For 11-year-old Yogita Desai, the water pump was close to her house—only a 500-metre walk. But it wasn’t the distance that killed her; it was the interminable wait and the five trips she made to and from the pump.
In a missive to the Supreme Court in end May, the government confirmed that 330 million Indians had been impacted by the drought, a preliminary estimate as several states were yet to submit their data.
Environmentalists have been highlighting the devastating human costs of extreme weather events for years. According to the Stern Review, 200 million people globally could be displaced by rising sea levels and droughts. This is not a distant scenario. Already, drought relief camps have sprung up in Mumbai to house villagers leaving Nanded, Latur, Osmanabad, Hingoli and Buldhana districts of Maharashtra in search of food and water. These villagers are fleeing a prolonged and agonizing three-year water shortage. In several cases, parents have had to leave their children behind, unable to afford the high costs of travel to cities. During the first four months of 2016, over 300 farmers committed suicide in the state.
Presently, relief efforts are focused on diverting funds to state water departments and sending tankers to affected locations. But India’s water crisis cannot be solved with stopgap measures. We need systemic change that addresses the root cause of the situation. Data from the Central Water Commission reveals that our major reservoirs are 79% empty and that river basins are holding less water than they have in the last 10 years—dispelling any hope that a good monsoon will quickly improve the situation.
The solution lies in resurrecting the sources of our rivers—our forests. On paper, India’s forest cover stands at approximately 21% but barely 5% is good quality forest that can still provide us with ecosystem services such as clean drinking water.
Breaking that down further, a mere 2% are tiger forests that feed, or are the sources of, over 600 life-giving rivers. To name a few—the Kanha Tiger Reserve forms the southern source of the Narmada River; the Tapi is fed by the Melghat Tiger Reserve and the catchment area of the Pench River, which provides water to Nagpur, falls under the Pench Tiger Reserve. Similarly, the Satkosia Tiger Reserve is an important catchment area for the Mahanadi River and the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (encompassing Wayanad, Bandipur, Mudumalai and Nagarahole, among other protected areas) is the catchment area for several tributaries of the Kabini and Cauvery rivers.
No wonder the tiger is written in our scriptures as the pattedar paani ka devta or the striped water God! In its forests lies India’s hope for a secure future and an essential piece of the solution to the water crisis.
Here’s what we need to do:
• Identify a list of priority catchment areas and conduct detailed threat and land-use assessments
• Design integrated projects that address the needs of the natural ecosystems and the communities living in close proximity to them
• Alleviate human pressure on the forests by providing access to education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities to local communities
• Strengthen on-ground protection by equipping and training forest guards
This sounds ambitious but it is possible if businesses rally together to support the government. India’s Corporate Social Responsibility Act has paved the way for companies to contribute to the country’s development, and integrated projects such as these are essential. If each company were to adopt a protected area, and channel its funds and technical knowledge towards empowering communities and forest departments, change would be rapid and long-lasting.
This approach is grounded in economics and makes good financial sense. A recent economic valuation of six of India’s tiger reserves carried out by the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, emphasized the importance of tiger reserves to water security. The Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) in Uttarakhand constitutes the catchment area of the Ramganga reservoir that provides 190 million cubic metre of drinking water to Delhi. The purification services provided by CTR for water supplied to Delhi have been estimated at ₹ 55 crore per year. Similarly, CTR provides irrigation water to downstream districts of Uttar Pradesh valued at ₹ 161 crore per year.
Moving down south, in Kerala, the Periyar River—the longest in the state—and one of its tributaries, Mullayar, originate in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR). The two meet at the Periyar Lake and the entire watershed of the lake lies in PTR. Water from this lake is largely supplied to the rain-shadow districts—Theni and Madurai—in Tamil Nadu.
A change needs to take place at the policy level too. Different ministries—water, infrastructure, power, human development—need to work in a cohesive manner. This will allow us to address the twin crises of poverty and resource scarcity and allow the fruits of development to reach vulnerable communities.
The current drought is a wake-up call for India. As the business community, we need to rally together to safeguard our natural infrastructures and support our country on the path to sustainable and inclusive development.
Hemendra Kothari is chairman of DSP BlackRock Mutual Fund, and founder and chairman of Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai.