‘Recycling is the answer to India’s water woes’

Water expert Dr Sharad Jain believes that unless India adopts recycling of water in an organised manner, the country will soon become water scarce.
Recycling of water is the way forward. (Source: IWP Flickr photos)
Recycling of water is the way forward. (Source: IWP Flickr photos)

The per capita availability of water in India is going down progressively and the situation may become precarious unless the country takes measures like the recycling of water in an organised manner, warns Dr Sharad Jain, director general of New Delhi-based National Water Development Agency and senior scientist at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee.  

The average annual per capita availability of water which stood at 5200 cubic metres per capita per year in 1951 reduced to 1816 cubic metres in 2001. It plummeted further to just 1545 cubic metres as per capita by 2011. This means there has been a 70 percent decline since 1951. Estimates show that the annual per capita availability is predicted to decrease to 1401 cubic metre by 2025.

According to international norms, 1700 cubic metre per capita per year is required for healthy living but what we have is less than the international norm making India “water stressed”. “If the availability falls below 1000 cubic metre per capita per year, we would reach a “water scarce” situation,” Dr Jain explains.

“India has been witnessing rainfall of 1160 mm annually as compared to the world average of 1110 mm. The overall rainfall is bountiful in some years, while in others, it is a shortfall. Within one monsoon season, there could be a wide variation in rainfall across geographical regions. But the water crisis is not largely due to the variability of rainfall but essentially due to the increase in population,” he says.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for water. At the time of independence, India’s population was 33 crores, now it is 133 crores while the amount of water available remains the same. 

What is the solution?

The solution, according to Dr Jain, is in the recycling of water. “If we do not recycle water many times before we discard it as waste, we are in for serious trouble. In Frankfurt, for instance, one drop of water is recycled eight times before it reaches the sea. Here, we do not recycle even once.”

The possibilities for recycling water exist in domestic and industrial sectors as well. “There is a need to reach the stage of ‘zero water’ industries where industrial units would take care of all their water needs by adopting recycling techniques and not depend on outside sources,” Dr Jain suggests.

Over the years, when the demand for water increased, with little or no surface water to exploit, we turned to groundwater. Prior to this, groundwater was being used for irrigation. However, the scenario changed with the arrival of electrical pumps to lift water from deep inside the ground. “Estimate shows that about 15 percent of food production and 85 percent of drinking water in India come from groundwater sources,” he says. As the demand for water increased as a consequence of the increase in population, we started exploiting groundwater beyond sustainable limits leading to alarming levels of depletion of groundwater. 

We need to look at the 'water footprint' each individual leaves while measuring water use. (Source: IWP Flickr photos)

He emphasises the need to bring about changes in agricultural practices and notes that the government is already encouraging modern methods of irrigation such as micro irrigation or precision irrigation using techniques like drip or sprinkler irrigation. Pointing out that Israel is able to grow eight to 10 times more apples than India with the same amount of water within the same area, he urges that India learns from countries like Israel and Netherlands, which have developed techniques for growing crops with lesser water. “Traditional agriculture methods are often water intensive and it is time we focus on water conservation methods,” he says.

Various forms of water use

Dr Jain also stresses the need for policy makers and other stakeholders to be conscious of the fact that significant quantities of water are being exported in the form of articles and other products, which is complicating the water balance. “Virtual water is the water that has been consumed to produce a particular product but you may not see it. For example, if you drink a glass of water, it is evident that you drink a glass of water but if you eat an apple you do not see water but after all, water is used to produce that apple. Thus, when apple is exported, along with the product in an unseen way, water is also transported. This transport of virtual water also has to come under scrutiny when we talk of a water crisis,” he says. 

In addition to “virtual water”, there is also a need to look at “water footprint” which is the amount of water that is used by an individual or a community. “The footprint depends on the lifestyle of individuals. It would depend on aspects such as how much water a person uses, whether he or she wastes or conserves water. For example, a villager in Rajasthan would have a totally different water footprint than a resident of a mega city like Delhi,” he adds. 

A Ph.D from the University of Roorkee, Dr Jain’s research interests span a wide range of issues from surface water hydrology, water resources planning and management to the application of advanced tools such as artificial neural networks, remote sensing, GIS and decision support systems. His contributions to the world of hydrology include the development of a software package for reservoir analysis.(India Science Wire)