Now that under the newly constituted Ministry of Jal Shakti all water-related works including those of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, Ganga Rejuvenation, Drinking water and Sanitation have been merged and brought under one umbrella, it is hoped that some of the critical issues would be addressed on priority.

These days, the first thing one does on opening the morning newspapers is to look for the progress and expected dates for the arrival of monsoons. About a month ago, they were supposed to be on time, then a delay of one week was announced followed by yet another delay. As of now, beyond Kerala, one can only guess and keep waiting.

With the mercury rising to new heights and creating records for heatwave conditions in north India, we are already getting used to the vagaries of climate change, which in all likelihood are only going to aggravate and worsen. One of the first casualties of the current situation is the power supply, with peak demand levels breaking all previous records. But a greater danger is lurking underneath and that is the very fast depletion of our ground water resources. Shortage of power one can perhaps live with, but shortage of water and drinking water in particular can manifest in various forms of civic emergencies and unrest.

According to available information, India is the world’s largest user of ground water as more than 60 per cent of our irrigation demand and 80 per cent requirement of drinking water is met from underground sources. Apart from the uncertainties of weather and other natural causes, one of the reasons for the present crisis is that for long years we have tried to manage the situation without actually going in for hard solutions.

Large volumes of river water get consumed through inefficient irrigation practices which are no longer viable. Water consumption for cultivation per tonne of cotton, paddy, wheat and sugarcane remains one of the highest in our country. Enhanced water stress is also caused by wasteful practices in our civic and domestic lifestyle, increasing urbanisation and industrialisation besides growing needs for agriculture.

The situation gets compounded by erratic rainfall, which hardly adds even inches to the fast depleting water table and in the absence of drought-resistant seeds may even have an adverse impact in the long run on our food security. Unrestricted use of ground water in construction of multistoried blocks continues; rainwater harvesting has made little difference as it mainly remains on paper and sewage treatment plants either remain idle or work below capacity indicative of a situation where we live as if in a state of abundance without any problem of supply and very little actual effort on conservation.

It is estimated that in urban areas more than 60 per cent of rain water gets wasted as at most places the storm water drains are connected to sewers. In fact, this problem was even noticed at Nainital, the lake city in Uttarakhand, where rain water was just flowing into nullahs and not replenishing the lake. The situation was rectified in due course. Overdrawing of water from rivers has been hampering their full flow leading to heavy pollution.

At Hardwar, a major proportion of the river Ganga, except during monsoons, gets diverted into the canal meant for irrigation purposes. With large segments of population suffering due to water pollution, India is almost at the bottom in the list of countries in respect of its water quality index. Though water is vital for our survival, we cannot create water to sustain ourselves, so the next best thing is to recycle.

In California, water recovered from treated sewage constitutes the fastest growing source of water supply. Drinking water for Los Angeles, second largest city of US has to be piped from Colorado river more than 250 miles away. Despite public squeamishness, purified sewage effluent is being used from agricultural irrigation to flushing toilets. Singapore and certain areas of Australia are even supplementing the drinking water supply with such recycled and purified water.

A technology that in the current scenario appears to have great potential is desalination of water. Chennai and some other areas of Tamil Nadu have been successfully exploiting this resource. Worldwide over 13000 desalination plants produced more than 45 billion litres of purified water per day. Most of the Middle Eastern countries though rich in oil are water-stressed and have been using this technology. Because this process consumes high amounts of energy, Israel has done some research and is now making use of solar powered steam generators in desalination plants.

They have also developed portable small units for desalination. These are based on the principle of reverse osmosis and can be powered by an automobile engine. While we invest heavy amounts in pipelines carrying oil, which may be having only a limited life span in future, we have been ignoring some of the waterstressed areas and their drinking water woes.

Several districts of National Capital Region and particularly those in the north-eastern areas of Rajasthan along with southern districts of Haryana are facing a worsening state of water deficiency. With river Yamuna having virtually no water to spare and ground water depleting at an alarming rate alternative sources are becoming difficult to locate.

A similar situation prevails in vast areas of central India cutting across several states. It is as such important that we give serious consideration to the option of desalination. It may sound ambitious but piping drinking water supply over a few hundred kilometres would be a small price to pay for its long-term benefits.

History records that some four hundred fifty years ago Akbar had to abandon Fatehpur Sikri on account of shortage of water. Recently we saw on TV pictures of Cape Town, a bustling South African city famous for tourism, getting reduced to a situation described as Zero Day, with not a drop of water left for human consumption. The warning signs are all there, but are we preparing ourselves adequately?

(The writer is a former Governor of Uttarakhand and Meghalaya and a former Commissioner of Delhi Police)