"Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink;
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink" 1
The terrifying lines of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” kept echoing in my head, as I drove down the slope from my house, along the channel of
water, gushing out of the broken pipe, under the recently resurfaced road. Just like the “Ancient Mariner”, who mesmerised the wedding guest, the stream of potable water carelessly snaking itself all the way, compelled me to stop my car and call up people, whom I considered powerful
enough, to move the government machinery, to mend broken pipelines. It was the second time in two months, that the pipeline had burst at the same place. I made a few calls and was told, that the appropriate authority will be informed and necessary action taken. I felt I had taken the albatross off my neck. But barely a kilometre down the next junction, there was another “spring” on the road that emptied potable water with wanton abundance and nobody seemed to mind it. I made another call and sensed the nuisance I had become through my calls. Both the springs, mockingly continue its wasteful existence even today and my albatross around my neck.
My inability, to excite people about something, as mundane as leaking pipes and much less about water conservation, stirs me to pen this article.
The callous carelessness, with which we misuse and waste water, is sure to manifest itself into problems of gigantic proportions, that may bring the society face to face with civil unrest. Abundance of rivers and rain seems to have lulled Keralites into a false sense of “potable water security”. God's own country is blessed with copious rains from June to September and then from October to December. However, most of these “showers of blessings” unfortunately find its way into the sea due to ineptitude and insensitivity. The ease of tapping ground water, allows every household to dig its own independent open well. Approximately 80% of the population is dependent on traditional groundwater systems.
Traditional agricultural practices of Kerala, involved holding rainwater in open areas ensuring adequate recharge of groundwater. Vast stretches of paddy fields, innumerable coconut and banana tree pits, across the state served as efficient check dams and soakage pits that breathed life into ground water reserves. With more and more paddy fields playing host to concrete structures, depletion of area under agriculture and significant reduction in number of people involved in agriculture, due to various socio-economic reasons, the state denies itself the biggest groundwater recharge system. Literacy empowered Malayalees to rake in the moolah from all over the world, resulting in significant increase in density of houses in walled small compounds, forcing water onto the streets during rains. Consequently, roads resemble rivulets during rains carrying freshwater into drains and finally into the sea without charging ground water reserves. To add to the woes, heartless encroachment narrowed our rivers, severely reducing its capacity to hold water and forcing faster discharge of fresh water into the sea.
If depletion in recharging was not enough, unchecked exploitation of aquifers across the state is, frighteningly on the rise. According to a report, titled, “Bore Wells vs Open Wells: Water Crisis and Sustainable Alternatives in Kerala” authored by Ms Rose Mary George, published in the Jun 2016 issue of “Journal of Management and Public Policy”, Kerala, with a well for eight to ten individuals, has the highest density of wells in the world. Anyone, with adequate wherewithal, can now dig a bore well anywhere. A state, that rarely had any, now has a very high density of borewells, most of it unaccounted. Debate over the linkages between open and bore wells and availability of water notwithstanding, there is unanimity in agreeing to the fact, that extraction of ground water without an efficient recharging process that ensures equivalent replacements, leads to irrevocable and catastrophic results.
Floods during rains and severe water shortages thereafter, is a cyclic feature that seems to go unnoticed. Potable water extraction, collection, transportation and distribution is now a thriving business in Kerala. The “water tanker lobby” is considered a powerful entity and is believed to have substantial influence on the administration. A state that once boasted of lush green cover, gurgling streams, rivulets and rivers from
which people drank, may soon find itself, at the mercy of the water tanker lobby. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” could be the next political slogan.
Although, the combined discharge of all 44 rivers in Kerala is way below that of river Krishna alone, judicial use of these minor rivers that crisscross the state, along with efficient rain water harvesting, effective monitoring systems to check wastages and prevent leakages, can achieve potable water sufficiency. Any further delay in putting in place a cohesive integrated plan will bring the state, face-to-face with fury of draughts sooner than later.
Scarcity of potable water stirred Israel to come up with ingenious ways of managing water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use. Constrained by limited rainfall and even lesser availability of fresh water, Israel undertook large-scale projects including desalination to provide water to its population. One of the most interesting aspects of Israeli water supply, is how they manage used water. Recycling of used water is an integral concept in town planning in Israel. Having personally witnessed the high-tech systems in place like “just enough and just-in-time” for agriculture and its operational efficiency, I am convinced that Israelis as a people are sensitised to regulate water consumption. Leaking pipes are a strict “No-No”. Extraction, supply, consumption and security have been efficiently integrated to ensure sustainable adequacy of water.
Singapore is a role model for success in public administration. The “No-Nonsense” approach, its administration adopts on matters of governance is visible in every walk of Singaporean life. Used to a democracy, that allows everyone the freedom to do anything and get away, if supported by a mob, Singaporean democracy was a cultural shock for me. Landing in to the small island in blinding rain and driving out, after a quick, non-intrusive yet purposeful, firm immigration check, I was surprised by the absence of flooding on the roads, despite the continuous heavy down pour. Further reading on Singaporean water management, revealed that, with limited land to collect and store rainwater, Singapore was tormented by cyclic droughts, floods and water pollution. The challenge catalysed National efforts to adopt innovative means to develop capabilities and put
in place safe secure and sustainable supply of water. Water from all Singaporean taps including those in public toilets dispense water safe enough to drink. If Singapore could handle its water problem, it is not impossible for Kerala, a state that boasts of highest literacy in the country and has many social indicators at par with that of Europe, to overcome its water woes.
The Administration, irrespective of the party which is in power, must gather its act, during the summer itself, to ensure hundred percent increase in rainwater harvesting capabilities of the state to make the best use of the next monsoon rains. A state-wide movement must be launched to transform all fallow lands and agricultural lands, where crops permit, into natural rainwater holds to recharge groundwater. Parallelly, attention should be focused on river systems of the state to remove encroachments, encourage linking of rivers where possible to reduce risks of flooding and delay rivers emptying themselves into the sea. Simultaneously a census of all open and bore wells must be conducted and owners mandated, by law, to put in place groundwater recharging systems for the water being extracted. This should ruthlessly be implemented and monitored. Builders who obtained permits with rainwater harvesting systems must be forced to do so even if it is implemented retrospectively. The department responsible for water supply, whose efficiency is symbolised by perpetually leaking pipes must be held accountable for every litre of water wasted or unaccountbly used. Water tankers that crisscross the state with leaking tanks and pipes must become a thing of the past.
Kerala is staring at imminent water shortage, though, today it is not an insurmountable problem. Through collective, willing, participative movement of the people and the government, this can be successfully and comprehensively addressed. Any further delay would be a case of, “too little; too late”.
1. From the poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge published in 1798