World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 every year to create awareness among the people about water’s importance through seminars, print, and social media. This day was first proposed at the United Nations (UN) Conference (Agenda 21) in 1992 on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1993, the first World Water day was observed.
Since then, every year, the UN chooses a theme related to water, and for the rest of the year, it inspired all member-states to achieve that goal. In 1994, the theme was ‘Caring for Our Water Resources is Everybody’s Business. The theme of 2021 is ‘Valuing Water.’ This implies the seriousness of prevailing problems related to water. Therefore, it would be important to see how seriously the government of each country works towards the realization of the theme.
It needs to be mentioned here that World Water Day’s theme in 2019 was ‘Leaving No One Behind,’ implying that each person in the world should have access to safe drinking water. And as it appears, a large portion of the world’s population is still deprived of the natural gift of clean drinking water. In India, for instance, as per the report of NITI Aayog in 2018, 37.7 million people fall prey to diseases, and 1.5 million children die annually from diarrhea by drinking contaminated water in the country.
The theme of World Water Day 2020 was Water and Climate Change. Later, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘Hand Washing and Hygiene were added. The importance of the need to generate awareness about the rapid changes in the weather conditions and greatly impacts the climatic cycle of each country of the world.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States and the European Union, January of 2020 saw a rise in temperature of 3 degree Celsius in the European countries (known for their cold weather) and 6 degree Celsius above the average of 1981-2010 in the belt from Norway to Russia. In India, monsoons arrive untimely sometimes early, and sometimes late from their normal schedule. This erratic nature of monsoons is increasingly being attributed to climate change and has caused several floods and droughts in the country, especially over the last two decades.
Under climate change, in 2019, the monsoons arrived in India one week later than the normal date. They continued to rain for 39 days more than the stipulated period, which was about 10 percent more than the average of 1961-2010. Rainfall in the North-Eastern states of the country has been below average in recent years. These states were once wettest places in the world.
Valuing Water in 2021 comes at a juncture where the massive scientific advancements and economic growth rates worldwide are being met with complacency when it comes to treating water. Unfortunately, people need to be reminded of the invaluable nature of water – which is essential for the sustenance of all forms of life on Earth. Water is the second most important abiotic component after air for all living beings on the earth.
India has a long tradition of worshipping and revering water and other natural resources. Even the religious books also use venerated words for natural resources such as ‘Pawan Devta, Jal Devta, Dharti Mata.’ The importance of natural resources was acknowledged since these resources can be saved and not created. These must be reinvigorated as they would enable the current and next generations to learn from our forefathers’ rich heritage, who have guided us to lead a healthy life by conserving natural resources wisely.
Guru Nanak had given these natural resources the status of Guru, Father, Mother in the 15th century, ‘Pawan Guru Pani Pita Mata Dhart Mahat.’ Explaining the importance of water in Gurbani, it is written that ‘Pehla Pani Jio Hai Jit Harya Sab Koi’ means that water is a life-giving natural resource with which life runs. The life of all living organisms (plants, animals) depends on it.
Alas! Most of the world’s countries, including India, are in a blind race for economic growth and have forgotten to conserve these natural resources. Each year during the summer months, many Indian cities experience severe water shortages. In 2019, Chennai was hit hard by a water shortage.
Looming Dooms Day?
In 2018, NITI Aayog had also forecasted that 21 cities of India would run out of groundwater in 2020. As a result, they will be dependent on sources of other places for drinking water. By 2030, 40 percent of the Indian population will not have access to drinking water. About two lakh people every year or 548 every day die due to inadequate access to safe water.
Doctors have repeatedly advised people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, but what about those who do not have access to clean drinking water? What water should they use to wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, remains a valid concern.
The rapidly growing urban population uses more water for domestic needs and industries than the rural population. Forests play an important role in recharging groundwater and absorbing rainwater in their roots as well as maintaining the flow of rivers, lakes, waterfalls and springs. In the name of economic growth, dense forests are being rapidly decimated, the latest examples are Char Dham Marg (Uttarakhand), Shimla-Parwanoo four-lane road (Himachal Pradesh). In mountainous areas, waterfalls and springs are rapidly disappearing due to excessive deforestation.
Every country and every region should have at least 33 percent area under forest cover. According to the Indian State of Forest Report of 2019, the forest cover in the country was 21.54 percent in 2017 which increased to 21.67 percent in 2019. This nominal increase (0.13 percent) in forest cover is also misleading, as out of the total increase 82 percent area was under food crops and 4.4 percent under commercial crops like tea, coffee, and coconut.
Deforestation increases the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, leading to a rapid rise in temperature. Rising temperatures and extreme summer days cause rapid melting of snow from the mountains, causing floods on the one hand and droughts on the other. Drought-affected areas face water scarcity. The cropping patterns adopted to meet the food shortage are also responsible for the declining groundwater level.
The 2018 ‘NITI Aayog’ report has highlighted a very disturbing fact that 70 percent of the country’s freshwater resources have been polluted. The UN has ranked India at 120th amongst 122 countries in the Water Quality Index. The report also revealed that more than 60 percent of the country’s sewage and industrial waste is discharged into rivers and streams without treatment, which is increasingly polluting the country’s river water.
The Ganges and Yamuna, the holiest rivers in the country, carry polluted sewage-infused water to over a hundred cities every day. Although the Union Government has spent crores of rupees on the cleaning of the Ganges, so far there has been no difference in the quality of potable water. The cleansing of the Yamuna river is the first and the foremost necessity for the cleaning of the Ganges river because the Yamuna river is the main tributary of the Ganges river.
The tragedy of the Yamuna river is that it passes through the country’s capital ‘Delhi’ from where all the drains of the city discharge sewage into it. Its course in Delhi is only 21 kilometers, which contributes 2 percent of the total length of the Yamuna river. Delhi’s wastewater has turned the Yamuna river into a sewer, thereby polluting the Ganges river too. When the river Yamuna enters New Delhi from Wazirabad, it is full of clear water. That is why this water is supplied to one-third of the population of Delhi from Wazirabad.
The clean water of the rivers is further compromised by constructing innumerable dams on the rivers to meet the needs of irrigation, electricity, and drinking water in which much of the river water is stored. As a result, the river appears to flow through the plains without water or with very little water. It affects the groundwater of riverside villages and towns, causing them to suffer droughts in the summer and floods during the rainy season. To protect these areas from droughts and floods, at least 20 percent of water should be released in rivers on normal days and 30 percent on rainy days.
Along with rivers, the area under lakes, ponds, and wetlands is also declining. The city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu faced a severe water shortage in 2019 due to unplanned development and encroachment of water bodies. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two rivers, one canal, and 60 large lakes/ponds in the city, of which only 26 lakes/ponds remain. An airport has been built on a riverbed and a mass transit has been set up over most of the 6,000 hectares of wetlands. In addition, around 71 percent of Mumbai’s wetlands were depleted between 1970 and 2014. In Srinagar, 88 percent of the Wular Lake and 50 percent of Dal Lake areas have declined in the last one century.
The importance of ‘valuing water’ should not just for the common population, but for the Union, State and Local governments to educate themselves to make appropriate policy implementation for water resources existing in the country. Cities should not be allowed to discharge their sewage and industrial waste in the rivers.
Although in 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court passed a landmark decision recognizing the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers as living entities, whether it has been implemented needs to be seriously considered. The Union Government should not only prohibit the dumping of any kind of waste in any water body but also impose penalties and fines.
The wastewater discharged into the rivers from big and small cities must be immediately stopped. By doing so, the water of rivers and lakes can be used for drinking. With the purification of river water, the groundwater level in the areas around the rivers will be purified and the water table will also increase. Construction on areas of lakes, ponds, and rivers must be prohibited by law. Cropping patterns should also be decided to keep in view the agro-climatic conditions of different areas of the country.
Efforts should be made at national, state, and local levels. The local administration should make major arrangements for harvesting rainwater so that the daily water needs of the local population can be easily met by recharging the groundwater. Valuing water is not the responsibility of governments alone, it is also a matter of responsibility of every individual living in the country. Efforts should also be made at an international level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the onslaught of natural disasters caused by climate change and to overcome problems such as droughts and water shortages.
About the Author
Prof Gurinder Kaur is a Professor at the Department of Geography at Punjabi University, Patiala. She is also Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.