India: Dying of Thirst

Via The Toronto Star, a detailed review of India’s water woes and a particularly pessimistic prediction on what may arise as the situation grows even more dire in the years ahead, namely:

“…In a decade, India could look like Darfur,” says Vandana Shiva, a nuclear physicist who has become a well-known water activist based in Delhi. “You have people running out of water, and it’s a recipe for killing. It really does make people desperate. You go without it for just three days and you’ve had it…”

As the article notes:

“…You wouldn’t think of India as being water-starved. Sometimes, it seems more waterlogged. Each summer, journalists set off in helicopters to report on the country’s latest, devastating flood.

But pollution and climate change – combined with a severe drought this year – have created critical water shortages in India. With the population mushrooming and little or no progress on the pollution and global warming fronts, the problem may well get worse in the years to come.

Speaking at a conference last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Climate change is threatening our ecosystems, water scarcity is becoming a way of life and pollution is a growing threat to our health and habitat.”

Most of India’s rain falls during the monsoon season between June and September, a period when it’s so hot that much of the moisture evaporates before it can be stored properly. Storm sewers that feed underground aquifers are typically clogged with garbage, compounding the problem, and canals and water pipes are laced with cracks and holes. As much as 40 per cent of the water carried in pipes in New Delhi is wasted, the country’s Central Pollution Control Board says.

In most Western cities, the solution would be obvious: Call the city and have it fixed. But in India, many say the emphasis is on bolstering the country’s surging economy – not improving its ramshackle infrastructure. Stroll along the sidewalk at New Delhi’s Khan Market, perhaps the poshest shopping area in India’s capital city, and you have to constantly keep an eye on the ground – or risk slipping into large, jagged-edged potholes.

Many of India’s streams and rivers are choked by pollution, making them unusable for farming. In one case in southern India earlier this year, researchers studied a river near 90 factories operated by pharmaceutical companies. The river was a cauldron of 21 different medicinal ingredients used to treat hypertension, gonorrhea and chronic liver ailments. Researchers estimated that one company had dumped 45 kilograms of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin into the river in a single day – equivalent to five times the daily consumption of the medication in Sweden.

Then there are India’s better-known rivers such as the Ganges and its northern tributary the Yamuna.

Both are said to be dead, and at least twice the Ganges has reportedly caught on fire. In 1992, a retired Indian Navy officer took his government to court, charging that the state had killed the Yamuna, where he used to sail regattas.

The officer, Sureshwar D. Sinha, argued that abuse of the river violated his rights as a practising Hindu. It had become too filthy for him to bathe there. The Supreme Court agreed with him and ordered New Delhi’s water authority to treat all of the sewage pumped into the river. Nearly 20 years on, that order remains unfulfilled.Underground, the situation is similarly troubling.

More than one-fifth of India’s regional districts are over-exploited, a 2004 study by the Central Ground Water Board revealed. And while an official with the board said another study is planned for next year, research last month using technology from NASA may provide a preview.Satellite imagery confirms what many activists have already been saying for years – India’s water table continues to diminish at a record clip.

It’s just the latest glum assessment of a country that’s more often celebrated for its surging economy. When you factor in global warming, India’s agricultural output may be carved by 40 per cent over the next 70 years, the Center for Global Development, a U.S.-based think-tank, recently reported. That’s frightening when you consider the United Nations predicts India’s population will be 1.7 billion by 2050, eclipsing China’s 1.4 billion.

Naranjan Singh, a 63-year-old farmer whose family has tilled the flat Punjabi fields for generations, doesn’t need satellite data to know his country is at a crossroads.”We are in trouble,” he says, gazing out at Raj’s boring machine and stroking his grey beard.

In August, Singh and his four sons drilled down 158 metres searching for water for their cotton and wheat fields. They came up empty and are shifting 60 metres and preparing to drill down about 500 metres.”As a country, we are going in the wrong direction with water,” says Singh, whose state produces about 22 per cent of India’s wheat (and, along with Haryana state, supplies more than 88 per cent of the country’s emergency grain stocks). He toes a clump of dry, crumbly dirt. “We are running out of it, and crops are going to slow. We will see more hunger, more disputes and clashes. More theft.”

Already, farmers are desperate.And from desperation, it’s a small step to violence.

As India struggles this year to cope with the worst drought since at least 1918, farmers in some states are beginning to guard watered crops with shotguns. A family earlier this year in Madhya Pradesh was murdered in a riot that broke out because of a dispute over water.”

In a decade, India could look like Darfur,” says Vandana Shiva, a nuclear physicist who has become a well-known water activist based in Delhi. “You have people running out of water, and it’s a recipe for killing. It really does make people desperate. You go without it for just three days and you’ve had it.”

The increased demand for water caused by India’s rapid growth is part of the problem.

India now has a population of 1.1 billion – there are 35 cities here with a population of more than one million – and its politicians like to point to the robust workforce that provides. Yet with 30 million new citizens each year, India’s water and food resources are becoming increasingly taxed, in a country where, the United Nations says, 43 per cent of children aged 5 and under are already malnourished, compared with 7 per cent in China.

In an ironic twist, one of the reasons India faces a water shortage is thanks to its success in dealing with past crises. Following a series of famines that crippled the country and left it dependent on other nations for food, in the 1960s India embraced new, more productive, varieties of wheat and rice.The new rice, known as IR8, provided especially robust yields, and it was especially resistant to blast, a rice disease, and to an insect called the stem borer. It was also faster to harvest, producing crops in 125 to 130 days instead of 210.

But there was a downside. IR8 also demanded far more water than its predecessors, a problem that was compounded because farmers were able to plant several crops a year, further accelerating the demand for water.At about the same time as IR8 debuted, India started to use a new species of wheat developed by American agronomist Norman Borlaug. That crop was short-stemmed and produced high yields. But it, too, needed more water. And fertilizers and pesticides.Water wasn’t a problem in Punjab back then. “There was plenty of water,” sighs Singh. “You could get good, clean water at (3 metres).

“Indeed, over the following 15 years, India’s wheat production tripled, as did its reliance on groundwater. In the 1970s, some Indian schools were closed early so they could be used to store grains. The Green Revolution was under way, and by 1994 farmers had drilled an estimated 6.7 million wells. Now, there may be as many as 25 million.And as India’s population rushes on, the amount of food produced here (now 230 million metric tons worth of cereals and grains annually) is more than the country consumes(220 million in a year), says Mihoko Tamamura, an official with the World Food Program who oversees its operations here.Some critics, including Shiva, charge that India has already fallen behind with its food production. Consider that nearly half of the country’s children are malnourished.Prime Minister Singh, meanwhile, urges calm and has asked Indians to deal with the “new ecological reality.”

The government is insisting that new developments in some cities include rainwater-harvesting rooftops. Meanwhile, Punjab and a few other states have introduced regulations preventing farmers from planting rice until after the monsoon, a move that should save on water. The central government is also working with the World Bank to divert rivers from the loamy fields of the countryside to India’s large cities.One official with the Central Ground Water Board says more gains could be made by demanding farmers level their fields – a move that could save more than 10 per cent of the water needed – and by insisting they plant rice in furrows.

Many of India’s leading politicians seem nonplussed by the looming calamity. Instead of dealing with it, many spend extravagantly on an array of bewildering projects.

In Mumbai, afflicted by some of the worst water pollution in the country, officials have announced plans to build a colossal monument off the coast of India’s commercial capital, a 98-metre tribute to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the 17th-century father of the Indian Navy. The project will require the construction of a 3-hectare artificial island and a huge bronze sculpture that will be taller than the Statue of Liberty. The new statue will cost more than $300 million and help “create `brand Mumbai,'” local authorities say.Some politicians say the answer to India’s food and water hurdles is simple. In a suggestion that seems callous given the country’s rampant hunger, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former cabinet minister from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, said people should “eat less, drink less, save on food and fodder and save the country.” Perhaps skip one meal a day, he suggested.

In Singh’s village on the outskirts of Bathinda, the possibility of missing meals seems a threat, not a choice. People aren’t optimistic their government will save them.”I’m praying a lot now,” Singh says. It’s worked before, he explains. In the 1970s, back when fields were ploughed with buffalo, a younger Singh prayed that God would help him afford a tractor. “Within a year, I had it, a beautiful blue Super Hindustan model, made in Czechoslovakia,” he says.Singh’s eyes dart to his field, where workers set about moving the boring machine. He looked as if he didn’t know what he should do next: drill or pray.”

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