- 275 of India’s 445 river stretches are polluted
- In 2015, at least 19 of India’s 29 states reported depletion and pollution
- Cleaning up of groundwater aquifers is a highly costly process
New Delhi: It has been more than six months for Rajender’s family since the taps in their home, in East Delhi’s Sunder Nagri, ran dry. Even before the problem escalated to the current situation, even when the taps did supply water, it was no better than a trickle. But still the family felt fortunate that their tiny slum home had some semblance of regular water supply. All that changed for the worse and since September 2017 Rajender’s family has to stand in a queue like others to collect water for regular use from tap that comes twice a day and his family of six is lucky if they manage five to six buckets for the entire day. The reason being cited by the Delhi Jal Board for the discontinued water supply is the pollution of the nearest water source, a reservoir, forcing the supply to be discontinued.
The pain of standing in long queues and waiting to collect water for daily use that is supplied twice or thrice a day is common for many Indians. India has only 1,000 cubic metres per person for its 1.2 billion strong population. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that a country with 1,700 cubic metres of water per person is water stressed, which makes India a moderately high water stressed country. The growth of the country’s population has been faster than replenishment of water sources, is a major cause of concern for India. But excessive usage is not the only reason why India’s water scarcity today has reached a crisis point, indiscriminate pollution and contamination are making significant contributions to the gloom and doom of India’s water scenario.
Polluted water is a liability as it cannot be used for either consumption purposes or utilisation in industrial sector. Eighty per cent sewage in India flows into the country’s waterbodies, which still contribute 15 to 20 per cent of the country’s drinking water. Pollutants also seep into groundwater, which is still the source of 80 per cent of the country’s drinking water. Water pollution is double edged sword for India as both the important water sources of India suffer from pollution, said Swati Bansal, Consultant, India Water Portal.
Polluted Water Sources
Rivers in India are heavily polluted and have suffered from pollution from multiple sources. In 2017, the Union government said that 275 of India’s 445 river stretches are polluted. Water from these river stretches were reported to be unfit for consumption and were heavily laden with bacteria and pollutants like zinc and lead. As per Water.org, an international organisation working in the water sector, India’s rivers carry 5 per cent of the world’s waters but an astounding 35 per cent of global sediments.
India’s lakes are in a worse situation than rivers. Urbanisation has had little regard for lakes and waste of every type is dumped in some of the major lakes in India, from Dal in Kashmir to Bellandur in Bengaluru. Industries in major cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Srinagar and others discharge sewage water in their lakes. An NGO, Environmentalist Foundation of India, which restored 39 lakes in 10 years, did a study of 85 lakes across India and found that in 76 of them, dumping of industrial sewage, domestic and municipal waste was regular, resulting in severe contamination levels.
Some of India’s prominent lakes have water which is unfit for consumption, but are used by people nonetheless. Water scarcity in urban areas often leaves people with no choice but to use contaminated water. Similarly, in congested cities, sewage pipelines are directed to lakes and untreated sewage directly flows into them. This is not merely an issue of water pollution, but urban infrastructure as well, the unplanned growth of which is killing off India’s lakes, said Kripa Raghushanker, Senior Research Fellow, Environmentalist Foundation of India.
Contamination of Groundwater
Groundwater accounts for 80 per cent of drinking water in India. With 30 million groundwater extraction points in the form of tubewells, borewells and pumping stations across the country, groundwater forms much of India’s lifeline. But water pollution in India has not spared groundwater either. In 2015, at least 19 of India’s 29 states reported depletion and pollution in groundwater, as per the Central Ground Water Board. The common causes identified for contaminated groundwater were pollutants seeping into groundwater, originating from sewage, garbage and industrial discharge, as well as pesticides in agricultural areas. States like Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan were identified as critical states as despite having contaminated groundwater, these states kept extracting it for usage.
Contaminated groundwater today has become a serious problem in India. Critical contamination has been detected in 839 of 5,723 groundwater blocks across the country. Industries dispose their waste indiscriminately in landfills and garbage dumps, toxic waste from which often seeps into groundwater levels and pollutes them. In a country where more than 30 million tonnes of garbage is left untreated, toxic waste is bound to go underground and affect aquifers, said Sanjay Marwah, Regional Director, Central Ground Water Board.
Addressing the Water Pollution Crisis
“Both river water and groundwater pollution are direct results of unplanned urbanisation, industrialisation and absence of proper waste management infrastructure. These should not be treated separately, as doing so will reduce the gravity of the problem,” said Kanishk Kumar Mehta, Member, River Management, Central Water Commission.
Cleaning up of India’s rivers, especially the Ganga, has been taken up seriously under the Namami Gange programme, which has a budget outlay of Rs 20,000 crore. Cleaning up the river of pollutants and checking sewage disposal in the river are the primary aims of the project.
Cost is an important factor when it comes to cleaning up polluted water in India. For groundwater de-contamination, costs are projected to be very high. The cleaning up of a single sq. km.aquifer in a state is estimated to cost up to Rs 40 crore. Cleaning up Delhi’s aquifers will incur a cost of approximately Rs 58,000 crore, a huge amount. Bodies like the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and their state counterparts are monitoring groundwater pollution. Their tasks are hardly easy, as be it garbage mounds in cities or usage of excessive pesticides in rural areas, multiple other stakeholders are involved, and addressing water pollution issues often leads to bureaucratic clashes.
Water pollution is driving India towards a water crisis. Laxity and carelessness towards water conservation is further compounding the problem. If adequate steps are not taken to address water pollution of both waterbodies and groundwater sources, doomsday may not be very far for India.