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Falling Tables

I have from time to time been asked at conferences to comment on the three major risks facing India over the next 10 years. The answer has consistently been ‘environment, environment and environment’. The challenges before us are not limited to ‘climate change’ which environmentalists believe affect the entire planet. India’s environmental problems are more unique and regrettably more immediate. Topping the chart is the issue of falling water tables.

A drive through Delhi’s satellite township of Gurgaon leaves one bewildered as to the pace of growth and construction. Literally hundreds of tower blocks provide both residential and office accommodation to growing millions. The population of Gurgaon, according to some estimates is increasing at rates of 12-15% per annum therefore, effectively doubling every five years. This will lead to the furthering of construction activity – more homes and offices – and all despite the supposed economic slowdown. Few have stopped to wonder as to where the water supply comes from. The answer is ground water. Builders have to dig deeper each year in search for potable water and resultantly water-tables continue to fall. Rainfall in the area is, in any event, scarce and with construction and concrete surfacing, traditional water channels that were essential in recharging ground water no longer exist. It is really a mater of time before Gurgaon’s water will turn saline and hence no longer potable.

The problem of falling water tables spreads across much of the plains of northern India. The worst affected states include the Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi extending to parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The problem is not limited to urban developments but rather, encompasses the entire agriculture belt. Farmers install pumps to irrigate their fields and each year need to dig a little deeper in search of potable water. Punjab and Haryana are frankly not conducive to growing crops like rice which effectively requires wetlands, but they continue do so, with worrying environmental repercussions.

According to a recent report released by NASA, its Grace Mission discovered that water tables in Northern India are falling by as much as 4 cm a year. The study examined the phenomenon over a 10 year period where rainfall levels have largely remained consistent and therefore the logical conclusion that consumption in urban and rural areas has increased rapidly and at rates that are much higher than a natural rain fed recharge would allow. Over a six year time-frame, the study appallingly suggests, 109 cubic kilometres of water were depleted in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan – much more than the entire capacity of India’s largest water reservoir. Another study undertaken by India’s National Geophysical Institute argues that in certain parts of Northern India water tables fell by 60 cm per year over a two year period. Even by the most liberal benchmarks, this can only be termed shocking.

Concerns expressed by environmentalists are frequently ridiculed as cynical and exaggerated and receive small columns of coverage in central pages of newspapers. But the fact is that India faces a potentially disastrous environmental problem which so far remains ignored both by government and civil society. It’s really not that hard to imagine the outcome of saline and non-drinkable water being pumped out of the earth. Millions of people in urban areas will be left waiting for water-tanker caravans that would have to travel long distances from the few wells still holding supplies of drinkable water. Farmers would no longer be able to irrigate their crops all leading to a catastrophe of the most extreme proportions.

The solution lies in better agricultural practices in the selection of crops that are conducive to the terrain and weather conditions and effectively require less water. Paddy fields for a start must be discouraged in those places that require ground water for irrigation. Urban developments too must be environmentally conscious at levels which are much more than cosmetic, with water harvesting channels and sunken pits to absorb rain. Scenario planning and risk mitigation exercises of business enterprise will come to a nought if the most basic risk of environmental exploitation is not addressed. Risk forecasters need to carefully examine this issue with urgency. You can hardly run an office or live in a home which has no water.

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