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Millions in India lack water as country dries up

Date: 09-Jun-03
Country: INDIA
Author: Sugita Katyal

Environmentalists say the dramatic drop in the water table has also raised water contamination levels and groundwater in some parts of the country is polluted with high levels of nitrates, fluoride and even arsenic.

"We're in an extremely fragile situation. Access to clean drinking water is a problem for tens of thousands of people in India," Sumita Dasgupta, a water expert from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told Reuters.

"The rate at which the population is increasing and groundwater levels are dipping makes things very critical," she added as the world marked World Environment Day focusing on water as the main theme.

India depends on the annual June-September monsoon for most of its water needs, and although it receives around 4,000 billion cubic metres of rain during these months, the country is bone-dry for the rest of the year.

Over the years, many of the the country's rivers, wells and ponds have dried up due to poor monsoon rains, forcing millions of people to tap groundwater instead.

This year, people have been trekking long distances in search of wells with water and waiting hours in the scorching sun for water tankers as a severe heat wave grips the country.

"The water table in some areas like the Thar desert, Gujarat and parts of peninsular India has sunk by between 20 and 60 metres in the past 35 years, affecting the quality of water," Radha Singh, a senior water ministry official, told Reuters.

"We could face massive water stress unless we stop mining of water and supplement groundwater with water from other sources."

According to the ministry of water resources, the per capita availability of water has fallen to 1,869 cubic metres a day from 4,000 about two decades ago and with the rate at which the population is growing, it could dip to below 1,000 in 20 years.

Although 1,800 cubic metres is not a low figure, officials and environmentalists say the water is unevenly distributed.

Authorities and conservationists say the solution to India's water crisis lies in reviving traditional methods of "rainwater harvesting" which involve tapping the runoff from the annual monsoon and piping it underground to recharge depleted aquifers.

"It's not a magical solution but long-term it's the only solution," said Dasgupta. "It has been used in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat to convert barren lands into lush green fields."

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