Editorial: Tanks for water security | Centre for Science and Environment


Editorial: Tanks for water security

 


Editorial: Tanks for water security

Dear friends,
Tanks, johads, talaabs, eris, wewas, pukhurs – many names for the same thing. A water body to store rainwater. Across South Asia, we have a common heritage of using natural and artificial ponds for water security. These evolved from the recognition that rains are seasonal and sometimes erratic. Therefore, they must be stored if communities have to survive the long dry seasons. Around these local people evolved their protocols and methods of drinking water, agriculture and culture. But in post-colonial South Asia, they have withered away.

Sri Lanka is a tank civilisation with some 30,000 scattered across the country. Nearly all are artificial and inter-connected in cascades. This is also the pattern in India from Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu but in Sri Lanka these cascades have been systematically studied and documented. There are some plans for their revival as well, but like elsewhere in the region, corruption and engineering priorities have undermined actual restoration work.

The tanks are Sri Lanka’s agrarian backbone and water security. But they are under threat from encroachment in the catchments, permanent cultivation on tank beds, poor maintenance that results in dyke failures and a general lack of understanding of how sluices were constructed. The channels connecting them are also in poor shape. Restoration activities seldom look at the entire cascade system or even a tank in its entirety – catchment, storage, dykes and command. As a result, fixing one part often causes another to degenerate prompting patchwork fixes.

Take desilting. When they were made, catchments were protected with plantation and there were silt traps to keep the tanks from silting up. The catchments are no longer as forested as before and silt traps have long since disappeared under encroachments. People cultivate the tank beds leaving loose soil to fill up the tanks. The irrigation department of Sri Lanka sanctions a desilting project and a contractor excavates the soil and dumps it in fields or any convenient location. The cost of desilting is prohibitive so only a small bit of the tank is desilted, increasing its capacity marginally. Sometimes desilting is done close to the bund, weakening it.

Then there is sluice repair. The old sluices were designed to tap water from the upper layers of the reservoir. Their replacements do the opposite. Studies have shown the upper layers of water are less saline than the lower ones and tapping them first ensured salinity did not build up in fields and affect paddy growth. Now, as water with higher salinity is released, salinity levels in fields are slowly rising with adverse effects on rice output. But engineers understand only the new sluice system as they have never learnt about the old one.

Corruption remains a common bug-bear. In one instance, the irrigation department sanction Rs 12 lakh for desilting a pond but villagers say only about Rs 5 lakh was actually spent while the rest went to line pockets. Not only is the quantity of desilting less than planned, the overall tank system is compromised by corruption and expediency. In a country that lacks an alternative irrigation system, systematically undermining tank cascades will be catastrophic.

We have seen the consequences in India. As village ponds and other similar water storage systems have declined, so have groundwater levels. True, the tubewell explosion is more to blame but retaining or expanding surface storage could have mitigated the groundwater emergency we now face. Small water storages are also a good buffer against erratic monsoons and can absorb and store heavy rainfall for future use. All that is being rapidly lost. Maybe other countries can take heed from India’s mistakes before they also reach our state of emergency.

 
Nitya Jacob, CSE
 
Watered down: Demand for clean water created conflict in Sri Lanka

The government of Sri Lanka has promised the entire population to provide safe drinking water by the year 2020 and the deadline will not be compromised under any circumstances announced the President of the island country this year. This announcement was followed by an incident in the  Rathupaswala area of Gampaha district where demand of drinking water called for open fire in the area. The government deployed an army contingent that attacked about 5,000 protesters, killing three youths and injuring about 30 people. This protest was  by local people demanding the removal of a glove-making factory, Dipped Products Ltd. (DPL), that is suspected of contaminating groundwater in the area. Residents were demanding for closing of the factory. The villagers in the area explained that the police used tear gas to break up the protest, but when protesters clashed with police, the army shot at them.

Even today the villagers are scared to talk about this attack. A school teacher in the area who is afraid to give her name said that her students suffered from skin diseases due to the acidic groundwater occurring in the area. Almost seven villages in the area are affected says the representatives of Gram Niladhari (equivalent to the office of Gram Panchayat). Meanwhile the factory was closed down. The villagers in the affected area have to pay 17, 000 Sri Lankan Rupees (SLR) per household to Water Board to get a good quality water connection. Poor people are still managing with the acidic groundwater says Prof. Mahdumma Bandara, an environmentalist from Anuradhapura. But things went in favour of the protesters when a Sri Lankan court issued a notice to the  Central Environmental Authority , the Board of Investment (BOI) and the controversial glove maker on the issue of water pollution, last month. To reopen the factory, the factory head offered money to the villagers so that they can bring in safe water from the Water Board supply said Prof. Bandara. The factory owners are even ready to take away the polluted water to nearby recycling plant. They are in dialogue with the BOI on this subject. The factory is planning for advance technologies for a water recycling plant said the local sources.

Safe drinking water is a limited resource in the Sri Lanka according to the water experts. Therefore, the government is implementing many projects to provide drinking water for all. The Water Board is planning to invest 34 million SLR for the projects. To conserve the groundwater, there should be strong rules and penalties in this island country so that there is no repetition of Rathupaswala case feels the environmentalists. Rainwater harvesting projects and tank restoration projects can also be used as effective tools to ensure a sustainable groundwater resource in such areas feel the water experts.

Sushmita Sengupta, CSE
 
Urbanization and Access to Basic Amenities in Kathmandu Valley

Kathmandu valley, the economic hub of Nepal, is one of the fastest growing urban areas in South Asia. Covering a total area of 665 square kilometers, the Kathmandu valley accommodates a population of 2,517,023 million (as per 2011 census). Undoubtedly, like in many other under developed countries, urbanization has contributed to the socio-economic development of the valley, however, it has also contributed towards the pressure on its existing urban infrastructure and delivery of basic amenities such as access to adequate water services and sanitation. As more and more people migrate to cities from the rural areas, the existing urban water services are becoming less adequate. The Kathmandu valley is another example of such haphazard urbanization. This urbanization process has posed numerous challenges specifically for the under developed countries compared to the developed world. This is because primarily the urbanization in less developed countries has not been a gradual process such as it was in the developed world. Instead, in the under developed countries the urbanization phenomenon took place in an ‘explosive’ format. The cities of less developed countries fail to cope with the situation due to the lack of capacity in terms of planning and resources required extending the new water services and maintaining the existing ones.

Although since 2008 the government of Nepal has adopted a national urban policy with an aim to create a healthy socio-economic environment in Kathmandu, however because of lack of its effective implementation the urban environment of Kathmandu valley is still continuously deteriorating. Today, the socio-economic and environmental situation of Kathmandu valley is being severely affected by its unplanned urbanization. As a result, Kathmandu valley is facing serious problems such as river pollution, waste management, poor sanitation, squatter settlements and a huge gap in its supply and demand of basic amenities such as access to adequate water supply. Today, water demand in Kathmandu valley has increased to 320 MLD from 125 MLD in 1999. As urban areas of Kathmandu valley are expanding continuously, its ground water recharge area is decreasing. Both its water quality and quantity is deteriorating. According to a recent report “status and strategy for faecal sludge management in Kathmandu valley”, around 70 percent households of the valley dispose excreta directly into the sewer lines. Only 15 percent of its houses are connected to sewerage network system.

It is clearly visible that urban areas of Kathmandu valley will continue to grow. In absence of any rational urban planning and its effective implementation, this growth will create extremely grave situations for its habitants in the near future.

Amandeep Kang, CSE
 
 
 
 
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