Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Indian Water Problems: A Complicated Mess

After a quick blog post on my family ties to Gujarat, India and a few posts on world poverty, our original question still remains:

How did India get into this water quality mess in the first place?

The answer to this question is a somewhat long and convoluted discussion that merits an entire blog post. Though I'm not going to pretend to understand the entire situation, here is a summary of what I have found on the current water issue:

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my cousin's father-in-law (who currently lives in Gujarat, India) emailed an article to me written by Indira Hirway for the World Health Organization. Translated into English, the article systematically outlines Gujarat's water decline from historically stable to currently "water-stressed" to "water scarce" by the year 2050. With this report as my main source, my interpretation of the problem is as explained below.

Historically, India has had very few documented water problems. Before 1960, there was enough ground water stored in the area to fulfill the basic drinking and farming needs of the people. Due to natural water filtration of the earth, this ground water was also of fairly good quality for drinking and domestic use.

In 1960-1961, a severe drought struck India, thus causing 16-17% of Gujarati villages to experience acute shortages in drinking water. To aid its people, India's national government recognized the water crisis and proceeded to take control of traditional local water management systems. The government's plan of action was to identify water-troubled villages and provide them with a reliable water source.

Though well-intentioned, the government's temporary policy to solve the water crisis had a few unforeseen consequences. First of all, the government's original plan was to harvest ground water by implementing additional wells in water-troubled villages. Unfortunately, this solution is merely temporary in that ground water supplies typically dry up during long periods of drought. So although this scheme worked in the short-term, the benefits were short-lived after ground water resources were used up, thus causing villagers to revert back to their original situation.

Secondly, it stripped authority from the local villages that traditionally managed their own water resources. Though several people were probably happy to be relieved of their water-finding duties, this power-shift caused local villagers to become apathetic towards water-related issues in general. Most Americans can relate to this unconcerned attitude. Take a moment to think about it... Do you honestly care how water travels to your faucet? Before this class, I can easily admit that I had no idea nor was really concerned how water arrived in my early-morning-three-dollar-Starbucks-cup-of-tea. In the States, however, it's not exactly a life-or-death situation if the average American understands the idiosyncrasies of modern water treatment. Thankfully, there are enough water experts in the US to spread across the local areas and monitor water quality for the average American. In Gujarat, authority from top-level government water programs has not yet filtered down to the village level.

In addition to issues with government water policies, cultural changes in India have also led to ground water depletion. As touched upon in my former blog post on world poverty, India is a developing nation that aspires to become an influential force in the world's economy. To increase their wealth, farmers have been encouraged to increase crop production for international export. An increase in crop output requires higher demands on irrigation, which currently derives its source from ground water supplies. Deforestation for farming has also caused streams to dry up due to a sudden lack of shade and natural habitat. The current depletion of ground water is so severe in Gujarat that the water tables recede 10 feet every year.

Industry has also found a presence in developing India as more manufacturing facilities are constructed each decade. Though industry is generally a positive sign of the rise out of poverty, it creates problems in that developing countries often fail to regulate pollution emitted from factories and manufacturing plants. While also using ground water for industrial processes, many industries in Gujarat decrease water quality by dumping pollutants into ground water supplies.

Though these are just a few major contributors to Gujarat's current water woes, you may be able to see two important aspects that need to be addressed: water quantity and quality.

Gujarat has two major water sources: ground water and surface water. Ground water is a natural resource that develops as precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) falls to the earth and filters into natural cavities underground. Ground water is relatively clean (via natural rock and gravel filtration) but can have traces of minerals and salts (nitrates, fluoride, sodium chloride, arsenic). Though most of these minerals and salts won't harm humans in small doses, high levels of these natural contaminants can cause chronic health effects (cancer, fluorosis, kidney failure, birth defects, etc.). When ground water supplies are sufficiently high, salts and minerals in the water are dilute enough to be safe for drinking, farming, and domestic use. As ground water supplies become overexerted, the salts and mineral levels become dangerously concentrated, which can alter the smell, appearance, and safety of drinking water. Because locals rely heavily on ground water supplies, high salinity and mineral content are the current major concerns for Gujaratis.

Surface water consists of water supplies found in streams, lakes, ponds, and rainwater captured by manmade basins. Though easier to access, surface water comes with its own list of problems. Approximately 75% of rural villages in India lack any form of toilet facility, which means that a large majority of villagers and livestock poop wherever a convenient location might be found (near streams, ponds, grazing areas, etc.). By allowing feces to be left in the open air or deposited near surface water sources, bacteria and other microorganisms from fecal matter are able to run into surface water supplies after each rain. If consumed, these microorganisms can cause typhoid, tuberculosis, and diarrhea -- diseases known to kill thousands of children and adults in developing countries. In addition to parasites and algae naturally found in streams and ponds, it is apparent that surface water must undergo several purification steps to ensure that the water is safe to drink. In Gujarat, however, sufficient water treatment facilities are simply not yet available.

So what's the overall water picture in Gujarat? Here's a simple breakdown:

(1) There is not enough ground water to safely support current levels of irrigation, industrial processes, and drinking & domestic uses.

(2) During water shortages, villagers may be forced to use surface water, which must be adequately treated to prevent water-borne illnesses.

(3) Currently, rural areas of Gujarat lack adequate resources of electricity, health care, and toilet facilities required to run wells, treat water-borne diseases, and prevent surface water contamination.

(4) Top-level government policies are inefficient in that local villagers remain uneducated on water quality issues that may adversely affect their health.

Though there are many interconnected factors contributing to water quality issues in Gujarat, the above points are four major topics that must firstly be considered in this project to develop a sustainable solution to this design problem.

Working with a non-government organization, Sadguru, it is our hope to design and implement some sort of technology that will positively impact the people of Gujarat.


Mike said...

Very well written document.

The united states is starting to deplete it's water quickly. I fear that they'll consider water the next oil and take is from Canada, where I live.

Any thought on desalination plants taking water from the Indian ocean?

Julia Jones said...

Desalination (e.g. removing salt from saltwater) is used in southern regions of the United States (mainly, Florida and Georgia). Currently, the only technology available for desalination is a process called "reverse osmosis". This works pretty well, but requires high energy input (electricity) to create very high pressure levels needed to push water molecules through a reverse osmosis filter. I've heard of several research labs and companies working on better technologies for desalination, but it may take 5-10 years to become a widespread reality.

Julia Jones said...

Furthermore, electricity is not very abundant in rural areas of India... so desalination isn't a feasible technology for Gujarat at this time.

brett said...

love to see this discussion! It’s great to see you all working through the issues and also, it’s great to see recommendations for testing. In the end, it’s what your actual users do and prefer that should be your biggest driver in making these decisions.

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