India’s water wives (P.C. http://www.patrika.com)

The water from the well is bitter, sharp. Tastes like one of those pills that is supposed to solve your issues but doesn’t really do its job. You swallow, wishing for a better aftertaste, but maybe the purpose of swallowing was not for the taste but for the coolness that settles in your throat afterwards. The well is a black hole. You know there is a mess of hydrogen and oxygen and other atoms that you’d rather not think about down there, but the darkness is unyielding. You drop the bucket, feel the thick rope burn through your palm as it slides lower, lower, lower. A faint splash, then a heaviness that is now familiar at the end of the rope. Something is there. Two brisk tugs, and you wind the rope up again, straining your muscles against the dead weight of sloshing water. A cow, waiting nearby, watches, anticipating a refreshing drink at the expense of your labour.

The water is so tart that it burns.

But you cannot afford to pour it back.


Women carry water back to the village (P.C. grist.org)


A crowd of brightly-clad women, pots balanced precariously on their cloth-covered heads. Earthen pots, deep and full of air. Perhaps, when they return a few hours later, the water will cool their heads as they make the long journey home again. But how far must they walk to find this precious water?

The average Indian rural woman must walk five to 20 km a day to find water [1], sometimes carrying up to 15 litres at one time [2]. The further they travel in search of water, the less productive working hours remain in their day, making it even more difficult for women to perform their additional household duties such as cooking, cleaning, tending to the fields, and caring for children and family elders. Young girls often are forced to drop out of school to help take up the burdens of the household and to help in the task of finding potable water. And while women must bear the greater brunt of water scarcity, this is an issue plaguing India at large. About 200,000 Indians die annually due to a lack of access to safe drinking water, says think-tank Niti Aayog. Water-borne diseases include malaria, dengue, hepatitis A, diarrhoea, and leptospirosis, a bacterial infection from water tainted with animal urine [2]. Another disease, trachoma, is transmitted through contaminated water and can lead to blindness.

Sometimes, a water tanker will arrive on the horizon, blowing dust in its wake. Hundreds of women gather around it, filling buckets, pots, tins, cans, bottles – anything that can hold that precious liquid. They milk the tanker dry, and then begin the arduous journey home. Tomorrow, they will gather at the tanker stop again, waiting, watching, praying.

Women fill pots of potable water from a waiting water tanker (P.C. Indiatoday)

The average per capita water availability fell by 15 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to government data. By 2025, it is expected to fall by another 13 percent [3]. Can India hope to sustain her growing population with such catastrophic statistics?


Conflict. War. Hatred. Fear. Survival. Greed. Desperation.

Who would have guessed that three atoms, two elements, one molecule could cause such strife?

Three of India’s major water basins are the target of water disputes. Three tired rivers, waters blackened with refuse, are subjected to the whims of state governments and pointless policies that mean nothing to those who directly depend upon these lifegiving waters for their daily sustenance.

The weary Yamuna in the north is the source of dispute between six states, although two have been particularly vociferous in recent times. Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Utter Pradesh all hold claims to this queenly river, but can we call the Yamuna’s waters potable any longer? Delhi and Haryana are in a bitter dispute over water sharing, with Delhi stating that the national capital faces a shortfall of 120 cusecs of Yamuna water daily. And yet, while these states depend so heavily upon the Yamuna, they refuse to hold themselves responsible for the cleaning of these holy waters. The Supreme Court inquired as to why Delhi has not taken initiative to clean the stretches of the Yamuna that flow through its boundaries [4]. But the national capital is silent. Water wars rage on.

Narmada_basinIn central India, the Narmada basin is fraught with a similar vein of conflict.  This time, the conflict centres around what is perhaps the world’s most controversial dam project – the Sardar Sarovar Dam [5]. The warring parties, if you will, are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. In a similar line of thinking as Haryana in the Yamuna basin, Madhya Pradesh recently refused to allocate more water to Gujarat. Gujarat has demanded an increase from the current discharge downstream of the dam of 600 cusecs to 1,500 cusecs, as the Narmada stretch flowing through Bharuch has dried up in recent years due to meager discharge [6]. Widespread drought prompted Madhya Pradesh to refuse this demand, according to representatives from the Narmada Valley Development Authority [7]. First an issue over translocating lions from Gir National Park to Madhya Pradesh, now issues over water partitioning – it seems impossible to win a battle here, let alone a water war.

cauvery_basinAnd finally, in the deep south, springs up the age-old battle of the Kaveri (or Cauvery). The Kaveri begins her journey at Talakaveri, in Kodagu (Coorg), and flows for 765 km through the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. A bountiful river, known as the sister of Ma Ganga, the Kaveri and her waters have been a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka since the rule of the British Raj. It all began in 1892, when the princely state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency could not agree as to how to partition the river’s resources between themselves. The British stepped in to preside over the issue of water sharing, and in 1924, the two states signed an agreement regarding water usage from the Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) Dam. The signing of the agreement gave Madras the freedom to construct the Mettur Dam, allotting more water for their usage. The 1924 agreement gave Tamil Nadu and Puducherry 75 percent of the surplus water from the KRS Dam, while Karnataka would receive 23 percent, the remaining 2 percent going to Kerala. This agreement was meant to last for 50 years. However, after independence, the issue of water sharing cropped up again as the states were reorganized, and the 50-year agreement ended. Karnataka cited the ending of the agreement and its growing water needs as reason enough to shift the allocation of water from the river. But Tamil Nadu, with its heavy dependence upon floodplain agriculture, put up resistance [8]. Two states, one river, countless lives, and now, a deficit monsoon.

Water, we now know, has the power to take away life just as easily as it gives life.


Some parting thoughts on World Water Day 2019…

Water levels in 91 reservoirs across India have dropped by three percent in the last week of February, according to the Ministry of Water Resources.

Groundwater depletion threatens both rural and urban populations. India’s waterman, Rajendran Singh, stated that over 70 percent of the country’s groundwater is “overdraft.” This means we are consuming far more than is replenished.

In cities such as Delhi, studies have revealed that over 40 percent of water is lost due to pipe leaks. Can we afford to lose precious water due to infrastructural blips?

A warming climate is increasing the rate of glacier melt in the Himalayas. This spells grave danger for our major rivers that are born of these glaciers, such as the Ganga, the Yamuna, the Gandak, and the Teesta.

The monsoon, once so reliable, is now a fickle friend to farmers across the land (check out this online monsoon tracker!).

A land surrounded on three sides by water – India. It brings to mind the old adage: “Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

India needs a water revolution, and she cannot afford to wait. The question is no longer what the government can do for our waters, but what each and every one of us can do in our own homes. We are the guardians of our planet, and only if we take action can we hope to see a better future.

the Yamuna, as she weaves through the Doon Valley, 2014 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s