Iwas sitting with some old friends at Varanasi’s Assi Ghat recently, chatting about the mighty river, with the pious vibrations of the Ganga surrounding us. Some recalled Pandit Jagannath, others Iqbal, and still others a painting done on “Maa Ganga”. Then, one of us mentioned that the sight of the free-flowing river will last only another two months till summer and then sometimes, water level would drop so low that sand banks would appear in the middle of the Ganga.
Our enthusiasm ebbed. At that moment, I recalled a photograph that appeared in my newspaper three years ago. It showed people burying the ashes of their loved ones on the bed of River Yamuna in Haryana. The river had shrunk so much and the people hoped their loved ones would find peace when “Yamuna Maiya” would again flow over the sands after the rains and carry the ashes away. You’ll be shocked to learn that the discharge of water from the sources of both these rivers has grown throughout this time. Reason? Because of rising temperatures, glaciers are melting quickly, threatening the existence of these rivers.
The question is, what is the government doing about this? Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, recently told Hindustan that the state is committed to preserving its rivers. Water transport on the Ganga has begun; now it is time to accelerate it. We are working to protect the state’s 66 rivers. The Gomti river exemplifies how successful the state administration has been in this regard. Governments are certainly doing their part, but there is a need for public awareness on this matter because the world’s rivers are in peril.
Last summer, the flow of rivers, such as the Rhine, Yankee, Mississippi, and Colorado, had become extremely dodgy. Unfortunately, at the same rate that we are discovering water streams and lakes drying up, groundwater levels are also dropping. Let us return to our country.
According to a report published on science.org, northwest and south India may face a serious water crisis by 2025. And by 2050, the whole country could face this dreadful predicament. India has 17% of the world’s population, but we only have 4% of the world’s total freshwater reserves to meet the needs of such a vast population. Our country exploits more groundwater than both the United States and China combined. According to the Central Ground Water Board, 256 of the country’s 700 districts use self-sustaining groundwater. Another figure states that in 1960, there were about three million tube wells across the country. By 2010, i.e. 50 years later, their number had reached 35 million. How about today? Exact figures are not available, but the number would have risen hugely over the last 12 years. This is scary.
According to the NITI Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index, 600 million people are affected by the water problem. In the next eight years, our needs will more than double. How will this demand be met? Years ago, it was said that water scarcity would cause the Third World War, partition in several nations, and massive displacement. People are already fleeing their homes in greater numbers and many countries are experiencing social unrest.
If you don’t believe me, consider the state of our country. Many states here are at odds over the distribution of river water. There is an ongoing conflict over the waters of rivers such as the Krishna, Kaveri, and Narmada among states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry. I have purposely avoided naming many smaller rivers here, but it is a fact that any river in the west and south affects two or more states, and their water causes all sorts of problems. For example, the southern states have seen violent clashes over the waters of Krishna and Cauvery.
And as a nation, too, our relationships with our neighbours are strained over the waters of Brahmaputra, Indus, and other rivers. We think China will cause a water crisis in the Northeast by damming the Brahmaputra. Also, we fear China, by building a dam on the Brahmaputra, may weaponise water in the event of a war. It can be used to generate deadly floods in a number of places. The people of Pakistan have similar reservations about the Indus river. We also have ongoing disputes with Nepal and Bangladesh about sharing river water.
One thing is certain: Nature is sending us warnings. We must revolutionise all aspects of our water usage, including daily use. Water is essential for survival. We must learn to value every drop of it.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan The views expressed are personal