World Water Day Highlights A Water Crisis and Poor Forest Management in India

by March 23, 2018 0 comments

On 22 March 2018, World Water Day highlights how India is gazing at an excavating water crisis along with a few steps taken to improve a miserable situation. The country should consider it as a wakeup call to get its forest priorities and water rights.

The World Water Day is a day after the celebration of World Forest Day. This year, the theme was ‘Nature for Water’. Water is the fundamental resource of survival for every living being. India, being a tropical country, is mostly dependent on monsoon rains for its water replenishments. Water is limited in quantity is tangible in nature and unequally distributed throughout the world. Only 2.5 percent of 1,386 million cubic kilometres of water available on earth is freshwater and one-third of this smaller quantity is available for human uses.

India has world’s 16 per cent of the population with only four per cent of water resources. In the next few years, the demand for water in urban areas is going to increase by at least 50 per cent. According to 2010 estimates, India is marginally just above (1,170 cubic metre per person per year) the criteria of 1,000 cubic metre per person per year for designating a country as water stressed. The country receives an annual precipitation (including snowfall) of about 4,000 cubic kilometres. Out of this, monsoon rainfall is of the order of 3,000 cubic kilometres. Indian rainfall relies on the south-west and north-east monsoons, on shallow cyclonic depressions and disturbances and on local storms.

The International Water Day beckons us to assess the sustainability of the country’s water resources. Indian agriculture is dependent (70 per cent) on groundwater and so is the case with drinking water security in urban and rural areas. Nearly 90 percent of rural domestic water use is based on groundwater while 70 per cent of water used in agriculture is pumped from aquifers.

According to a 2015 report of Central Ground Water Board, a serious groundwater crisis prevails in India due to excessive over-extraction and groundwater contamination, covering nearly 60 percent of all districts  and posing a risk to drinking water security. In addition to over-extraction and biological and chemical contamination, excess groundwater and water logging is also a serious problem in many regions, impacting livelihood security of a large section of the society.

The water sector in India is beset with problem and inter-sectoral conflicts, over use and control. The presence of sub-sectors, coupled with the priorities of different key stakeholders, has resulted in competing interests. Demand for water is somehow managed against a backdrop of population pressure, industrial growth and agricultural needs in a scenario of water scarcity, climate change and inequitable distribution of drinking water.

The looming water crisis and the modern day’s poor water management has been aptly described long back in the wise words of Aristotle: “What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than what they possess in common with others.” The food security of the country is going to be severely affected because of water exploitation in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and now in Madhya Pradesh.

Food production (due to over-exploitation of groundwater) will come to standstill in Punjab in the next 20 years and even before. When this writer was in the National Rainfed Area Authority in 2009, the authority, in a presentation before the Cabinet Secretary, had proposed shifting of rice production from Punjab to eastern India. Though an initiative was undertaken in this direction, the results are insignificant. The situation is compounded by climatic vagaries and diversion of good agriculture land for real estates and other uses.

Forest resources of the country play a vital role in maintaining the rain-fed rivers and their hydrology as catchments of more than 460 rivers and their rivulets are maintained by standing forests. The India State of  Forest Report 2017, released last month shows satisfactory trend as forest cover has increased by 6,778 sq km and tree cover by 1,243 sq km compared to the 2015 report. The report also says that very dense forests have also increased marginally and so water bodies too have shown an increase (2,647 sq km).

Forest stability rather than net area figures, however, is essential for maintaining hydrology as most water available in rivers, ponds and aquifers depend upon stable hydrological cycle. A deeper analysis of Indian forest types gives a different picture of the health of India’s forests. The task force headed by this writer had clearly shown that most of the Himalayan forests are turning xeric and have a very disturbed hydrology, which is also resulting in vegetation changes and disturbing the essential bio-diversity of these forests and downstream agriculture.

Except for evergreen forests of Andaman and Kerala, most of the forests are in the grip of forest drought. Further, yet another factor of concern is an increase in degraded forests of less than 40 per cent density. In 1985, only 24 million hectare were in this category, which increased to 30 million hectare in 2017 assessment. This  indicates that all is not well with our forests and in the national interest collaborative and converged inter-sectoral steps should be taken.

The Government had established Green India Mission in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change but unless it is backed up with solid funding, professional inputs and good research infrastructure, the objective of the mission would be difficult to achieve.  The former Planning Commission mandarins are responsible for poor appreciation of the role of forestry in India and considering that natural forests need maintenance, they never got the desired outlays in most of the States as well as the Government of India. The Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds had remained in a state of limbo on account of trivial issues. On the occasion of this day, this writer would like to request Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari to initiate the measure for water conservation  in tandem with forestry set up and declare that the foremost objective of forest management should be to ensure water availability in the country.

It has been stated that the present Director-General of Forests had made a presentation before the Niti Aayog for ensuring a landscape approach in catchment treatment plan. Funds for this must be sanctioned and necessary professional inputs pooled together to ward off the threat of water scarcity. To begin with, afforestation programmes must spend at least 50 per cent in creating water bodies and trenches in forest areas, private and common lands.

(The writer is former Director-General, Indian Council of Forestry Research Chancellor, FRI University and Principal Secretary to Government of Tripura)

Writer: V K Bahuguna

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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