Letting go a precious resource


waterwasteHarvest rainwater or pay fine from May 1 2016; T.M. Vijay Bhaskar, Chairman of Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewage Board (BWSSB) has warned the citizens reeling under unprecedented heat waves and water scarcity in the hitherto ‘air-conditioned garden capital of Karnataka.

BWSSB made rainwater harvesting compulsory through the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage (Rainwater Harvesting Amendment) Regulations in 2011. According to the rules, all existing buildings on sites measuring 60 feet by 40 feet and new constructions on sites measuring 30 feet by 40 feet have to adopt the system. Existing houses on 30 feet by 40 feet sites built before 2008 are exempted but encouraged to install rainwater-harvesting systems.

A strident Mr. Vijay Bhaskar stressed, “You will have to pay 25 per cent of your water bill as penalty for the first three months. The penalty will double after three months and will be collected till you adopt rainwater-harvesting system. Our meter readers and other field staff have been trained to inspect buildings and implement the rule strictly.”

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, armed with a similar penalizing decree imposed in September 2015, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has recovered over Rs one crore from the commercial and industrial landholders for failing to install rainwater-harvesting system. Now, the deadline of October 1 has been given to the domestic households to install the rainwater harvesting unit to protect them from 30 per cent increased water tariffs from the next billing cycle. It is compulsory to install rainwater harvesting unit according to the Delhi Water & Sewer (Tariff and Metering) Regulations, 2012.

In another instance, in New Delhi, after repeated directions by the National Green Tribunal on rainwater harvesting fell on deaf ears, nine five-star hotels, 23 malls and commercial complexes have been asked to show cause as to why they be not directed to pay compensation for not providing rainwater harvesting systems and more importantly why they be not directed to pay compensation for depleting groundwater levels. A joint inspection team of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), Central Pollution Control Board and the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) had found them to be non-conforming.

Across the country, the whip of penalty is being used as a final resort to implement the mandatory rainwater harvesting law that most states have enacted in last decade or so but have failed to implement fully. In India, under the constitutional set up, water is a state subject. In urban areas its governance rests with urban local bodies as per the 74th constitutional amendment.

Desperate times need desperate measures. Groundwater levels are falling as India’s farmers, city residents and industries drain wells and aquifers. On the face of it, India has 2.45 per cent of the world’s land and 4 per cent of its fresh water resources. India’s annual precipitation (snowfall and rain) is 4,000 billion cubic meters (bcm). This translates into 1,869 bcm of water in rivers, of which barely 690 bcm is used. What water is available is often severely polluted. And the future may only be worse, with the national supply predicted to fall 50 per cent below demand by 2030.

Regulations exist but strict enforcement has been impossible as the fear of the law is found to be totally absent in most urban areas. Corruption is an easy facilitator.  After obtaining approvals for plans that may be in line with the building byelaws, during actual construction people tend to deviate and violate at will. Many go further to construct buildings without permissions and in complete violation of multiple laws. They overcrowd and exponentially overstress water resources around major cities.

Cities and urban industrial conglomerates are the biggest water guzzlers and also the biggest water-wasters. Residents of Hinjewadi and Baner—IT hubs of Smart City Pune—are hostage to the tanker mafia; not very far away Navi Mumbai residents are agitated about tanker operators siphoning from pipelines for sale to housing societies. Water stress in cities is draining water sources in surrounding areas. Water shortages are met by lifting water from neighboring rural areas. Every month, an average of Rs 50 crores worth of water is brought into Chennai from rural areas. That amounts to a whopping Rs 600 crore, every year, for water.

The steady decline in exploitable groundwater reserves shifts the onus to stopping and conserving rain water to recharge surface water that, estimates indicate, will have to contribute no less than 63-65 per cent of the total water requirement of cities in the decades ahead.

Since 2001, Tamil Nadu has been the poster child of rainwater harvesting efforts in India. The state pioneered model laws and public awareness efforts more than a decade ago and yet the city reels under water crisis every year.

Last year in March, in a desperate measure to tackle water shortage, Chennai Metro water pumped dead storage water from its quickly receding reservoirs, since the water level had gone below the shutters in the water bodies and could not naturally flow into the channels.

Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai based activist and journalist points out, “In 2001, the Government of Tamil Nadu launched an aggressive push for rooftop rainwater harvesting. That campaign had significant though not total success. It combined awareness raising with a scheme of incentives, disincentives, state-sponsored technical assistance for building owners and enforcement.”

“But that campaign’s successes faded as the campaign died. Government interest in promoting rooftop harvesting is critical to its success. More importantly, governments need to also look at landscapes from a rainwater harvesting perspective. The same government that charted a success story with rooftop harvesting in Tamil Nadu simultaneously encouraged the encroachment of Chennai’s wetlands for ‘development’ and ‘infrastructure’.”

Climate change science and models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had predicted the current water scarcity crisis almost two decades ago but lawmakers largely ignored it. The groundwater situation is now being hailed as a national calamity.

Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti claims that her Ministry is already promoting rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge measures in the country. A Master Plan has been drawn and circulated to all state governments for harnessing surplus monsoon runoff to augment ground water resources.

Unfortunately, going by the actual financial allocations and institutional directives, rainwater harvesting is clearly not high on the minister’s agenda either. It is a state’s problem after all, is the constant refrain heard from the central corridors.

Here we are dealing with a full blown disaster and our only hope is to somehow survive next two months, most likely hotter than this April, and most certainly the hottest years in hundred years, after which we may have a good monsoon, as per Indian Met Department’s predictions. A monsoon that most likely will be wasted again because we forgot to fix our ancient rainwater harvesting bodies, the tanks, the ponds, the lakes, the backwaters, the rivers and the bunds.

Apathy, India’s biggest environmental threat; corruption, India’s biggest development roadblock; and greed of corporate stakeholders are at the core of the failure of implementation of rainwater harvesting policies in most cities across India.

The way forward requires a paradigm shift in water governance and the first step to achieve that is to identify, strengthen and provide legal validity to local institutions and empowerment of local communities, for ensuring equitable and sustainable use of water within ecological confines.

Both persuasive and legislative measures to involve local communities and stake-holders in the creation and maintenance of existing rain water harvesting bodies is a must and for that if criminalizing and penalizing non-conformance is the only way, then so be it.

Shailendra Yashwant | The writer is an advisor to Climate Action Network South Asia, a coalition of over 140 civil society organizations working on climate change in the region