Relearning the role of water in our cities

Rain is the modern-day tragedy in our cities: we desperately wait for the monsoons and when it rains, we weep because roads are flooded, life is disrupted. Mumbai, just a few months ago, was so thirsty for the monsoons that it was close to rationing its water supply. But then the rains came. The city did not rejoice. Instead, it went under water, all mixed with sewage and garbage, drowned in bad health. This scene is not very different in Delhi or any other city you can think of.

But the real tragedy is that in a few months, after the rains, our cities will be thirsting again. But then, rain is not part of our plan.

We believe we are all-powerful. Water greed will make us draw water from surrounding areas. Today, our cities get their water supply from further and further away – Delhi gets Ganga water from the Tehri dam, Bangalore is building the Cauvery IV project, pumping water 100km to the city, Chennai water will traverse 200km from the Krishna, Hyderabad from Manjira and so on. The point is that the urban industrial sector’s demand for water is growing by leaps and bounds. But this sector does little to augment its water resources, it does even less to conserve and minimize its use. Worse, because of the abysmal lack of sewage and waste treatment facilities, it degrades scarce water even further. But even after all this, its water greed is not met. Groundwater levels are declining precipitously in urban areas as people bore deeper in search of the water that municipalities cannot supply.

So, when it does not rain it cries and when it does rain, it cries. The cycle of water deprivation continues and we have done nothing to change our tomorrow.

This when we can do so much more. The water imperative is that cities must begin to value their rainfall endowment. This means implementing rainwater harvesting in each house and colony. But it also means relearning about the hundreds of tanks and ponds that nourished the city. Almost every city had a treasure of tanks, which provided it the important flood cushion and allowed it to recharge its groundwater reserves. But urban planners cannot see beyond land. So, land for water, has never been valued or protected. Today, these water bodies are a shame — encroached, full of sewage, garbage or just filled up and built over. The city forgot it needed water. It forgot its own lifeline.

Lakes are the vital sponges of the city. Every city gave its land for rain. Bangalore, at the beginning of the 1960s, had 262 lakes, now only 10 hold water. The Ahmedabad collector — on directions from the high court — listed 137 lakes in the city but also said that over 65 had been built over already. In Delhi, 508 water bodies were identified — again on court orders — but are not protected.

But to rethink the role of rain in our city, will require new learning in society. Just consider: builders and architects have simply never been taught how to hold water. They have been trained to see water as waste and to build systems to dispose of it as quickly as possible. German cities are learning from our experience. To save investment in building stormwater drains, the city charges a tax based on how much rainwater has been harvested by the household.

But this even this will not be enough. Each of our cities will have to learn the real value of rainwater: we will have to minimize water use and work on conservation and reuse. We will have to take our sewage and treat it so that we can recycle it — either for recharge or to make it fit for drinking.

Otherwise we will be the ultimate lost generation, which has forgotten the art of living with water. Our tragedy and our water crisis.

SUNITA NARAIN –  (The author is director of Centre for Science and Environment) – TOI

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: