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July 4, 2009

Water problems in India

Water problems in IndiaI heard the squelch of Anil’s feet on the waterlogged path well before he arrived at the door of my hut.

“Problem with boat,” he announced in a very matter-of-fact way.

“Problem?” I asked groggily, having just emerged from under my thick mosquito net.

“Yes,” he replied. “Boat sank. You want tea?”

All night the heavy rain had pounded our huts. It came in intense waves, the wind rattling doors and window frames, and by morning the village was sitting in a mud soup, the bloated river lapping high against protective dirt walls.

Our small boat had been among several moored in what the night before had been a protected inlet, and several young boys were now working with old pans and leaking buckets to bail them out and pull them further up the receding river bank. They chatted and laughed, slipping and falling in the mud. But with the rain still falling it seemed like a hopeless task.

For Anil, our taciturn Bengali host – a man who could coolly describe the latest cobra attacks or the tiger tracks he’d found in the village – the tropical storm sweeping from the Bay of Bengal was little more than an annoyance.

Within two hours he’d rustled up a bigger boat – “this one will make it,” he told us in an attempt to reassure - and the mud-splattered NBC team, guided by the helping hands of scores of amused villagers, was soon making its way gingerly across a thin plank and onboard the bobbing vessel for the five-hour river and road journey back to Calcutta.

The village in which we’d spent the night was on a small island in the Sundarbans, which lie at the mouth of the River Ganges, where India’s most revered river empties into the Bay of Bengal.

The monsoon rains here are intense, and being caught in the middle of it does leave you wondering how India could possibly have a water shortage.

When it rains here it rains big time – and that’s part of the problem. On average it rains for only one hundred hours a year, according to Sunita Narain, who heads the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. It is often accompanied by devastating floods, but the monsoon runoff is frequently contaminated, there is little harvesting or water management, and the rain is insufficient to adequately recharge groundwater levels, which are receding alarmingly across large parts of India.

“It is one issue that will make or break India,” Narain told us. “If we can get our water management right we will be a prosperous country, which will have well being for all. But if we get our water management wrong, which we are getting today, then let us be very clear, all the riches in the world are not going to be enough.”

Close to where we had boarded our (sunken) boat to the Sundarbans, we had witnessed what looked like a tug-of-war contest. There was a party-like atmosphere as men and boys yelled and shouted, egging each other on, as they pulled on a rope.

But it turned out they were digging for clean water, first pulling out old pipes before boring more deeply into the ground. They explained that they have to go deeper because the water had become contaminated by salt.

In this part of India it really is a case of water, water everywhere, but nothing to drink.

In Varanasi, a city holy to Hindus, which sits higher up the Ganges, the main problem is sewage, which is killing the river, India’s lifeline. Nearly half a billion people live in the Ganges basin and depend on it for fresh water.

“It’s murky, it’s brown, it stinks,” said Veer Bhadra Mishra, who leads a foundation trying to clean it up. He’s a Hindu priest as well as a trained engineer, and each morning joins the thousands of Hindu faithful bathing in the river’s sacred waters.

“If poison is mixed into this water at one point we will die and that will be the end of this culture related to the river, and that will be the end of this river,” he told us.

We traveled on the river with a team he sends out each morning to test the Ganges poisonous cocktail, in support of a law suite to force action from a government that’s promised much but delivered little.

Other priests have threatened to drown themselves in the river unless it is cleaned up.

Recent water show the water pollution levels at Varanasi to be two hundred times safe levels for drinking and thirty thousand times safe levels for drinking.

In villages around Varanasi, wells are closed, pumps chained to prevent people drinking dirty water. Villagers here are also forced to go deeper for clean water. But new hand pumps, recently installed, have tapped another scourge – naturally occurring arsenic, according to Benares University researchers.

Prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause kidney and liver damage – even cancer. Water-born diseases are already the biggest health issue.

Only richer farmers are able afford powerful electric pumps to such water from ever deeper in the receding aquifer. They will supply others – but only at a price. And in some parts of India the groundwater is literally being sucked dry.

Right across India, there is mounting pressure on dwindling supplies of fresh water, and conflicts over access to water have even provoked riots in some areas.

India’s rapid economic growth has also intensified the competition for water, and even in the capital Delhi more and more people are depending on tankers for their drinking water.

“We don't have drinking water. We have children, we have families and we can't do anything without water. So we have a big problem,” one frustrated woman told us as she waited for a tanker in a poor suburb of Delhi.

For Sunita Narain it is perhaps the most critical challenge facing her country.

“India just has to get its act together,” she told us. “I cannot sound any more desperate than this. It has to get its act together knowing that it has no other choice. It has to get it right."

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

1 comment:

  1. Wats up brotha,
    thanks for the comment! Good luck with all your projects.