Q&A: 'Waterman' Rajendra Singh loses hope as India runs out of groundwater

India’s monsoon rains are crucial for its crops and help replenish groundwater for people to access drinking water. The amount of rainfall this year has been in line with what the India Meteorological Department expected, but many regions are still battling drought conditions - especially southern India.

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Experts blame the country’s groundwater crisis on changing soil and weather patterns caused by humans - be it rapid urbanization, man-made carbon emissions or overgrazing. The water level is estimated to have fallen as steeply as 65 percent over the past decade.

Water activist Rajendra Singh, who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2001 and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015, has been promoting community-led conservation efforts in rural Indian areas where water is scarce.

Singh, popularly known as the “waterman” of India, spoke to Reuters about how lack of awareness, government apathy and corruption are making matters worse.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: Will this year’s monsoon rains ease the drought some parts of India are experiencing and help replenish groundwater?

A: No, we are not getting good monsoon rains. It’s non-uniformly divided, and big areas in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and even some parts of Puducherry are facing an acute water crisis. People are forced to migrate in search of water. All southern India is facing drought. And in the north, some parts of Bundelkhand are facing a water crisis. Even Maharashtra (Vidarbha and Marathwada) - the drought conditions are terrible. So it won’t be correct to say we are getting good rains this year and that it will take care of the water crisis.Q: Even in the areas getting good rains, isn’t the groundwater only enough for a few months?

A: Currently in India, as much as 72 percent underground water aquifer is overdraft. And 54 percent of the country is literally “stressed”, which means the areas are facing severe drought - the discharge (of water) is more than the recharge.Q: Why is this happening?

A: See, the A-class water of the country, which is supposed to be used for drinking, is used for C-class (agricultural and other) purposes. I give you an example; we can grow sugarcane with C-class water. C-class water is the wastewater from urban centres that can be treated and used for sugarcane farming. That way, we will be able to deal with the issue of water pollution also. Under no circumstances we shall be using groundwater for farming or industrial purposes.Q: We have government-administered canals that are supposed to take care of irrigation needs, but in many of them, there’s hardly any water. Where has that water gone?A: In Uttar Pradesh, the condition is better - the canals will have some water once in a blue moon. In other Indian states, we have seen canals that were made as long ago as 40 years, but the water never reaches the tail end.Q: Which states?

A: Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Rajasthan - to name a few. The situation is more or less same in most of the states. If I say very liberally, one-third of the canals in India don’t have water flow. A lot of money was spent in India on canal irrigation but we could never keep an account of the water flow. This is why we are using groundwater for irrigation - and it’s a sin.Q: There’s a ban on use of powerful water pumps in water-stressed areas. Do you think these orders are implemented?A: There’s no implementation or vigil. Anyone who can pay money to the inspecting officers can get away with those pumps - be it individuals or industrialists. I don’t have any individual bias when I say this. I say what I have seen all these years. But the poor farmer, who doesn’t have money, has got no access to water. They either rely on tankers, or they have to buy water that they cannot afford.

Q: So is there no hope?

A: Honestly, I have lost all hope. I am tired of saying things on this issue. I don’t even know why I am talking to you. You will write about this, but do you think people will follow the message that you convey from your article? Nobody is reading the people who are writing, and unfortunately those who are reading, they are not doing anything.Q: Even if it rains well in some areas, the water never proves to be enough to meet needs. Why is this?A: Due to climate change, the pattern of rainfall has changed. Now we don’t have uniform rains, we now have erratic rains that are untimely most of the time. And the saddest part is – the last man in the queue has not been able to understand this change and make alternative arrangements. Due to excessive use of chemical fertilizers, the character of the soil has changed. Its porosity has been altered and it is no more able to hold water. The absorption and retention capacity has suffered. It flows with the rainwater, causing floods and droughts simultaneously.

Q: But people still think there’s enough water under the ground and it will never end.

A: That’s the problem. People still don’t realize, even after suffering so much. People in north India always thought the water would never end. Now they have started to realize it’s like a bank account - you can withdraw only as much as you deposit.Q: You specifically mentioned north India. Would you say things are better down south?A: People in south India are comparatively more aware. That’s because of the geography and terrain. They have always faced difficulty in accessing water because they don’t have glacial rivers at their disposal and the surface is mostly rocky, perennially making it difficult for the soil to hold water.Q: But in the past few years, various state governments made it mandatory for new houses to have a rainwater harvesting setup. Is that not working?A: It’s all a sham. Initially, this rule was obligatory, but due to pressure from activists, the rule was made mandatory. But even then, you can pay some money to the engineer and he will approve the plans of your house. There’s no serious vigil and implementation. In some places, people will just put in a few pipes in their houses and the water harvesting is done.

Q: You must have travelled to many places working on water conservation. Which states are the worst affected with groundwater recession?A: Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are the worst affected. You will be surprised to know that Baghpat district in western Uttar Pradesh is situated between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. It’s geographically called the “Doab” region and is supposed to be water-rich. “Doabs” are the biggest aquifers. At this moment, Baghpat is completely overdraft and called the “dark zone”. The condition in Rajasthan, however, has improved to some extent. In the areas we worked - 10,600 square kilometres - the water recharge ratio increased.Q: It’s been quite some time since we have heard about this idea of river-linking. It’s been touted as one of the solutions to India’s water crisis. What’s your opinion?A: It’s not a feasible project at all. If implemented, it will only divide the country. People who are already fighting for water will fight even more. People living in upper and lower (riparian) areas will fight for ownership. If you recall the dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, it was very minor, just about a dam, this linking of rivers will make the multinationals the sole proprietors.Q: But won’t this interlinking bring about uniformity in water distribution?A: Not at all, it will cause even more floods. Let me explain this to you. Hirakud was the first dam made in India. In the mandate, it was written that it will stop flooding in the Cuttack delta and it will provide water to 500,000 acres of land. As of now, only 100,000 acres of land get irrigated from the Hirakud dam and the Cuttack delta is flooded every year. When this dam was not built, then the flowing water could irrigate 500,000 acres of land. The dam was of no help.Q: Why can’t river-linking be successful?A: Governments don’t do catchment treatment. This leads to accumulation of silt in the dam and causes more flooding. The difference between the river beds in our country is as much as 700 metres. Not all the rivers are flowing at the same level. Can you imagine a river flowing at a lower level being lifted just to connect it with a river flowing at a higher level? So much money will be wasted.