World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 every year. The day was first formally proposed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This year’s theme is Valuing Water, although how seriously the government of each country works on these issues, we can easily guess from the current problems related to water.

No one in the world should be denied access to safe drinking water. According to a 2018 report by the NITI Aayog, each year in India 38 million people fall prey to diseases and 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea from drinking contaminated water. Over 70 years the state has failed to provide clean drinking water and sanitation to all Indians.

Now there are rapid changes in weather conditions due to agroindustrial global warming – according to the NOAA and the European Union, January 2020 saw a rise in temperature of 3 degrees Celsius in European countries and 6 degrees Celsius in the belt from Norway to Russia above the average from 1981 to 2010.

In India, the monsoons have been arriving at erratic dates and with unevenly distributed rainfall, causing floods and droughts across the country. Under the impact of climate change, in 2019 the monsoon arrived in India one week later than the normal date, then it continued to rain for 39 days more than the long period average. Rainfall in the northeastern region has been below average in recent years. These states were once wettest places in the world.

Water is the second most important abiotic component after air for all living beings on earth. No life can be imagined without water. Our forefathers understood the importance of water, that’s why they worshipped and respected the natural resources. In the fifteenth century for instance, Guru Nanak gave them the status of Guru, Father, Mother saying ’Pawan Guru Pani Pita Mata Dhart Mahat’. And it is written that ’Pehla Pani Jeo Hai Jit Harya Sab Koi’, which means that water is a life giving natural resource, and the life of all living organisms depends on it.

These resources can only be saved, not created. But most countries in the world, including India, are in a blind race for short-term economic growth and have forgotten to conserve these natural resources for future generations and non-human beings.

Each year during the summer months, many Indian cities experience water shortages. In 2019 Chennai was hit hard by water shortage. A 2014 report by the Charitable Environment Organisation named 20 world cities that would suffer from drinking water shortages in the near future. 10 were from India.

The NITI Aayog too in 2018 forecast that 21 Indian cities would soon run out of groundwater, leaving them dependent on resources in other places for drinking water. It estimates that by 2030, 40% of Indians will not have access to drinking water. Around 600 million Indians will face high to extreme water stress.

It is important to know why there is a shortage of drinking water in India and people are dying of waterborne disease. Our country lacks water resources and we do not know how to use it wisely. India is home to 18% of the world’s population but only 4% of the potable water. Our population is growing rapidly and will require more water in future.

But water consumption is already very lopsided, with wealthy households consuming and wasting many times what most people consume. For instance, it is estimated that making a pair of jeans uses nearly 11,000 litres of freshwater.

Water scarcity in the country is also caused by increasing urbanisation, indiscriminate deforestation, the dumping of industrial effluent and untreated sewage in water bodies, encroachment of riverbeds, floodplains, lakes and wetlands, building a huge number of dams on rivers and wrongheaded cropping patterns in the name of economic growth.

The urban population uses more water for domestic needs and industries than the rural population. In the name of economic growth, dense forests are rapidly being decimated, some recent examples being for the Char Dham Marg road in Uttarakhand, or the Shimla-Parwanoo four-lane highway in Himachal Pradesh.

Forests play an important role in recharging groundwater and absorbing rainwater in their roots as well as maintaining the flow of rivers, lakes, waterfalls and springs. In mountainous areas, waterfalls and springs are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation.

According to a State of Forests report in 2019, forest cover in the country was 21.54% in 2017 which increased to 21.67% in 2019. This nominal increase is also misleading as the area counted as forested included area under food crops and commercial crops like tea, coffee and coconut farms.

Deforestation also increases the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, leading to a rapid rise in temperature. Rising temperatures and extreme summer days cause rapid melting of snow from the mountains, causing floods on the one hand and droughts on the other, causing loss of life and water scarcity.

Cropping patterns adopted to meet the food shortage are also responsible for the declining groundwater level in states like Punjab.

There is also the problem of water pollution. The United Nations ranks India at 120th amongst 122 countries in the Water Quality Index. It is a very disturbing fact that 70% of the country’s freshwater resources have been polluted according to the same NITI Aayog.

The report also states that more than 60% of the country’s sewage and industrial waste is discharged without treatment into rivers and streams. This is increasingly polluting the country’s river water. For instance the Ganga and Yamuna, considered by many to be the holiest rivers in the country, carry polluted sewage-infused water to over a hundred cities everyday.

Although Union governments have spent crores of rupees purportedly to clean the Ganges, so far there has been no difference in the quality of potable water. Cleaning the Yamuna river is the first necessity, as it is the main tributary of the Ganges. And the tragedy of the Yamuna river is that it passes through the country’s capital ‘Delhi’, where all the drains of the city discharge sewage into it.

Its course in Delhi is only 21 km long, but untreated sewage and wastewater from Delhi has turned the Yamuna into a sewer, thus polluting the Ganges river too. When the Yamuna enters New Delhi from Wazirabad it is full of clear water. That is why one-third of the population of Delhi gets its water supply from Wazirabad.

We also pollute the clean water of the rivers by constructing innumerable dams to meet the needs of irrigation, electricity and drinking water. In these reservoirs much of the river water is stored. As a result, the river appears to flow through the plains with very little water or none at all. It affects the groundwater resources of riverside villages and towns, causing them to suffer droughts in the summer and floods during the rains.

Besides the damage to rivers, the area under lakes, ponds and wetlands is also declining. When Chennai faced a severe water shortage in 2019 it was due to unplanned development and encroachment of water bodies. A century ago there were two rivers, one canal and 60 large lakes or ponds in the city, of which only 26 lakes or ponds remain. An airport has been built on a riverbed, and a mass transit system set up over most of its 6,000 hectares of wetlands.

Similarly, around 71% of Mumbai’s wetlands were depleted between 1970 and 2014. In Srinagar, the Wular Lake has shrunk by 88% and the Dal Lake by half just in the past century. Our short-sighted view of the past and future has accelerated this process.

We must now educate the Union and State governments on how to take care of all these water resources existing in the country. Cities should not be allowed to discharge their sewage and industrial waste in the rivers. Although in 2017 the Uttarakhand High Court passed a landmark decision recognising the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as living entities, its implementation needs to be seriously considered.

The Union government should not only prohibit the dumping of any kind of waste in any water body but also impose penalties and fines. Untreated wastewater discharged into the rivers from big and small cities must be stopped, beginning with the river Yamuna in Delhi.

By doing so, the water of rivers, lakes and the like can be used for drinking as before. With the purification of river water, the groundwater in the areas around the rivers will be purified and its level will also increase.

Water discharge into rivers must be minimised. Construction on areas of lakes, ponds and rivers must be prohibited by law, and the prohibition enforced seriously. Cropping patterns should be decided keeping in view the agro-climatic conditions of different areas of the country.

Not a drop of water should be wasted. Efforts should be made at the national, state and local levels to ensure this. Local governments should make substantial arrangements for households and public bodies to harvest rainwater, so that people’s daily water needs can easily be met by recharging groundwater thus.

Valuing water is not the responsibility of governments alone, it is also a matter of responsibility for businesses and individuals. Every human being should realise that one drop of wasted water is an irreparable loss. Every person should make arrangements for storing rainwater in their homes.

Efforts should also be made at the international level urgently to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and curb deforestation, to avoid the onslaught of natural disasters caused by global heating, and to overcome problems such as droughts and water shortages.

Dr Gurinder Kaur is Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala