Drought in India: Conserving forests, effective use of floodplains can quell water shortage, says Prof Vikram Soni

India is facing the worst drought it has seen in the last 150 years, affecting the lives of millions of people across the subcontinent.

Rashme Sehgal May 16, 2017 15:31:50 IST
Drought in India: Conserving forests, effective use of floodplains can quell water shortage, says Prof Vikram Soni

India is facing the worst drought it has seen in the last 150 years, affecting the lives of millions of people across the subcontinent. Vikram Soni, professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia, came into prominence with his efforts to save the Delhi Ridge.

An unconventional physicist, he has also been working on non-invasive solutions to curb water shortage for the last three decades. A lot of his work is focussed on rivers and their floodplains, particularly on 'conserve and use' solutions that can provide a perennial and sustainable source of water for river bank cities.

Drought in India Conserving forests effective use of floodplains can quell water shortage says Prof Vikram Soni

Representational image. AFP

In an interview with Firstpost, Soni discusses the drought, the problems going forward and various schemes to mitigate the water crisis. Here are excerpts from the interview:

India is facing an unprecedented drought – hundreds of farmers are committing suicide and large numbers of animals are dying. What immediate steps should the Centre and state governments take to tackle this situation?

Out of all the water on the planet, only about two percent is fresh water. A large portion of this water worldwide is already contaminated by chemicals, industrial effluents, sewage, and fertilisers. We have overexploited groundwater, rivers and lakes. Only fresh water can be used for human consumption and agriculture. But this water is not just for human beings. We forget that there are others – plants, birds, animals.

In the last few decades, nearly 50 percent of the wild species on land, rivers and in the oceans are now endangered. We are losing forests which hold fresh water at an alarming rate. This is bad news. There are too many of us and limited natural resources. Yet, we use our waters in a profligate way. We must conserve our natural water resources and only use what is replenished by nature.

We need to take the following steps to ensure that we conserve our freshwater supplies:

- All natural resources and sources of water – mountains, lakes, rivers, floodplains, forests, hills must be declared as inviolate. A huge penalty should be charged for destruction of these resources.

- At the same time, there is a need to augment water. This can be done by planting more forests – move it towards the norm, which is 33 percent. All rivers and their floodplains, streams and lakes, must be forested along their boundaries for at least half a kilometre on all sides and declared as water sanctuaries.

- Water consumption – whether in cities, industries or for agriculture – must be strictly regulated. We need to move to a more sustainable way of living.

Water is getting scarcer by the year. Delhi is also in the throes of a water crisis affecting several parts of the city. Do you think that we are doing enough to control the issue?

Yes, water is getting scarcer. This point has been stressed by Planning Commission ex-member, Mihir Shah, who maintains that we will have only half the water that we require by 2030. Imagine what that would be like. I believe our agricultural map needs to be redrawn so that half the country that is water short adopts more efficient water practices like drip irrigation and changes to less water intensive crops.

Already, 80 percent of our water is being utilised by agriculture and we are industrialising in a big way. By contrast, in the USA, 60 percent water is used by industry, particularly the energy industry, and only 30 percent by agriculture. But here is the dilemma.

Cities like Delhi – which house a 20 million population are simply unsustainable. Delhi is a parasite city and gets its water from other river basins located as far as 300 kilometres away. We cannot expand in an irrational way. The city needs to respect the carrying capacity principle and become more self-sustaining and local.

Finally, people need to be incentivised to move to other cities, decongest Delhi and only then we may find an answer to Delhi’s congestion, water and pollution problems.

How is your project to extract water from the floodplains of River Yamuna going?

The Yamuna project is doing well for the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). Last year, the project contributed 25 MGD (million gallons daily) to Delhi’s water supply – no surprise that for the first time they earned a profit of Rs 250 crore.

The project is supposed to deliver 50 MGD but cannot, as the pipeline is in disrepair and can only handle 25 MGD. However, the DJB has taken no interest in taking the project to completion but only picked up the profit. Though the government continues to advertise the project in leading newspapers and on their websites as a feather in their cap.

I have been an honorary advisor to the DJB and was meant to supervise the project but I am disappointed by the way they function. Since July 2016, the project has again got stalled. This project started in 2009 from the prime minister’s secretariat. I have spent seven years and thousands of hours of free voluntary work to see this project to completion and feel very strongly about bringing this to a satisfactory conclusion.

A large amount of public money, Rs 13 crore, was spent on the SCADA system which monitors and regulates all hydrological parameters of the floodplain water. It has not been working. It was not understood by the DJB engineers, nor did they have any inclination to do so. Even the company contracted to install and control the SCADA system, was not able to operate it satisfactorily till we intervened on our own accord last month.

The Delhi government needs to wake up now and expedite this project. It is a pioneering project and can provide water to hundreds of river cities.

You had demonstrated that the Yamuna flood plains in Delhi could provide 200-250 million cubic meters) of water per year. This could have gone a long way in mitigating the water situation in the capital. Why is it not being effectively implemented?

This quantum of water could be sourced from the entire Yamuna floodplain. In Delhi, which runs from Palla to Wazirabad to Okhla (48 kilometres), we can only use the section from the north of Wazirabad till Palla as the rest has been built upon.

For this section, we had estimated this project would have a sustainable yield of 50-60 MGD, which would provide water for over two million people in the city. The floodplains are an exceptional aquifer­ –wide and deep.

They store a huge amount of water – about 40 percent of their volume; they carry about 20 times more water than the rivers themselves. Ecologically, we have to observe the sacred rule — that we can only withdraw as much water as is recharged, by floods and monsoon.

Are there other challenges?

Till we finished our research, there were no scientific studies on the water potential of the floodplain. The floodplains have to be used with great caution so that they are not over-exploited. They are the only uncontaminated, unused source of fresh water left, but a lot of them are likely to be lost forever.

How does this happen? Noida has over exploited the floodplains for housing coupled with sand mining – this has allowed the inflow of the polluted waters from the Hindon river and Yamuna, terminally contaminating the floodplain. Our study of Tamil Nadu shows that the floodplains of many rivers are overexploited and polluted from intensive agriculture and industries.

Another looming challenge is one that we ran into just two weeks ago. We were shocked to discover that farmers are over drafting the water from the floodplains for multiple cropping in Palla in Delhi. They are cultivating paddy and flowers, both of which are extremely water intensive, in the month of May.

Unregulated agriculture and over-drafting of water from the floodplain would reduce the water level in the aquifer. If this falls below the level of water in the river, the pollution from the river can seep in and completely destroy the floodplain forever.

This is a new phenomenon we have observed. Neither the water resources ministry nor the Water Commission nor the governments are even aware of it. They need to act immediately. This will be the last straw because this is the only source of unpolluted water left in India.

How much does this scheme cost to operate on an annual basis? In what quarters has there been resistance to put this into action?

The capital cost for setting up a project which would yield 100 MCM a year is not so much – about a 100 crores – as compared to the huge profits – Rs 500 crore a year – generated by this scheme. The cost of operation and maintenance every year is usually less than 10 percent of the project cost. We expect the running cost to be under five crore a year.

However, government machinery and government water bureaucracy is very orthodox and very reticent to work on new schemes even though they are hugely beneficial and ecologically non-invasive.

These evolutionary resources if ‘conserved and used’ can sustainably provide huge, perennial economic and health benefits for the citizens. Unfortunately, for short term profit, like real estate, our living natural resources are being irreversibly lost.

We have seen most of the Yamuna floodplains being constructed over in Delhi and the definitions of the floodplains being changed overnight. Most of the Delhi Ridge was sold off by the DDA to land sharks and given away protected land to the institutions. Seeing how things are, the Army also decided to build colonies on the ridge.

If the state governments are willing to implement it, how much time will it take to operationalise?

The study would take close to a year to complete to understand the hydrogeology and make estimates for withdrawal of water. Setting up the project could take another year.

Are there any other water schemes that you are working on?

We have also been working on another scheme for several cities to provide real and local mineral water to their citizens. RO water causes several health problems since this water is demineralised and acidic. Our studies show that cities like Delhi, Udaipur, Alwar can receive large portions of their drinking water needs from local forested hills – the Aravallis.

In Tamil Nadu, we estimate several cities like Vellore, Madurai, Coimbatore, Kanyakumari could get mineral water from the Western Ghats. Mumbai from Borivali National Park, Bangalore from Bannerghatta and hundreds of other cities in India and abroad can get subterranean mineral water from locally forested hills or compressed forests.

This would be a huge boon for the health of the citizens and generate a large revenue for the government – even if the water was being sold at a very affordable price like Rs two-five per litre. The hills and forests could be protected and would be given an elevated status of mineral water sanctuaries. But, the principle of ‘conserve and use’ strictly applies here too.

Could these projects have helped mitigate the water crisis in South India, had they been implemented there?

Local mineral water could be provided to several cities from the Eastern and the Western Ghats. South India’s rivers have large prominent floodplains. Our study shows that this scheme could be used to provide bulk water to several cities.

However, in view of our recent findings, indiscriminate agricultural practices could finish off the floodplains. Cities and agriculture and growing populations are putting far too much pressure on our living natural resource.

So, farmers will also have to practice more efficient agriculture like drip irrigation and change their cropping pattern. That is the only way we can maintain our river and groundwater regime in a healthy condition.

Traditionally, Indian farmers had developed an expertise in water management. Why are these no longer used? And why do we as a nation seem to have developed a preference for mega schemes?

Several states have over-exploited not only the water resources but their soil too. In the last 30 years, we have seen the organic content in the soil reduce to less than half due to heavy leaching from pesticides and fertilisers. This cannot continue.

We certainly need natural and experiential wisdom and certainly not just gung-ho development to have an enduring scheme of living. If we have to work with the planet, then we have to understand how the planet works.

Mountains, rivers, floodplains and forests are evolutionary resources – they took millions of years to form and cannot be humanly engineered. For example, once the rivers lose their catchments, they will cease to flow and will result in a terminal loss.

We must preserve these resources in their entirety and whilst using them, utmost caution is to be practiced – only as much water recharged by rainfall can be withdrawn. These ‘conserve and use’ schemes can benefit the cities, people, wildlife and the planet; and preserve and protect these invaluable resources from the pressures of human expansion.

Many of our large rivers are very literally in the 'ICU', a phrase used by waterman Rajender  Singh. How can these rivers be revived?

By carrying out a case study of the river Yamuna in Delhi, we found that at least 50 percent of the virgin monsoon (July to September) flow is required for desilting the river. A similar flow is needed for adequate recharge of the floodplain aquifers along the river. For the non-monsoon period (October to June), about 60 percent of the virgin flow is necessary to avoid the growth of still water algae and to support river biodiversity.

We have seen the Indus Delta disaster, where the sea ingress into the delta is almost 80 kilometres. The Yamuna today is hardly a river. It flows like a Nullah with only 28 percent of its virgin flow running in Delhi. In April, one could walk across the river. To prevent the ingress of the sea into the river delta and all other mentioned reasons, the river must be allowed to flow.

Leading foresters warn that more forests have been cut in the last three years than in the entire history of India. How will this affect our water sources?

As the human population is increasing, it is clear that forests across the world are being destroyed. But, the way forward is for forest cover to increase to prevent global warming, to conserve biodiversity and to augment freshwater resource for the growing population.

We suggest carbon credits could be given to farmers for forest cultivation. This will enthuse the farmer and at the same time get the total forest area up to the norm of a third of the country area, revive the soil and purify the water below it.

The cultivated area in India (approximately 1.5 million square kilometres) is a little less than half of the country’s area. Of this, close to half is water deficit, where we would place forests in one-third of it. This would add forests close to six percent of the total area of the country – a step in the right direction.

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