Indian TV talk show calls for action on water

Aamir Khan in Satyamev Jayate

A tanker brings water to a thirsty village and all hell breaks loose. Men, women, boys and girls swarm around the tanker trying to fill their buckets – there is much pushing and shoving even as scuffles break out. Sometimes, kids get trampled in the stampede, sometimes the tanker itself accidentally runs over people and injures them.

This and many more horrifying scenes of water deprivation were highlighted recently at a popular television talk show ‘Satyamev Jayate’ (www.satyamevjayate.in) anchored by India’s leading actor Aamir Khan and a champion of worthwhile causes. The show aired at prime time all over India examined the most pressing issues faced by the country, but tellingly, it focussed on water only after earlier episodes finished analysing issues such as domestic violence, old age, female foeticide and medical malpractices.

Anupam Mishra, renowned water conservationist gave some valid reasons for the shrinking and deterioration of India’s water resources.  In the pre-British years, India was well-endowed with lakes, tanks and water harvesting structures. Kings financed the maintenance of the water structures while citizens contributed labour. Since people took a personal interest in their water resources, there was a collective sense of responsibility to safeguard them. States such as Mysore had as many as 40,000 lakes.

When the British took over the reins of governance, they saw the maintenance of reservoirs as an unnecessary expense and stopped spending on it. Gradually, the water tanks fell into disuse. Water harvesting skills were not passed on to the succeeding generations. As the educated folks migrated to cities, indigenous knowledge of water management disappeared completely. Mr Mishra pointed out that modern governments have ensured through their policies that people are not involved in the management of their water.

It is inevitable that water conflicts are increasing by the day even within the borders of one nation. The practice of diverting water from catchment areas into cities often leaves local residents and farmers at the source thirsting for water, leading to resentment and protests. The Hindustan Times newspaper reports that since 2008, there have been over 1,000 violent water-related conflicts in India. Even as this moment, tempers are running high over the division of the waters of River Cauvery between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, communities that have taken charge of their water resources are better off than those depending on tankers. Mr Khan’s show brought together a number of water heroes who had learnt the art of rainwater harvesting and were regularly monitoring their water table. Ironically, one village Usman Nagar which has been supplied with water from tankers from the past 15 years is only 20km away from another village Nagdarwadi which has become self-sufficient in water through its harvesting structures. Both villages receive almost the same amount of rain every year; yet one village has been living with its water woes, while the other has gone and found a solution.

It is evident that much work is needed in getting the successful water managers to share their knowledge and experience with those facing similar challenges. Through his show, Mr Khan highlighted that collaborations can help to solve many of the water scarcity issues in India today. Santha Sheela Nair, former chairperson and managing director, Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board who had made rainwater harvesting compulsory in Chennai during her tenure said the most important reason for her success was political support from the Chief Minister of her state. A resident of a Mumbai apartment complex also explained how the residents harvested the rainfall coming from the intense monsoon that hit the city every year. “My apartment is so close to yours,” exclaimed Mr Khan. “Will you teach us how to harvest rainwater?”

And yet, rainwater harvesting cannot be the overarching solution for all water woes, especially in the urban context. Unless solid waste and wastewater issues are tackled simultaneously, rivers will continue to be polluted and drains will continue to be clogged with rubbish. While giving full credit to Mr Khan for highlighting water on his show, one wishes he had explored the importance of planned water reuse and nutrient recovery from wastes. We will wait for the next season.

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