Reviving water bodies

R Rajamani

Water bodies are sources where water is stored or from which water flows. The dictionary describes water bodies as “seas, rivers, lakes and streams”. By an extension, water bodies should include reservoirs, ponds, tanks, springs, wells, waterfalls, and groundwater reservoirs or aquifers. There are other sources that store water as well but are not so well known or talked about. These include marshes, swamps, mangroves, snow, limestone formations or caves, rocks and even some plants, trees or roots that store rain or groundwater. Mountains and hills are storehouses of water. Many rivers originate from them (e.g., the Himalayas, Western and Eastern Ghats, Aravallis, Vindhya, etc.) Arctic and Antarctic snow caps and similar caps on mountains like the Himalayas, Alps, and Pyrenees and even icebergs are potential sources of water. These are sources of drinking water for human beings, animals, and birds or for irrigation, washing or bathing, swimming, sailing, for use in power and industrial plants, farms, fishing, and navigational modes of transport of goods and living beings. Their effect on micro and macro climate, especially in tropical settings is immense. An example from the oceans is the El Nino effect that influences the monsoon rains. They also form a valuable part of the evaporation cycle of rains, storages, and flows. Taps, showers, bathtubs, and tankers are not water bodies but are at the end usage cycle of rains, storages, and flows. It is important to note that there are both natural and man-made water storages – reservoirs and canals, for instance – and both have an important role to play.

Water bodies in Tradition and History
In India, water is considered as one of the “Panch Maha Boothas” – air, water, land, wind and ether (atmosphere or sky). Ancients recognised the vital role of water in sustenance of human and other life. The respect for water bodies thus took various forms. Human settlements sprang up on river banks or near lakes, ponds and springs. Rivers were worshipped as gods and goddesses and invested with both divinity and human qualities. Hence, they are given feminine and masculine names. It is noteworthy that all names of big rivers like Ganga, Narmada, Krishna and Godavari are feminine or bisexual names while, Brahmaputra is the lone masculine name! In cases of storage sources like ponds, they were named after places where they were located or after deities. People go in large numbers even today on festival days to have a bath in the river and have food on river banks. Water in most rivers is considered holy. Water from the Ganga is used in purification rituals or for cleaning oneself and the spirit. Science is now discovering, especially in the river Ganga, living organisms which do good to our health often offsetting the ill effects of bad bacteria and the like.

Many civilisations revered water. But some of them disappeared like Rome with the Tiber and Babylon with Tigris and Euphrates due to water being dealt with wrongly or with disdain. A whole sea in Central Asia disappeared to become the “Dead Sea”. But the Arab world too protected its rivers and the oases of water as they were pools of the precious liquid, water, in an area where water was scarce, especially in the deserts. We notice a similar approach in India where many groves or clumps of trees were treated as “sacred” because they not only had water storage in various forms like springs, wells, waterfalls, streams or rivulets. Thus, even in mountainous regions, water was stored in oak tree clusters or in tracts like the shoal forests of Nilgiri Hills. The people, especially those living in and around arid areas, recognised the significance of the presence of water in these groves which could be drawn upon in times of distress caused by water crises. A study in Andhra Pradesh some years back of the “Sacred and Protected Groves” showed a considerable presence of such groves in the parched region of Rayalaseema. Oraons of Rajasthan, Lyngdohs of Meghalaya and Deverakadu of Karnataka are other examples. In Kerala snakes are worshipped under trees like the papal (ficus religiosa) which exhale a great deal of oxygen and promote the evaporation cycle.

Water bodies have various benefits. Flowing water in rivers brings silt and rich nutrients from the upper reaches to downstream regions, which become rich ‘deltas’ and valuable farmland. Farming, whether by flow, lift or baling depends on water bodies. Even in dry or upland areas not having man-made sources like reservoirs and canals, there are rainwater harvesting structures like below the ground aquifers, check dams on streams, wells and ponds, which supply water for both human needs and for valuable crops like cereals, pulses, and oil seeds. Water bodies inside forests sustain our wildlife – an invaluable pool of biodiversity aided by perennial pools of water. Water is important in industrial uses for cleaning equipment, cooling plants and for use as raw material in industries like leather tanning. In farms, water aids not only crop rearing but also fish culture in water filled fields. In most medicines, water is an important component both in manufacture and consumption. Hydel power, which is a valuable supplement to other forms of energy comes from water bodies whose flows drive the turbines. The water body in the sea nurtures marine life, plays a major role in the monsoon cycle and aids navigation through passenger and cargo ships and tankers. Inland navigation on rivers is another form of transport that is less costly and less polluting than other forms. Water bodies in the seas and lakes play a key role in keeping temperatures down and cooling winds, thus helping to moderate micro and global climate. Water bodies have a role in flood control as well. The flood plains and swamps act as sponges that absorb flood waters. Thus, while there are endless benefits, water bodies will continue to survive only when man gets his act together and stops polluting or harming them.

How water bodies are affected
If man continues to interfere, water bodies will have less water tomorrow, recharge less groundwater and will also affect the micro climate. Mostly, water bodies lose water when they are drained for land reclamation to convert buildings, parks, etc. Water bodies are also partially affected when they lose their foreshores or banks to similar developments. Foreshore will include loss of water absorbing trees like acacia nilotica (babul) or barringtonia. In water bodies which attract aquatic and avian (bird) life in themselves, such life is supported in different ways. Another ill effect on rivers is caused by excessive creation of storage capacity for hydel power generation or irrigation, thus diminishing the river water flow, which, if maintained at reasonable levels, helps in fertilizing deltas and supporting life, such as turtles, dolphins, otters and fish that move up and down a stream. If this freedom of movement is hampered, it affects the survival of such species. In Colorado river in USA, where such effects were observed, some dams were reported to have been dismantled to keep the river flowing. Such smooth flows in ocean going rivers help in discharging terrestrial nutrients into the sea, allowing marine life to flourish.

In many cases, the consequences of reclamation of beds of water bodies as in the Yamuna river bed can have other unforeseen consequences like flooding. A few years ago, reclamation of swamps and mangroves to create office complexes in the Bandra-Kurla area of Mumbai city caused overflow of water injuring lives and infrastructure. Overuse of water from water bodies can also have adverse consequences. An example is the cultivation of water intensive crops in the upper reaches of a canal, thus starving the tail end command (irrigable) area of water, creating imbalances in development and productivity and also resulting in water disputes. Over and above the optimal use of water even in the lower reaches can affect the river flows and deltas as in the Kaveri river in Tamilnadu. Equitable distribution of water from water bodies, especially in the villages, if neglected can create disaffection and distrust among beneficiaries. Excessive use of water leading to depleting water bodies can arise in other situations also. Flooding of farmlands beyond the optimum levels can affect crops and also diminish water sources.

Consuming water beyond real requirements or wasting it is rather more common in cities and towns. People in villages, deserts, and dry areas understand the value of water better than urban folk or industries, who merrily overuse or waste water. Such conspicuous consumption has severe consequences not only on water bodies but also on other users. If these demands on water escalate, tensions among people and even nations can erupt. Some forecasts of the next world war being a ‘Water War’ may look foolish or remote now, but it is something we have to bear in mind when using water or conserving water bodies. In the process, we can revert to developing human settlements near water bodies instead of transporting water over long distances using pipe lines that leak or water tankers that not only leak but also burn diesel just to transport water! The expansion of a city like Hyderabad is a case in point. The city is located in a water short area, which can no longer meet the requirements from proximate sources. Its three lakes do not supply enough water to meet the demands of the burgeoning population, with Hussain Sagar water no longer being potable. Now water is being pumped from the Krishna river, and the Godavari river is next in line to supply the city with water. If the city expands further and its water bodies, even in surrounding areas vanish at a rapid rate, there will be a problem that none of us will have a solution to. In about four decades, nearly 70 per cent of the water bodies in the Hyderabad metropolitan area have been converted to other uses. Water bodies that existed earlier like the Masab tank and Gachi Bowli are now only names of places! Catchments capturing water for the lakes and the Musi river have been deforested or built upon and the top of the catchment in the KBR National Park is now threatened by recreational walking, creating roads and rills that take away water instead of recharging it. A well planned expansion of towns is simply not being considered.

Another big enemy of water bodies is the pollution caused by man-made factors. Discharge of urban or rural sewage directly into lakes or rivers is compounded by the problem of pouring of chemical wastes into water bodies, making them unfit for drinking, washing or recreation. Large-scale submergence of big idols using non-biodegradable material on festival days into water bodies aggravates the situation. Pollution often results in spreading diseases, especially among the poor who unwittingly use the water for domestic needs. Odour pollution can also affect the quality of life, recreation and tourism. Wrong use of water bodies or pollution even in villages is a matter of concern. Even vehicles are taken into the lake beds for washing and discharging oil wastes. This can seep into groundwater and village wells with major consequences on water needs of the villagers. Worse is the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in farm fields, the run-off from which enters water bodies. Where industries like leather are located in rural areas, their water effluent discharges deplete soil nutrition and crop production itself.

These problems that affect water bodies can no longer be ignored or dismissed as fanciful. Serious action has to be taken to ensure their integrity and availability of clean water.

Measures to save and conserve
While strict legislation to conserve our water bodies and prevent their misuse should be brought in, it is equally important to have an attitudinal change in our governments, civic bodies and local administration like municipal corporations and panchayats. Equally important is the approach to conservation by citizens and courts of law. Sometimes this is demonstrated by the people themselves as in Plachimada village of Kerala, where people stalled and stopped an industry from over exploitation of groundwater. Not everywhere is the public fully aware of the consequences of their water bodies being affected in any manner. Therefore, campaigns must be launched by administrations, civil society organizations, experts, community leaders and citizens to conserve water bodies. Civic authorities should notify and enforce plans for development, earmarking and demarcating water bodies and refuse to allow diversions or deviations and not allow any occupation on them.

To tackle pollution, laws should be promulgated and enforced prohibiting discharge of industrial and domestic pollutants into water bodies. Inlets and outlets of water bodies should not be clogged by encroachments. Non-biodegradable matter including idols should not be allowed to be immersed in water bodies like seas, lakes and rivers. Panchayats should keep vigil against pollution of water bodies. Examples of optimum use of water as practised in deserts and arid areas and in countries like Israel should be set before the government, authorities and the people. It would be ideal to have a statutory authority in each state to enforce safe conservation of water bodies and order prompt action to quell encroachments and pollution.

Role of schools, academia, and teachers
As stressed above, creating awareness about the need to conserve water bodies and not waste water can be on the shoulders of our citizens, which should include our children, youth and teachers also. Children should set examples at home and in schools by using small quantities of water to wash, brush teeth, bathe, etc. Taps should be closed firmly after use. Walks should be organized on river banks and lake bunds not only to celebrate the conservation of water but to bring to notice of the authorities the encroachments or discharge of pollutants or throwing rubbish into water bodies. School managements and teachers should participate actively in this effort. The students can also take time off on holidays to remove wastes like plastic from water bodies, taking great care if they do not know swimming! Excursions to well conserved lakes and rivers would be an added attraction as well as a motivator to do something to conserve water bodies in their own localities.

The slogan should be “Save water bodies and Save Ourselves”!

The author retired as Secretary, Environment & Forests, Government of India and lives in Hyderabad.

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