Dying rivers foretell a grave future for India and its agrarian economy

Concern over declining water levels in the rivers of India

Agriculture, which is India’s primary economic activity is directly linked to the availability of water. An intimate understanding of the important role rivers play in our lives should automatically deepen our respect for this prime natural resource. However, reality paints a very different picture. In our constant struggle for rapid progress and development, rivers have been declining at an alarming rate.

This fact has far-reaching consequences. First and foremost is the imminent water crisis that India is fast approaching. Drinking water is already becoming scarce in various parts of the country and continuous human exploitation of rivers, pollution and climate change have caused smaller streams and rivulets to fade into oblivion. Prominent perennial rivers are today, slowly turning seasonal. Once revered, rivers are now the most neglected aspect of our environment and culture.

Falling water levels spell doom for the country

A clear indicator of the environmental distress is the volume of water in rivers. The per capita water availability in 1951 was 5177 cubic metres. By 2011, this had fallen to 1545 cubic metres. Further, National Institute of Hydrology believes that most of this water is not usable for human purposes. The Institute estimated that the per capita availability of usable water was a mere 938 cubic metres. This is expected to decline further, reaching 814 cubic metres by 2025.

The changes taking place today are frightful, to say the least. However, the public is either blatantly unaware of the recent developments or chooses to act ignorant. Many ancient rivers that formed the crux of supporting civilisations have receded far from their basins. Political manifestos boast of development characterised by building large dams. However, these dams cut the flow of the rivers forcing them to change paths. This destroys habitats in their wake and impact the ecological system. Human settlements close to rivers have been using these powerful natural resources as their backyard garbage bins, thereby polluting a natural resource and killing many species that are unable to handle the constant inflow of pollutants and chemicals.

Ganga and Indus, the two rivers that are not only of ecological importance to India, but also hold historical significance, are now listed as two of the world’s most endangered rivers. Ganga has long been relied upon for agricultural purposes. Today, the construction of 14 proposed dams, over-extraction of water and climate change are the major threats to this socio-religious icon. Indus is threatened by six proposed dams along with pollutants that are choking the river.

Rapid loss of the topsoil cover

With a population of 1.3 billion and agriculture being India’s mainstay, feeding and sustaining such a large number of people is difficult. As a solution to this, the past agenda has been to construct dams and canals which exploit the rivers to provide the required impetus to food production through irrigation. While food may be available today, it comes at a heavy cost—over-extraction of water from rivers and rapid degradation of topsoil that may lead to a water crisis for coming generations.

The country is losing 5.3 billion tonnes of topsoil annually. A primary reason is the excessive use of chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides that result in soil erosion at the rate of one millimeter per year. A study conducted by Central Soil Water Conservation Research and Training Institute (CSWCRTI), Dehradun placed the rate of loss to be at 16.4 tonnes per hectare annually. The injudicious use of water for irrigation does little to stem soil erosion. Flood irrigation is prominent in India which makes the soil saline. This in turn diminishes crop productivity. If present practices continue, India will lose all its topsoil within forty years, turning our land into a barren, arid desert, incapable of sustaining the growth of even the most basic vegetation.

Topsoil is nutrient-rich, as it harbours the elements required for crop production, including important biological elements that share a symbiotic relationship with the vegetation and organic matter. Topsoil is what allows water from rainfall to percolate and rejuvenate underground water levels. However, excessive use of chemicals not only kill beneficial bacteria and insects residing in the top-most layer, but also leech out all the nutrients from the soil. Groundwater levels are not being replenished due to soil erosion. Deforestation and destruction of natural habitats lead to further soil degradation, as the roots that once bound the soil together are missing.

Soil erosion and degradation of land is directly impacting productivity. Land that could once produce healthy crops is now struggling to reach even a nominal output. With a million lives directly linked to the land they till, soil degradation and water scarcity pose a major problem to the state. While the rise in farmer suicides is always linked to economic hardships, could there be other forces at work here? More farmers are committing suicide in utter disillusionment and abject poverty. While low agricultural productivity and even lower prices for produce leave them in the depths of despair, rapid degradation of land is another major cause that needs to be addressed.

All proposed solutions are those with immediate predicted benefits. These involve following a plan of action that proposes further exploitation of land and rivers to augment agricultural productivity. However, these solutions, while providing close-to-instant relief, are causing an irreversible damage to our ecological systems. This only spells doom for farmers in the near future.

A future water crisis

As reported in Deutsche Welle, 54 percent of India’s agricultural land is battling water scarcity. Most of the land relies directly on the country’s rivers for irrigation and with the rivers drying up, the farmland is left with no alternate water source. A government study reported that 15 years is all that it will take for India to reach the level of distress where the country will have only half the amount of water needed for the purpose of survival. A water crisis is in the offing, but are we prepared?

What is causing this drastic fall in volume of water in rivers? Studies reveal that the falling volume is not due to a lack of rainfall, as is generally presumed. Instead, human practices that obstruct the groundwater recharge mechanism are at fault. Without adequate groundwater levels, rivers are unable to replenish themselves.

To further understand the drying up of rivers, one must first study how rivers are formed in India. Rivers in North India are snow-fed and arise out of Himalayas, making their way to the plains. However, in South India rivers are forest-fed. Adequate tree cover allows precipitation and percolation of water to revive groundwater resource. Rivers then draw from this underground level. Deforestation reduces average tree cover, which further impacts the natural replenishing system in place. As such, the constant conversion of forest land for farming or industrial purposes is forcing the tiny streams that feed larger rivers to vanish off the face of the Earth.

How to revive India’s dying rivers?

Restoring and rejuvenating our rivers to their original state is a task fraught with difficulties. Nearly 80% of India’s water needs stem from irrigation. Drinking purposes, industry and the energy sector are the next greatest stress on water resources. Certain methods that can be followed include educating farmers on sustainable agricultural practices like crop cycles and alternating crop patterns to rejuvenate the soil as well as promoting renewable energy, thereby reducing dependency on fossil fuels.

Experts suggest interlinking rivers so that surplus from one can be used to revive others. One such project is the Ken-Betwa interlinking river project costing Rs. 18,000 crores. It aims to transfer surplus water from the Ken river to Betwa basin through construction of a concrete canal to irrigate the dry Bundelkhand region. It is believed that this project could potentially destroy 10,000 hectares of forests, including a majority of forest cover in Panna Tiger Reserve.

The recent Rally for Rivers project pioneered by Isha Foundation’s Sadhguru proposes planting tree cover along a one kilometer stretch by river banks. The Draft Policy Recommendation by the project also suggests switching from “crop to organic fruit tree cultivation” which could supplement farmers incomes “three-to-four fold“.

A comprehensive policy to address future needs

Water is a state subject. As such, the Centre and states must rally together to put forth a set of inclusive policies that are river-friendly and are focused on implementing reforms that will help revive these natural resources. Rather than immediate-relief reforms targeting farmers, a comprehensive policy framework directed towards rejuvenating India’s soil and water resources is the need of the hour. Pollution of rivers through industrial, agricultural and human waste must be curbed.

Our quest to scale heights of economic development is leading to widespread ignorance when it comes to environmental degradation. Policies must be built around the objective of creating awareness among the public and farming community of sustainable agricultural practices.

Reviving rivers in the long run will prove more beneficial for the country as a whole. Therefore, the government must come up with strict guidelines that define the use and misuse of rivers as a resource. Policies need to initiate a move toward economically beneficial practices for farmers that will simultaneously help improve soil quality and water levels. The government must amass public support and engage the community in implementing such a wide-ranging policy.

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Advisory Committee: Yves Berthelot (France),  PV Rajagopal (India), Vandana Shiva (India), Oliver de Schutter (Belgium), Mazide N’Diaye (Senegal), Gabriela Monteiro (Brazil), Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), Anne Pearson (Canada), Liz Theoharis (USA), Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand), Jagat Basnet (Nepal), Miloon Kothari (India),  Irene Santiago (Philippines), Arsen Kharatyan (Armenia), Margrit Hugentobler (Switzerland), Jill Carr-Harris (Canada/India), Reva Joshee (Canada), Sonia Deotto (Mexico/Italy),Benjamin Joyeux (Geneva/France), Aneesh Thillenkery, Ramesh Sharma, Ran Singh (India)