River Interlinking an Engineering, Political Fad: Former Water Ministry Secretary

In an interview, Shashi Shekhar addresses India's severe water crisis suggests key reforms that need to be made urgently to deal with the problem. “If we miss the bus, I am afraid the problem will get much worse.”

New Delhi: Falling water reservoir levels and a delayed and underwhelming start to the monsoon led to an acute water crisis in several parts of the country. Almost two months have now passed since the onset of the monsoon, but the overall rainfall deficit in the country still stands at 19%. A little over 40% of all reservoirs in the country have less than 50% of normal storage. The total live storage is about 71% of the average of last ten years.

The Wire spoke to Shashi Shekhar, who was secretary of ministry of water resources till the end of 2016, on a range of issues connected to the water crisis. Shekhar explained the problem of over exploitation of ground water, the changing rainfall patterns due to climate change; the importance of maintaining natural flow in rivers; the government’s ‘har ghar jal’ and river interlinking programmes.

Edited excerpts: 

We have seen large parts of the country suffer a severe water crisis, particularly in the months leading up to the monsoon. This appears to now be a scenario that repeats itself every year. How severe is the crisis for the country?

The situation is quite severe. Punjab and Haryana are running out of ground water rapidly. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka are also facing severe stress. Aquifers are being drained. We are losing wetlands. The Chembarambakkam lake in Chennai is completely dry. The recharge points must have been encroached.

Actually, this crisis was begging to happen. We have to address the issue in a holistic manner. We need to understand and take care of the whole water ecosystem.

Also read: Will a New Water Ministry Solve India’s Impending Water Crisis?

The only sources of water in our country is rain water from monsoon which is 30 or 40 downpours in 30 or 40 days. Snowfall also contributes, but it accounts for only about 14%.

So, these 30 days of rainfall need to meet the water requirement for 365 days. We need to be able to hold water for 365 days.

DMK party workers stage a protest over the water crisis in Tamil Nadu in Chennai, Monday, June 24, 2019. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

One natural form of water storage is ground water. But, decline in ground water levels is increasingly becoming a problem in most parts of the country. What needs to be done to address the problem?

We have disrupted the natural eco system of water too much. When rivers flow from mountains to the sea it is a system, which you should not disturb.

Let me explain a little. So, aquifers recharge through 2 sources – sub soil and swollen rivers. Rivers have peak and base flows. They swell during the monsoon and reach their peak flow levels which can be more than a hundred times the base flow.

During peak flows, rivers swell and reach the flood plains, marshlands and wetlands which can potentially hold water, acting as storage, and also recharge ground water. Now, if you keep building on flood plains – as in the case of Delhi and many other cities – ground water will not recharge.

Swollen rivers also recharge aquifers through crevices which can be 30-40 kilometres away from where the aquifer is located. Aquifers have particular recharge points. They need to be identified and protected.

It has been argued that a major contributor to the problem of groundwater depletion has been inefficient agriculture. We are also witnessing a stagnation in agricultural wages leading to rural distress which would complicate any enforced change in water consumption patterns.

It is a problem. See, 85% of agricultural activity is using groundwater. The simple rule is: if rate of exploitation is greater than the rate of recharge, then ground water level will decline. That is what has been happening in large parts of north west India in particular.

At the rate at which they are currently going, Punjab, Haryana, and west UP will finish the first layer of aquifer in 15 years.

Paddy is not the natural crop for these regions. In the name of food security, we moved from maize and other crops which were traditionally grown in these regions. Paddy requires a lot more water than these crops. This was essentially chemical agriculture.

Also read: Not Just Chennai, Satellite Data Portends Major Water Crisis Across Globe

As a result, groundwater was overexploited in these regions and the water level is now much lower. This has led to an increase in concentration of contaminants and aquifer recharge also slows as we go lower.

If I don’t have enough water, I should grow such crops that require less water. This is how our ancestors did agriculture. In Tamil Nadu, second crop used to be millets, not paddy. That’s a recent change. Karnataka has also moved to sugarcane and paddy which use a lot of water.

Extreme rainfall events in India have increased 6% every decade according to a study. Climate change is predicted to delay the onset of monsoon and increase its intensity. What impact do you think a changing climate will have on the availability of water?

Yes. Extreme rain events will increase with climate change. The number of rainfall days will reduce. So, the intensity of rainfall will increase and ground water recharge will be slowed further.

So, we actually need to increase forest cover to be able to deal with these changes because forests act as excellent catchments and also facilitate the recharge of ground water. But, we are doing the opposite.

Also read: We Are Already Living in a ‘New India’ – and It’s Alarmingly Water-Stressed

In the natural world, there existed low lying areas and aquifers for storage. Aquifers would get recharged through recharge points on the surface of the earth. The surplus water would go to the river. The rest would go to the sub soil due to forests.

Now, we are destroying forests, recharge points and constructing on flood plains. This was a crisis waiting to happen. We have disrupted this eco system and if you disturb the ecosystem, problems will be created somewhere upstream or downstream.

Two men collect water from what remains of a dry Puzhal lake, one of the major suppliers of water to Chennai city on June 28, 2019. Photo: PTI

What is the worst-case scenario?

Worst case scenario is that by 2030 we will not be able to supply 50% of our water demand. We will lose 6-8% of our gross domestic product. Millions will die due to non-availability and poor quality of water.

How do you think we can deal with this situation?

It is a major problem. But I think it presents an opportunity. Today, we have a prime minister who can take decisions, has the mandate and understands water. He needs to sit with chief ministers, bureaucrats and other stakeholders to bring reforms.

I would advise that natural recharge arrangements should be brought back. There should be adequate flow in rivers. People should know beforehand how much water is available to them and then decide what to grow.

Also read: Knee-Jerk Reactions Won’t Solve India’s Groundwater Crisis

We need more decentralised decision making. The villages will have to fend for themselves. Decision making should happen at the village level. They should be able to figure out how much pre-monsoon water level they have and should have technological know-how on sprinkler and drip irrigation system which can save a lot of water. Instead of 15 tube wells, have one.

Then, we need to change dietary habits and move to coarse grains. We need to change crops to ragi, jowar, bajra and oats which are also more nutritious. Agriculture consumes 85% of water, we can move to 50% by changing cropping patterns.

But, we need to act now. If we miss the bus, I am afraid the problem will get much worse.

What do you think of the government’s ‘har ghar jal’ initiative which aims to provide piped water supply to every household by 2024?

It’s a noble scheme because I would expect that enough water will be delivered to each house and the quality will meet norms.

The key things to consider with this scheme are – will I be able to ensure quality? Will I be able to sustain the source? Will I be able to provide the requisite water per day every day?

I have a few suggestions:

1.    We need to ensure that the sources of water don’t fail. Need to protect recharge points so enough water gets recharged in the aquifer.

2.     Need to fix responsibility on quality of water. If its bad quality who is responsible? 

3.     There should be monitoring through Information technology system.

4.     People should pay enough to bear operation and maintenance expenses.

5.     By 2040, 50% of India’s population will be urban. So there will be huge amounts of waste water. We need to be able to treat and use waste water for potable, gardening, flushing, irrigation, etc.

Schoolgirls pumping water from a tubewell. Credit: Ingrid Truemper/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The Centre has also initiated interlinking of rivers which it claims will ensure efficient water management, increase irrigation potential and water supply and help in flood control and pollution control. What are your views on the project?

It will be an ecological disaster. For interlinking, we need to know which river is surplus, and which is in deficit. We don’t have the mechanism to be able to tell. We will also be wasting water through canals, etc.

Further, surplus river water goes to the sea. Water not reaching the sea is a bad sign as saline sea water could ingress into land. Fresh water flowing into the sea is also crucial for creating the low pressure that draws monsoon winds.

Also read: The Four Ways in Which India’s Water Blessings Are Turning Into Disasters

Rivers are living organisms with unique ecosystems. They must be treated as such. We must be against interlinking. This is an engineering and political fad.

Key to solving our water problem is better water management through harvesting of rain water, keeping rivers alive and changing eating habits.