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Change the flush and forget mindset

How do we make India water-secure? First, we need to recognise that cities and industries will need more and more water. Moreover, cities will take water currently in use by someone else. This will lead to tension and even violence.The only answer is for our cities and industries to become water-prudent, and cut down on waste. This means rethinking our current systems, writes Sunita Narain.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2009 23:23 IST

How do we make India water-secure?

Unfortunately, there is no single answer. On the one hand, there is acute scarcity - in the Malwa region, people are killing each other over water. On the other hand, the water we have is increasingly wasted or polluted. Even today, dirty water is the single largest killer of babies in the country. Clearly, it is time we did more. It is time we did things differently.

First, we need to recognize that cities and industries will need more and more water. They will take water from rivers upstream and discharge their sewage downstream. Moreover, cities will take the water already in use by someone else. This will lead to tension and even violence, indeed as we saw in Rajasthan a few years ago, when farmers protested against the government for taking their water away. Today there are a million mutinies in the country over water. And these will grow.

The only answer is for our cities and industries to become water prudent, not wasteful. This means rethinking our current course of action. Instead of bringing water from further and further away to the city, at considerable cost and high inefficiency, cities must first be directed to depend on their local sources.

A few years ago, every city had lakes that harvested rainwater. Today, these lakes and water bodies are filled with garbage and sewage. The catchments have been destroyed for mining or to build houses. As a result, every monsoon we have floods, and during the summer, we are faced with water shortages.

The government needs to protect our lakes and ponds - by law. And not just for recreational purposes but as our water sources as well. Along with this, we need to make rainwater harvesting compulsory in every house and every colony. We can either store the water in tanks or recharge groundwater.

But this is still not enough. We have to use much less water in every household, every industry and every institution. Every time we use the flush, as much as 10-12 litres of water goes down the drain. The government must insist on water efficient appliances, label and tax appliances that use more water, and make us - you and me - pay for the water we use. Today, urban India, and the middle-class in particular, is the most subsidized for the water it gets and the waste it discharges. Remember, each household discharges 80 per cent of the water it receives as sewage. We don't pay for water. We don't pay for our waste. Then we complain that our rivers are nothing more than drains.

The other big idea is to treat, indeed reuse, our sewage. Turn waste back to water. After all, we all live downstream from someone else's waste. We must think of taking every drop of our sewage, treating it and then reusing it in gardens or, like Singapore, mixing it with drinking water - water to water. We will need to reinvent technologies for this. We will need to change our flush and forget attitude. Water is life. But only if we begin to value each raindrop.

Sunita Narain is Director, Centre for Science and Environment.