Catch the rain: Another feel good plan

Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

DAINIK JAGRAN | March 22, 2021

India’s water management has been on an unsustainable path for decades. This has ensured that not enough water of appropriate qualities is available not only for basic human needs like drinking, cooking and proper personal hygiene but also for industrial, commercial, agricultural and environmental purposes. There is not a single Indian urban centre where its inhabitants can safely drink directly water provided by public utilities.

When India became independent in 1947, its population was 361 million. By 2020, it had increased to 1.38 billion. It is estimated that by 2050, it would be 1.64 billion. Its population has steadily increased, as has its economic activities and extent of urbanisation. All human activities need water. As population, urbanisation and economic activities have increased, so has India’s water requirements. Furthermore, lack of actions on wastewater management has ensured water quality has steadily declined. Accordingly, with consistent poor water management, India is facing a water crisis which no other earlier generation has ever faced.

India’s preoccupation with water quantity and total neglect of water quality means less than 10% of India’s domestic and industrial wastewater is collected, properly treated and then reused or discharged in a safe manner to the environment. Consequently, all surface and groundwater bodies near and within urban areas are now heavily contaminated with known and unknown pollutants.

Countries like Singapore are currently monitoring regularly 352 water quality parameters to ensure water is safe to drink. Unfortunately, very few Indian water utilities monitor even 25 water quality parameters regularly. Another developing country, China, now monitors 112 water quality parameters. In spite of current rhetoric of Ganga clean-up, sadly, data for even 25 water quality parameters in its different stretches are not available. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean-up India’s rivers, but they are more polluted than ever. On groundwater, information on their qualities is significantly worse than surface water.

Within this overall context, let us examine the likely effectiveness of the National Water Mission’s latest campaign “Catch the rain, where it falls and when it falls.”

Consider following facts. Rain falls in monsoon seasons. During dry seasons, no rain occurs. Accordingly, there could be no harvesting during dry periods. Even during monsoon season, rainfall is not uniform. Take Delhi. It has about 40 rainy days in a year. It receives nearly all its annual rainfall in less than 80 hours, not consecutive. That means enormous quantities of rain falls during a very short period which means its collection and storage are technical difficult tasks.

Cherrapunji‎, one of the rainiest cities of the world, receives annual rainfall of 10,820 mm between June and August. Much of this rainfall occurs in 120 hours. This immense rainfall cannot be caught and stored. This is why this rainiest Indian city has serious water problems during dry months.

The problem rainwater harvesting faces is how to store intense seasonal rainfalls which occur within 70-120 hours so that it can be used in dry seasons.

There are two additional serious problems with rainwater harvesting which “Catch the rain” basically ignores. First, the poor are seldom its direct beneficiaries. In urban areas, poor households do not have roofs or land from where they can collect rainwater. In rural areas, their landholdings, are so little that they are unable to collect and store water which could last for rest of the year. Rainwater harvesting, without other complementary measures, can make rich-poor divide in water even wider.

District Collectors, heads of IIMs, IITs, universities, railways, airport authorities, PSUs, etc., who have “large tracts of lands” are asked to “catch the rain.” Sadly, they are unlikely to have budget and expertise to take on these extra duties. They are already over-extended with numerous tasks. Without additional budget and expertise, these activities will find very few takers.

Basic aim of “Catch the Rain” is unrealistic. It notes “No or only limited water” should “flow out of the compound.” This is simply not feasible to implement during heavy monsoon rains.

If India is to ensure water security for domestic, industrial and agricultural needs, both in terms of quantity and quality, National Water Mission should consider rainwater management in its totality, and not only rainwater harvesting. Rainwater management requires catching much of rainfall during monsoon seasons by all means, including large, medium, and check dams, and increasing groundwater recharge. A coordinated plan is essential to ensure water is available during dry months of the year and also during prolonged droughts over several years. With climate change making prolonged droughts more likely in the future, India should consider more water storages which could provide water over 3-6 years of drought.

This will require different methods of capturing and storing rainwater under different climatic, institutional, social and economic conditions of the country should be assessed so that different states know what combinations are most appropriate for their specific conditions.

It seems India is following China’s footsteps by opening “rain centers” in each district. China has been using similar concepts of raingardens, sponge cities and river chiefs over 20 years. It is essential to conduct serious assessments of opportunities and challenges of these practices, and then modify them significantly to suit India’s unique social, economic and institutional conditions. These rain centres, without any budgets and expertise, are is unlikely to work.

In 1987, India’s Ministry of Water Resources prepared the first National Water Policy. Since then, it has been reformulated twice and fourth one is now under formulation. During these 34 years, none of the three versions of this Policy had any impact on country’s water management practices. They are at best “feel good” documents, divorced from country’s real problems and their solutions.

“Catch the Rain” is another feel good document which is not going to make lives of millions of Indians better in terms of water security. At best it is a “wish list.”

Op-ed in Hindi

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow, UK. Cecilia Tortajada is Professor at School of Interdisciplinary Studies, at the same University.