Achintya Bezbaruah

We need a long-term water master plan to supply safe drinking water to everybody in a time-bound manner. It is always scary to hear the word ‘master plan’ as they are mostly paper tigers and provide a livelihood for some, and most importantly, never implemented. What we need in Assam is a ‘Vision for Water’.

The value of water is known from time immemorial. The river valleys have hosted all major civilizations. The water from rivers provides for irrigation, drinking water and power generation, among other services. Water is considered holy across the world. Water is the ultimate cleanser with its unique purifying power. Water symbolizes calmness and serenity. For some, water represents wisdom. Water unites us all.

Assam got 1334.3 millimetres (52.53 inches) of rainfall in 2020. The mighty Brahmaputra and the majestic Barak with their major tributaries drain the water. What a perfect arrangement by nature! Now come the 3.6 crore people of Assam and their daily struggle for safe drinking water. The premier city of Guwahati has no well-organized water supply system and ‘private’ entities supply ‘drinking’ water to the taxpayers at a premium. Flushing of the toilets is regulated in many families and some are flushing after multiple uses only. Guwahati is not alone, the whole state has been facing severe water scarcity for years now. Lack of a well laid out water management plan and mismanagement of both surface and groundwater resources have put the public at great risk. We also have not made plans to harvest rain and pristine atmospheric water!

Only around 46% of people and 43% of households in Assam have access to ‘safe’ drinking water. Lack of safe drinking water leads to diarrhoea, dysentery and other gastrointestinal disorders. Most people do not even know that drinking water causes such diseases.

There are criticisms that ‘the priority sectors in water supply management were not identified nor was any survey conducted relating to dependability and reliability of water sources’ and that ‘the norms were not followed, the selection of projects under major schemes was neither based on scientific analysis nor in consonance with the guidelines’. Well, we can continue the blame game but what we need is a pragmatic approach. The State known for its high rainfall and two mighty rivers should not go thirsty.

We need a long-term water master plan to supply safe drinking water to everybody in a time-bound manner. It is always scary to hear the word ‘master plan’ as they are mostly paper tigers and provide a livelihood for some, and most importantly, never implemented. What we need in Assam is a ‘Vision for Water’. We need visionaries in our political and administrative leadership groups. Assam has shown respectable leadership in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is the time for us to show some leadership, i.e., Water Leadership!

Surface water is the obvious choice as the source for drinking water for Assam. The surface water resources include rivers, streams, beels, and ponds (pukhuris). Currently, only 20% of the potentially usable water of the Brahmaputra is used for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes. While the majority (81%) is used for irrigation, only a meagre 10% is used for domestic uses. Compared to that, the total water withdrawal from the Ganges is 27 times higher even though the amount of the Brahmaputra water is the largest in India and the fifth largest in the world. The average annual flow in the Brahmaputra is about 20,000 cubic metres per second (m3/s) with an average dry season flow of 4,420 m3/s. There are 20 listed important tributaries of the Brahmaputra on the north bank and 13 on the south bank. The river Barak has 8 major tributaries in the valley. Of the 33 districts in Assam, 17 are riverine! This is a gift to the State from nature, and we need to step up and plan for the future. Even if we supply everybody in Assam 135 litres of drinking water every day, we will use less than 1.5% of the dry-weather flow of the Brahmaputra. This is not the first time that somebody has proposed the use of river water for drinking. Prof Arup Sarma from IIT Guwahati proposed back in 2005 that we should use only surface water for drinking in greater Guwahati. While the Brahmaputra will serve most of the communities on both its banks, smaller rivers (streams) can serve the remote communities.

Surface water typically contains pathogenic microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. Also, surface water contains particulate matter that imparts the characteristic colour of the water. A typical treatment flow sequence for any surface water will contain initial screened intake, aeration, sedimentation, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation (again), filtration and disinfection before supplying the water to the public. While it sounds complicated, it is a very straight forward and standard process. About 86% of Delhi’s water supply comes from surface water (Yamuna river, Ganga canal, western Yamuna canal and Bhakra canal).

Renowned scholar Prof Mohammed Taher listed (2006) 104 tributaries of the Brahmaputra from Kobo to Mankachar. Where have all the smaller tributaries vanished? Is it possible to revive the vanishing rivers? We can emulate the villagers in Kerala who revived the Kuttemperoor river in Alappuzha district when water scarcity turned unbearable. The river was ‘dead’ for two decades as urbanization squeezed the once 120-feet wide river to a 20-feet narrow polluted stream. A 700-strong team of villagers, mostly women, worked heart and soul for 70 days. The river started flowing again in March of 2017. We need the resolve and a movement. If we do not act now, then (in poet Navakanta Barua’s words) our rivers will continue to become streams, streams will become sand dunes, gradually, every month, every year. We will be looking for drops of drinking water in the dunes, in futility. We need the smaller rivers and streams too for our water supply projects.

Our right to drinking water is non-negotiable. There should be no second-guessing about water-related projects. The investments in water projects are for the future of the State. Being one of the rainiest regions in the world, why should not we be the richest in water resources? It is time to act today as if there is no tomorrow.

With our surface water sources (rivers and streams) rejuvenated, we are looking at an abundance of drinking water in the immediate future and for the generations to come. With healthy rivers and streams, the flood will be tamed and our wetlands (beels and pukhuris) will be vibrant again. We will also be empowering the communities whose economy depends on our rivers, streams and beels.

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