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To conserve water, start with land
Bharat Dogra

The current water shortage in a significant part of India should prompt us to consider where we have gone wrong and what needs to be done to ensure that there is no scarcity of this most basic of all needs.

Water planning for a cluster of villages and hamlets included in a watershed should be based on establishing a harmony between availability and present needs, on the one hand, and future needs, on the other hand.

In the case of present use, the first priority is drinking water for human beings as well as all other forms of life, including farm/domestic animals as well as wildlife. The second, is other domestic uses. The third, agriculture. The fourth, industrial and recreational use.

The practical manifestation of such prioritisation is that if an industrial project comes up which has substantial water requirements, then the first question that will be asked is do we have enough for the first three priorities? If the answer is no, then the industrial project should not be allowed to come up in that area. On the other hand, if spare water is available for industrial use, then its limits should be clearly laid down in such a way that the priority uses are not affected.

Coming to the third category of agricultural use, a question that needs to be raised is whether the existing cropping pattern is in keeping with local water availability. In recent decades, in many rural areas the traditional cropping patterns have been rapidly changed to respond to the market.

Unfortunately, what is profitable in the short-run quite often is not sustainable in the long run. If a cropping pattern is adopted in which water requirements are much above the water availability of the area, then the watertable can decline drastically to such an extent that higher cash returns for a few decades could lead to a long-term survival crisis.

However, big landowners and rich farmers are likely to insist that they cannot be prevented from adopting those crops which give them the maximum cash gains immediately. Similarly, industrialists are likely to use their high-level influence to ensure that their project is not shelved on the basis of water considerations alone. Therefore, ultimately, it is a matter of having the necessary political will to ensure rational water use.

Scarcity is created not just by overexploitation but also by the pollution of water. While industrial wastes have generally been regarded as poisonous, chemical pesticides are also emerging as an increasingly important cause of such pollution. Urban authorities frequently fail to meet the basic norms of treating sewage properly before dumping it into rivers. Here again, the question of political will looms large.

On the supply side, first we should take good care of the tanks and traditional wells that already exist. In many places as soon as handpumps and tubewells become available, the tanks and traditional wells are neglected. The additional possibilities of conserving more water by constructing more check dams, check-wells, tanks and various traditional water conservation structure suited to local condition should also be included as a top priority in development programmes.

Above all, there should be efforts to create as much greenery as possible in or around a village. The forests which are fast dwindling can be regenerated by providing them protection from all forms of exploitation including grazing for some time. Special emphasis can be given to planting water and soil conserving trees and grasses in and around water sources.

Such a programme cannot be imposed from above. It must have the voluntary involvement of the village community. But such involvement demands that people must have the assurance that they will benefit directly from such measures. But how can they benefit from irrigation when they don't have any land, as is the case generally speaking?

Therefore, issues like water conservation and irrigation are also linked with the basic issue of equality. This aspect is generally ignored even as NGOs and the government enjoy flaunting a few success stories. Go deeper into some of these stories and you will discover how millions of rupees have been poured in a small area to create a success story. So give land and water to the poor, implement genuine land reform and see how the face of distress in the hinterland gets transformed.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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