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Environmentalists should focus on water and not just emissions

'Flood and famine', said the National Planning Committee on India's independence, 'are two aspects of one problem, development of water resources of the country.' In the 75 years that passed since then, India made a remarkable breakthrough. Floods and droughts still happened because the tropical monsoon climate made them inevitable but deaths and diseases from these disasters, which took a huge toll in the 19th century, were greatly reduced. However, the tools used in that struggle, like big dams and drilling underground, have had adverse effects. The future of water security depends on how these effects are managed.
It's a story that has been unfolding for a hundred years. Many parts of pre-colonial India had hardly any water. So, the cultivation season was short, followed by a long period of unemployment. Variations in the volume and timing of the monsoon, the only security against excessive heat, meant a high risk of floods and droughts. These conditions did not affect all regions equally. The seaboard was usually less susceptible to these risks. The Ganga (and Indus) basin received water from Himalayan snowmelt and was more secure while other regions were more vulnerable.
Back then, people adapted to these water-scarce conditions. Common strategies were herding animals (because pastures survived droughts better than cultivable land), seasonal migration, and local water storage. As far as we can measure, average death rates were still high, suggesting that these options worked well during milder crises but failed during severe ones.
From precisely a hundred years ago, the survival rate against severe droughts and floods started to rise steadily. Large canal projects appeared in Punjab in the colonial era, and the famine-policy focus shifted from food to water. But the great transformation was not just due to a new engineering capability or state policy. Case laws, social protest movements striving for equality of access to water, and urban water systems enabled more equitable distribution of water. Independent India maintained that trajectory by extending the water infrastructure man times over. Over 2,000 dams and reservoirs were built to contain floods and increase storage.
That achievement came with a price. Dams and reservoirs displaced people and altered geographies in strange and sinister ways. In the last 30 years, drilling took over as the dam drive flagged because of these costs. Late waves of the green revolution and the post-liberalization city growth stood upon groundwater extraction. It is now amply clear that the continued exploitation of groundwater drive has made the exhaustion of a precious resource likely.
Will climate change add to the stress? A data tool devised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and its collaborators shows that much of South Asia can be classified as low capacity (to withstand climate variability) with significant degradation of bio-resources. However, predictions about the hydrological impact of a rise in global temperature are not definitive. The monsoons are predicted to get rainier and stormier, and summers drier. These predictions suggest sharper seasonal variations but not necessarily greater scarcity or greater abundance of water.
The changes could still be big. For example, crop choices could change. Rice cultivation using monsoon rainfall could get more difficult. Rice, a water-intensive crop, has had a disastrous impact on groundwater levels in the recent past. Overall, the dependence on underground water is likely to increase because evaporation of surface water will rise. The available models do not show just how the recharge capacity of aquifers will change.
History tells us that the looming water crisis in India is a point in a 100-year-long trajectory. It looks unlikely that the pathway can be reversed or slowed. Private wealth, regional politics, and a sense of distributional fairness sustain pressure to extract water at current levels. Reducing consumption, the path green activists advocate with fossil fuels, is not an option with water in this tropical monsoon land.
Sustainability depends on litigating the costs instead. The unfolding water future in India is likely to be a contest between water extraction and a battery of tools to contain the pressure. Watershed management and cooperation are helpful on a small scale. Legal reform to classify groundwater as a public trust requires enforcement. Conservation technologies like drips work well in some contexts better than others. And dams need to be of a sustainable scale.
Global environmental movements, obsessed with emissions and fossil fuels, are not much help in the mission to achieve sustainable water use. And yet, water, and not emission, is the heart of sustainability in the tropical monsoon regions.


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