Wednesday, 12 January 2022 | Krishan Kalra

Out of all the problems the world is facing – and which are likely to become infinitely worse – due to rapid march of the deadly climate change, water shortage is perhaps the worst. My first shock about India being ‘water stressed’ came in 1981. On a visit to Bhopal, the chief engineer sent me to a village to see how the ‘India Mark II’ pump manufactured by my company had changed the lives of people there. As we got down from the jeep, almost the entire village population was gathered around the pump, on which they had made Om and swastika signs with vermillion and put a garland and   agarbattis too. I was introduced me to the sarpanch and the old man fell at my feet! I was very embarrassed, raised him and apologised. His words “Babu ji aap nahin jante is pump ne hamare liye kya kiya hai; hum roz Bhagwan ke baad is ki Pooja karte hain” (Sir, you don’t know what this pump has done for us, every day, after God, we pay obeisance to this pump). He told me stories about how they had difficulty finding brides for their young boys because all women had to trudge two/three times a day to a rain fed pond far away to fetch water; why the young girls looked old and wrinkled in the prime of their life and how animals also shared the same pond.

I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about the heart wrenching tales. A city dweller like me had always taken water for granted. That shock still haunts me as I go around urging everyone to respect this gift of nature, admonish drivers hosing their cars, checking people leaving half-finished bottles and glasses on the table…there is so much water wastage in a country which has now moved from water stressed to water scarce and where many states face the prospect of going dry. The way we waste water is criminal. Take, for example, having a bath. A bucket bath consumes only about 20 litres. In contrast a shower usually takes 60! Try a dry shower – shutting down the shower between rinsing, soap/shampoo and final rinsing – this would use only 30 litres. Simple action and we can end up saving 30 litres of water. The modern day pressure showers actually consume around 100 litres. Assuming that only about 15 per cent of the population has access to showers and these 195 million people bathe average 1.5 times a day – necessary in a hot country –  and each can save 40 litres per bath, we can save an astronomical 4,300 million tonnes of water per annum (mtpa) from this one activity alone! If we are to consider other daily tasks like brushing teeth twice a day, washing hands twenty times and factor in the difference between dry and wet action in each, the wastage adds up to another 500-800 mtpa. So, we are talking about a possible annual saving of five billion tonnes of clean water. And, I haven’t even touched on the gross misuse in washing cars, condensation from the air conditioners going down the drain, waste water from RO purifiers and other daily chores that are all easily preventable.

Some of us would remember our forefathers pulling out just a half bucket from the well, sitting down nearby and bathing with a little lota thus optimising use of literally every drop and cleaning themselves with, may be, just 10 litres of the nectar. Today we talk a lot about ‘going green’ but back then they really knew the value of this precious gift of nature.

Let’s leave the bigger jobs to the government, like (i) plugging leaking pipelines (ii) installing sewage treatment plants and reusing water for gardens, parks, trees, bio-diversity parks, washing of homes……remember the old style double plumbing in the big bungalows – pucca paani for cooking and drinking and kuchha for rest of the chores! Then there is (iii) rejuvenation of water bodies etc. So far I have touched on only the low hanging fruit which can be plucked with little effort. The bigger jobs like optimising water consumption in irrigation by greater use of drip irrigation, pulse irrigation and other latest techniques – we have a lot to learn here from our friend Israel. We must all do water harvesting honestly. The fact that India is basically not a water-deficient country – because our rainfall is adequate – and it has become so due to mismanagement of this resource has an important message for all of us. The recent catastrophic happenings in Cape Town have a great lesson for India. Even though – as it turned out finally – the ‘day zero’ warning was fortunately not true but the discipline in water use inculcated by the threat issued by mayor Patricia de Lille worked wonders. People actually learned to live with just 50 litres per person per day! Most residents have realised that there could really be a ‘Day Zero’ if they carry on with ‘business as usual’. May be, we too need mayors like Patricia to convince people that this ‘life sustaining gift of nature’ is not to be abused. We must learn to respect water; we must learn to think about our children and grand children; we must realise – as Gandhi said that “we inherited the planet earth with all it’s rich resources as trustees to nurture the same and every generation must leave it for the next in a little better shape rather than without water or with very little of it.”

Let the authorities address big things. But each one of us can start tackling individual issues. All we need is the conviction that our actions cause huge avoidable wastage of this precious resource and that our actions can help in mitigating the damage. 

(A veteran of the corporate world, the author now does only voluntary work in various spheres. Views expressed are personal)

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