A famous saying goes something like: ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink’.
This could very well be the future of India and the World. Some analysts predict that the next war is going to be fought not over oil but over clean water.
Out of a total population of approximately 6 billion people in the World, about 1 billion do not have access to potable water.
There are many reasons for this:
- Reduced rainfall
- Poisoning of the existing sources of clean water
- Overuse of existing water sources without any replenishment
For people living in the major cities of India this is a well known fact. Every year during the summers there is a recurring water shortage. Many areas go without water for days at a time.
The water shortage doesn’t just mean that we can’t have a bath or that we will need to buy bottled water. It is a major part of the vicious circle which has been set in motion throughout the World and is highly evident in countries like India.
Shortage of water is there not only in cities but also in the rural areas. Due to falling water tables (see this link for more) and slow poisioning of existing resources due to overuse of fertilizers the quality of crops is under threat. Reduced crops (in quality and quantity) means less food for the people. With the rising population this means that the number of mouths to feed is increasing where as resources required to feed them are decreasing.
Let us try and analyse why in India we have such a shortfall. There different stages within the water supply chain:
- Production (from a source)
- Water Treatment
There are various sources of clean water. These include:
- Underground Sources
- Re-cycled water
Lakes and Rivers
The problem with lakes and rivers is that they can be used, abused and overused very easily since they are easy to get at. In India typically the condition of rivers and lakes is not all that good. Think I am overstating the problem? Take a look at these:  
The typical scenario for a river is that pollution levels increase dramatically as it encounters the first major city as it flows out from the source. This is because the people use the river as a drain as well as a source of water. This report from the Central Pollution Control Board (of the Govt. of India) highlights this point for the river Yamuna as it crosses through Delhi (NCR). In fact now if the source of the river is accessable and impotant from a religious point of view (for example in case of Ganga and Yamuna rivers) the pollution can be found at the source itself.
The same situation exists for lakes especially when cities spring up around lakes and then slowly swollow up the lake till nothing is left but an area covered with foul smelling sludge.
There has been some work done in processing river water and injecting used (but treated) water back into the river relative to a big city. This increases the fresh water supply in the river.
These are man-made ‘tanks’ constructed to store excess water from rivers or rain water. Such strtuctures are quite common in the southern part of India in the region of the Deccan Plateau. There the ground is rocky which means the rainwater just slides off. Therefore tanks are made to store rain water which can then be used later. This has been the state of affairs for centuries. The main problem is that the number of people which are being supported by such reservoirs have increased dramatically with time due to the population explosion. This leads to overuse and abuse.
Reservoirs are also used for pisci-culture where fishes are raised in the catchment area. Reservoirs linked with dams are also used for electricity production. Other things that can be done are two have water treatment based around natural methods within these tanks. So as a first stage the waste water can be processed by a treatment plant. The treated water then released into the reservoir where it mixes with fresh water (e.g. from rain) and processed using biological methods. This water is then again pumped out for use. All the while ensuring that the water levels return to their previous levels at the end of a cycle (which could stretch for a year maybe?).
These sources can be tapped through wells and bore-wells. One of the major problems with such resources is the fact that they do not replenish rapidly especially when there is heavy extraction. A report by the The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) states ‘Groundwater depletion is a pressing challenge for India’. This is seen as a major problem especially for states like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. This is a dangerous situation for India since Punjab and Haryana produce a large percentage of foodgrains in India.
This is another important source of water both for direct irrigation as well as after storage in reservoirs. But it is not a source that can be depended on. Rainfall patterns keep changing. One year there is a deluge the next a dry spell.
Recently there has been an increase in rain-water harvesting where the rain-water is used to recharge ground water as well as stored for use later. This is definitely the right direction. Recharging of ground water is most important. Recycled Water
This is an important source especially for large cities which have water demand in millions of gallons per day (MGD). Cities like Delhi and Bangalore are looking towards supplementing existing sources with recycled water (see this report). Recycling water requires setting up of waste water processing plants which are expensive to build and maintain.
In India, especially in the big cities, it is difficult to use water direct from the source. If groundwater is being used then it can definitely not be used for human consumption directly. The water supplied by the government agencies also tends to be of low quality. Therefore water treatement takes place at the water suppliers as well as within individual households (those who can afford it) before use.
The poblem is that not all water is sourced through these water treatment plants. People get direct groundwater through bore-wells. This water is obviously untreated, often polluted with heavy metals and pesticides/fertilizers.
Water treatment issue is now becoming important since direct sources like rivers and groundwater can no longer supply the same levels of usable water as before. Typically the reliance on direct sources of water should reduce as more and more people join the water delivery network. But can this network handle so many new connections?
Obviously building more water treatment and recycling plants is one solution to the above problem. I think another thing which needs to be encouraged is community based water treatment. Where instead of huge plants situated miles away from the consumer have local water treatment plants. There might be issues related to economics of scale but I am sure these would be outweighed by the benefits to the consumer.
Transportation of Water
The water once treated is transported through pipes to the various households. The network in most Indian cities is very old. There are often pipe-bursts and underground leaks which ends up contaminating the treated water when it is being transported from the treatment plants. Often people who do not have access to the water network tamper with the pipes to get some water to use.
Another issue is that the booster pumps used to pump water are heavily reliant on power from the local grid. In case of local grid failure during the pumps too cannot work which leaves people without water and power.
There are two possible solutions to the transportation problem.
The first one is to take the pumping stations off the grid and use alternate sources of power connected directly to the pumping station (for example solar and wind power).
The second thing is to slowly upgrade the network while increasing connectivity. More and more people need to be bought into the network so that water usage can be monitored and controlled. This will also allow for more efficient use (and reuse) of the water. This is tough but it needs to be done sooner rather than later.
This part of the water supply chain is where the greatest damage is done. Indiscriminant use of water and illegal dumping of waste into rivers ensures that a large amount of water returns to nature untreated and under-utilised.
We should use water with a great deal of care and thought. Most people in India have to struggle to get clean water. Yet you find in cities people using high-pressure hoses to clean their cars and water-storage tanks overflowing every day.
We should practice rain-water harvesting and insist that local community also adopts it for parks and other open areas. We should plant more trees and encourage growth of life. It will attract more rainfall as well as improve the environment. Who likes concrete!
Return of Water
Water after use is returned to nature one way or the other. When you grab a drink of water in your house and few drops splash down on to the floor, that is water returning to nature. But that water is now not usable. When you wash dishes and the water goes back to the sewer that water is re-usable. It can be treated.
The journey back is long! It again travels through a network of pipes which are often in equally bad condition. Sewage pipes often leak and mix with clean water and many times this happens underground. The only way to detect this is when the water supply reaching the house has a funny odor or colour or is obviously polluted.
This cycle should be made smaller. Have local sewage treatement plants which pump back re-cycled water. This make the loop tighter and easier to maintain.
On the whole the water situation in India is bad and getting worse. Every year there is the same water crisis. I think it is time that few steps are taken by us (the citizens and the consumers) to ensure that this problem doesnt cripple the growth of the country and the future of our children.