Former bureaucrat and water expert Santa Sheela Nair speaks about the various ways in which water can and should be conserved
“The first thing we all need to remember about water is that it is never lost,” begins Santa Sheela Nair, speaking animatedly about a subject that is her passion.
“The quantum of water on the planet is the same. Nothing falls off the planet. It simply moves around in different forms, as ice or clouds, in rivers, underground etc.”
Nair, a retired bureaucrat, last held the post of Officer on Special Duty under late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s regime. She was instrumental in implementing the rainwater harvesting scheme in the state back in 2001.
Nair has rich experience in water management as she led the Chennai Water Supply and Sewerage board in 1994 and was later posted as Secretary, Municipal Administration and Water Supply in 2001.
“When we talk about water scarcity, we must understand that water is available, but in a different form and in a different area,” she says. An example of this is that when Chennai was parched in the summer of 2019, Mumbai witnessed heavy flooding.
Referring to claims of climate change being the cause for such unnatural weather events, Nair says that climate change has always been a factor. “Given that we are despoiling nature, we are contributing to accelerating climate change,” she explains.
Speaking on the recent water crisis in Chennai, Nair says that the city may witness “water stress” but not “water scarcity”. “We have much more water than Rajasthan, Haryana, even Israel. We have good rainfall, although the pattern has changed from being spread over a few months to raining in bursts. The only problem is that of water management,” she says.
Nair refers to history to point out how water management strategies evolved over centuries. “The Cholas had built a system of man-made lakes, each interconnected with the other. In fact Ramanathapuram, which is a very dry area, has water because of the man-made system of lakes there. It has the largest number of lakes.
In the pre-colonial days, the system of administration was largely left to the local population. The king’s role would be limited to getting the lake or well dug and providing security from invaders. But maintenance of the water body was the responsibility of the villagers.
When the British arrived, they copied the system of Todar Mal, the famed finance minister of Mughal Emperor Akbar. As a result, Urdu words continue to dominate the water management lexicon – jamabandhi (land records), fasli (harvest), firka (revenue block), taluka (administrative district), tahsildar (collector of tax) are some examples.
Before the British, the rulers took revenue but the commons remained with the people. This was called ‘kudimaramathu’.
With the coming of the British, the zamindari system was ushered in. Revenue was fixed on the basis of dry or wet lands and irrigation was taken over by the state. In essence, the state now owned and controlled irrigation.
As a result, maintenance of water bodies too became the purview of the state. The people, who should have been the owners of the commons, became mere taxpayers and the sources of water went into the hands of the ruling class. Irrigation became a revenue-spinning operation.
Water resources, water spreads, which were once with the people, came under the state.
Do you know that a Collector was initially literally a collector of revenue? He would go village to village, collect tax and resolve any disputes over water.
The de-merits of this system though were many. Key among them was that the fabric of the village was destroyed. They gave up their rights over protection and maintenance of water sources. They lost interest in water bodies,” says Nair.
“There has been a slow and steady irreversible abandonment of concern over water bodies. There is a complete disconnect from the commons. It is only now that some activists are talking about it,” she laments.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of water in Tamil Nadu, using up 75% of the state’s water resources, according to the state’s ENVIS (State of Environment and Related Issues) centre. Drinking water constitutes around 10% of consumption, while industry uses around 15%.
The increase in use of water for agriculture, according to Nair, began from the transition from food crops to cash crops. “Earlier farmers cultivated cucumber and watermelon, which grew easily without needing much water,” she explains. “Then they shifted to sugarcane and paddy which are both water-intensive crops.
The use of hybrid, fast-growing plant varieties as part of the Green Revolution also brought on huge over-consumption of water.
Farmers have been given free power, allowing them to pump out vast quantities of ground water. Due to this, they are able to cultivate paddy and sugarcane on land where these crops could not otherwise have grown.
This is why the government needs to promote millets. There are about 15-20 varieties of millets that were once the staple in Tamil Nadu. In fact there is something I call the “Politics of Grains” – the ministry of agriculture until recently would term millets as ‘coarse grains’ and rice and wheat as ‘fine grains.’ Who would want to eat coarse grains?” she laughs.
This has destroyed the economy of grains for humans as well as cattle. The straw from the millets used to make for excellent fodder for cattle.
Now slowly millets are making a comeback among the urban elite. But a lot has to be done to restore the food habits to traditional foods. Cropping patterns need to change and agriculture needs to be handled a lot more seriously,” she says.
An overarching view of water management is crucial to ensure that conservation of the precious resource is successful.
According to Nair, lack of drinking water is a problem that can be easily resolved since only a very small amount of all consumed water is used for this.
“We have to restore existing water bodies and create new ones,” says Nair. “As for dams, the older dams are eco-friendly but the new and larger ones cause long term harm. The wetlands in Nagapattinam have been destroyed due to building dams.
First, augment our surface water storage – the government cannot say there is no place, they have to find it and ensure that more rain water harvesting is done.
As far as ground water goes, it is very difficult to recharge the deep aquifer from above ground. You just cannot put water back in because of the rock formation and geological subsidence.
A multi-pronged solution needs to be adopted for a big metropolis like Chennai – a combination of augmentation of surface water, recharging of ground water, rain water harvesting and recycling of grey water. We cannot depend on one source of water any longer.
We also need to manage demand. Right now, we are doing only supply side management. The demand right now is 130 litres per capita, but the need is only 30 litres per capita. For urban populations, the demand for water is 135 litres per capita while in rural populations it is 40 litres per capita.
Why is it different? All are humans, so why does one need more and another less water?
We need to reduce use of water. We are all talking as if there is plenty of water available.
Metering and pricing of water has to be done. There is a huge water tanker mafia which loves a drought. This mafia is filled with vested interests and they need to be stopped. The packaging water industry is yet another mafia.
This mafia can be broken by decentralising water supply. Tankers can fill up common sumps in each area, which then supply water through pipes to homes. We need to create such small integrated networks which are self-sustaining.
Technical people, engineers will offer a lot of arguments against this, but they can all be solved.
Please avoid RO (Reverse Osmosis) plants. They are a disaster. They push 3/4th of the brine back into the ground,” she says.
Nair is unhappy about the setting up of desalination plants, which have been repeatedly proved ecologically harmful. She feels that all of the measures she outlined would be a much more sustainable way of conserving water.
“We have gone into abuse of water in quantities which are not sustainable in their use and which is wasteful,” she says. “It is time we acted and we need to do it now.”
(This article is sponsored by Care Earth Trust as part of an awareness campaign on water conservation)