basin, the Chalakudy river basin.
The natural summer flow in the river has been reduced to almost 1/10th since the 1940s. In those days, even during the peak summer months, the river had a natural flow of 600 cubic ft/sec and it is just 1/10th of that today.
Is it again due to deforestation or more utilisation of water?
It is totally because of deforestation because I am talking about the natural flow of the river from the forest area.
As per the NITI Aayog report, states like Gujarat, MP and AP, which get less rains, manage water most effectively in the country while states like Kerala which get adequate rain are the worst in water management.
Do you think both users and the administrators are taking water for granted in Kerala?
Yes, that is one of the reasons why Kerala faces periodic droughts.
What we see in Kerala is everybody forgets about the drought once the monsoon starts.
We think of the drought only after the monsoon, but by then, the water has already reached the sea.
But I see a slight change after the 2016 drought.
You mean the administrators have opened their eyes to the reality?
To a certain extent, but only in bits and pieces.
One of the main objectives of the Haritha Kerala Mission is to rejuvenate the river system and this has to be done urgently.
But as part of rejuvenation of the rivers, they are not even thinking of the restoration of the upper catchment areas from where the natural flow of rivers comes.
Yes, afforestation wherever possible as it is not possible to afforest every area as lots of the areas have been inhabited by people.
But there are areas where you can go for afforestation or support natural regeneration.
This needs to be taken up as a priority area, especially the areas where streams originate. They have to be revived as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the Haritha Kerala Mission is not looking into that. But you have to look at rivers and river basins holistically.
After 2010-2011, the ground water situation in Kerala is alarmingly bad.
Once the monsoon gets over, the water table goes down suddenly.
Even the temperature in the forest area is increasing substantially.
Whatever we are planning to do, it will be harder to do in the future.
Why is the water table going down?
In the forest areas, the reason is deforestation only.
But in the urban areas, people do not want even a drop of water to stay within the premises.
Unlike in the past, people concrete the courtyard so that water flows to the tarred road.
And Kerala is getting more and more urbanised...
Yes, and building construction and infrastructure development is being done without understanding nature.
Rock quarrying is one of the biggest threats in the Western Ghats region and the entire ghats is disappearing.
Is it because of ignorance at the higher level?
Whether it is ignorance or supporting vested interests is something to be debated!
In the early 1980s, poet Sugatha Kumari said disaster awaited Kerala if it ignored the environment for development. Whatever she said almost 35 years ago is coming true now.
Everybody mocked her then and called her anti-development.
Even now, many politicians including the chief minister talk in the same language of destructive development.
You feel Kerala is following destructive development?
On one side, they talk about sustainable development, but in practice, they go for a lot of things that are socially and environmentally harmful.
Whenever people oppose these projects, the chief minister repeatedly says that such people will be dealt with iron hand.
So, you see a bleak future for Kerala unless they open their eyes?
Unless we are ready to reverse our ways and rectify our mistakes very soon, I don't see a very bright future for the state.