Watershed Mismanagement

(Dr. krishan Bir Chaudhary)

Oceans cover about three-fourth of earth's surface. According to UN (United Nations) estimates, the total amount of water on earth is about 1400 million km3, which is enough to cover the earth with a layer that is 3000 metres deep.

However, freshwater constitutes a very small proportion of this enormous quantity. About 2.7% of the total water available on the earth is freshwater of which about 75.2% lies frozen in polar regions and another 22.6% is present as groundwater. The rest is available in lakes, rivers, atmosphere, moisture, soil, and vegetation etc.

An important feature of the earth's supply of fresh water is its non-uniform distribution around the globe. Water, for which there are no substitutes, has always been mankind's most precious resource. The struggle to control water resources has shaped human political and economic history. No other natural resource has had such an overwhelming influence on human history.

One doesn't need to reiterate that water is one of the most important of all natural resources, and is vital for all living organisms and major ecosystems, as well as for human health, food production, and economic development. Besides many forms of energy production depend on the availability of water  e.g., the production of electricity at hydropower sites in which the kinetic energy of falling water is converted to electricity.

In the future, if we move aggressively towards a hydrogen economy, large quantities of water will be required to provide the needed hydrogen via electrolysis. Providing water in the right quantity and quality has been the constant endeavor of all civilizations at all times.

With the progress of civilisation and industrialisation world's water demand has tripled over the last half-century, it has exceeded the sustainable yield of aquifers in many countries, leading to falling water tables.

How serious is the situation today? The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water supplies, and that 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation. 1,000 m3 is the per capita annual amount of water deemed necessary to satisfy basic human needs. The amount of water available per person in India is decreasing steadily  from 3450 cm3 in 1951, it fell to 1250 cm3 in 1999. 

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, it is expected to decrease further to 760 cm3 per person in 2050. Thus as the energy security became a matter of  priority in the period following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74, water security is destined to become a national and global priority in the decades ahead.

To reliably assess in detail future water resources and present water availability, it is insufficient to rely simply on volume data and natural variations in river runoff. It is also necessary to take into account changes due to human activities.

During recent decades natural variations in river runoff and quantitative and qualitative characteristics of renewable water resources have been much affected by a whole complexity of anthropogenic impacts. They include those related directly to water intake from river systems for irrigation, industrial and domestic water use.

They also include reservoir runoff control, river basin landuse change such as afforestation and deforestation, field management, urbanisation, and drainage. All these factors differently affect the total volumes of water resources, river runoff regime and water quality.

The emerging situation is one of water shortage, whether as a result of over-exploitation for limited, localized purposes, or because of inadequate and ill-informed management strategies. 

In effect, governments are satisfying the growing demand for food by over pumping groundwater, a measure that virtually assures a drop in food production when the aquifer is depleted. Knowingly or not, governments are creating a "food bubble" economy. In fact the government controlled canal irrigation systems in our country are so poor and so corrupt that the farmers have no other option but to exploit the ground water if, they can afford.

Scarcity of water  is a major issue that needs to be addressed without any further loss of time. At worst, it has lead to conflicts over river ownership in India. At best, this challenge has lead to burgeoning projects on rain collection mechanisms to address the tremendous demands for water by such a large population.

It is true that behind the water crisis lies a very apparent human hand. It  is a result of factors that have been operating for a long time, with the patronage and encouragement of successive governments. The drought etc, are some of the  aggravating factors. Mismanagement, rather than scarcity, rules the day.

Boggy of privatisation in the process of exploitation and distribution of water, raised by some of the western foreign agencies and tacitly approved by the politicians and bureaucrats is a design in disguise to interfere with the country's food security in the long run.

We cannot apply western solutions to non-western problems and must for see danger behind it. Challenge today is to reinvent a prudent water management including  watershed management policy, dovetailing every type of use and applying age-old Indian wisdom of water harvesting.



(Editorial : Farmers' Forum Magazine)