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Saturday, June 28, 2003

Most of the state, including the residents of the twin cities got a respite from the sweltering heat-wave with the onset of the Southwest monsoon. But for the majority of the people, the wait for safe, accessible, affordable and assured drinking water supply is going to be much longer. Decades ago, the traditional source of drinking water used to be a small lake or a nearby stream or a bore well. Thanks to the chaotic and unplanned growth, most of the lakes are in a state of utter disrepair and are close to dying. In the absence of a regulatory framework, indiscriminate reliance on ground water led to large tracts being declared as dark areas, signifying rapid depletion of ground water.

Being a tropical country, most of our rivers (especially in the South and the Deccan) are rain fed and in the absence of water storage structures like dams and reservoirs, vast quantities are drained into the sea. In most parts of the world, the priorities for water usage are first drinking water, then industrial use and finally agriculture. Unfortunately there is no such clarity amongst policy makers. There is neither a sensible nor broadly acceptable plan for utilization of these scarce water resources.

Look at what is happening in Hyderabad. Faced with acute water shortages in the past few years, the government has devised a grandiose plan to bring Krishna waters to the city through a pipeline. The estimated outlay for the project is a whopping Rs 2600 crores. This project is supposed to cater to the needs of the twin cities and the neighbouring nine municipalities. It proposes to bring water either from the Srisailam Left Bank Canal, the Akkampalli balancing reservoir or the yet to take off Sunkesula Lift Irrigation scheme. Any of these schemes will be an expensive proposition, and the consumer will end up paying a hefty price. Given the high capital cost, maintenance of machinery and pipelines, cost of lifting water, and wastages, the cost per kilolitre of water is likely to be around Rs 40. That would mean that an average household will spend more for water than electricity! A sensible alternative would be to buy out the riparian rights from the farmers under the Singur reservoir and use it exclusively for drinking water purposes. And we can also think of drawing water from Almatti in Karnataka, involving minimal lift. This can be a win-win solution for both states.

But the bigger question that the policy makers are not answering is for how many people/industries can we provide all the infrastructural facilities in a city like Hyderabad? Most industrial activity in this state is concentrated in and around Hyderabad. The city is already bursting at its seams and will simply collapse if this growth is allowed to continue unhindered. The answer lies in creating quality satellite/magnet townships with all infrastructure and connect them with modern urban transport systems. Take Warangal, the second largest city in Telangana. The only other municipality in Warangal district is Jangam!

We are a water-poor country when compared to Europe, Southeast Asia or the Americas. And most rainfall is during monsoons and cyclones, allowing rapid runoff and flooding. But if we harness even the available water well, there is enough for our requirements. There are three broad approaches we need to follow, or else the coming decades may yet see water riots and enormous suffering.

First, we have to conserve as much rain water as we can by soil conservation practices and water harvesting structures. And water-saving devices and practices must be internalized through sensible pricing and public education. Second, we need to relook at human settlements and urbanization. Throughout history, civilizations flourished along watercourses. It is cheaper and more sensible to encourage growth and urbanization close to major rivers, than to lift water from great distances to meet the needs of people and industry.

Third, we must build adequate storage capacity across major rivers to meet the growing needs of our economy. Inter-state disputes and mindless opposition to dams are only leading to water-crisis. A national water policy must recognize a river valley as a natural unit for water sharing, ignoring political boundaries. Water only flows downstream, and does not respect man-made divisions or partisan politics. And, we have to recognize that water storage through dams ultimately improves tree cover and ecology, even as our growing needs are met.