These days we are talking a lot about water crises in India. For example, there was a ‘Walk the Talk’ programme in NDTV on 28th September with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who is now on a mission, “Rally for Rivers” in the North India. What the Coimbatore-based Sadhguru advocating is to go for tree crops like fruit trees on the cropping land and also to plant trees on the river banks. What he is advocating is a rather comprehensive plan of afforestation in the command areas.
On questioning the importance of afforestation on the catchment areas, Sadhguru affirmed that maintaining 100% forest cover in all the catchment areas of all rivers and streams is of paramount importance. But he was not asked the obvious question why is he not campaigning first for the afforestation of the catchment areas? People in India have an ingenious way of avoiding serious questions and evading crucial issues: be ever pleasing but never achieving: Injustice Invisible.
The catchment area of a river is the area from where the river receives surface and underground flow of rain water; the river normally has many streams and small rivers as tributaries. The concept of catchment area is applied even to the smallest stream as the area from which it receives surface and underground flow of rain water.
People in general especially those who focus on socio-political and spiritual aspects of the society, are apathetic towards mundane things like afforestation of the catchment areas in a country. So too may be Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. Afforesting catchment areas is much more difficult than afforesting any of the command areas. This write up is to assert to everyone that the first and foremost step to solve the water crisis in our country is to afforest all the catchment areas of all the rivers and their tributaries in our country.
It should be noted that any amount of afforestation of places other than the catchment areas is futile for solving water shortage in rivers. This imperative is based on certain ecological correlation between the density of trees in a catchment area with the rain water recharging capacity of the same catchment area and its discharging capacity to the tributaries of a river originating from it.
It is an ecological injustice to go for afforestation of command areas without foresting fully the catchment areas. Afforestation in the command areas is easier, noticeable, popular, catchy and politically advantageous whereas afforestation of remote and hidden catchment areas is just the opposite but it is the correct and first thing to do solving water crisis not only in India but anywhere in the world. If there is any deficiency in the afforestation of the catchment areas, a nation can reel under acute water stress beyond our imagination.
It is also important that all the catchment areas in the country should be fully forested as there is a combined effect on the atmospheric humidity to be maintained in the mountain systems of a country in order to maintain normal rainfall and normal recharging of the tributaries of our rivers. Forestation of catchment areas is the MOST IMPORTANT thing to be done for solving the water problem; but people seem to do anything other than foresting the catchment area for solving water problem: Injustice Invisible.
There is a direct and natural correlation between the degree of slopes and the density of forests for the maintenance of a healthy eco-system and to conserve enough water for the country. For the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem at least 66.6 to 75 percent of the land area should be under forest: even in a flat cultivable land the forest cover should be a minimum of 33.3 percent. However, all the areas above 15 degrees or 33.3% slope (1:3 = vertical: horizontal) should be completely under natural perennial forest and no domestic animal or human interference is allowed which will erode the land.
It should be noted that the slopes between 9 and 15 degrees or 20 to 33.3 percent (1/5 to 1/3 = vertical to horizontal) should be used only for tree crops like various types of fruit trees. These are the fundamental conditions for maintaining any land-surface-eco-system in an ecologically healthy and balanced condition.
As was mentioned in the Walk the Talk, 100% forest cover of all the catchment areas of all rivers in India will have the potency of providing 96 percent of the water to all the rivers in our country. The rest 4% of the river water comes from Himalayan glaciers. But that is only for a few of the rivers that originate from Himalayan Mountains.
In our country vast majority of the rivers have rain as their only source of water. The average rainy days in our country is estimated to be around 45 days. Hence, we need to conserve maximum rainwater in the catchment areas to maintain our rivers with sufficient water flowing for all the people to fulfill their water needs. That is possible only if we have 100% perennial tree cover in all the catchment areas above 9 degrees or 20% slope (1:5 = vertical to horizontal) of all the rivers in our country and also there should be no human or domestic animal interference.
Water sufficiency at all levels in our country is possible only if we have 100% perennial forest cover in all the catchment areas, above 9 degrees or 20% slope (1:5 = vertical to horizontal), of all the rivers in our country and also there should be no human or domestic animal interference into those areas. Command area development without catchment area development is futile and is an Environmental Injustice Invisible. Forest catchment area first and then only forest command area: is an immutable Ecological Law.
As already mentioned the catchment areas having perennial forests with lot of undergrowth bushes, creepers and thick mulch of fallen leaves is the natural storage of rain water from which water will be released slowly after the rainy season. Greater the density of forest in the catchment areas more will be the storage of rain water and the availability of water to the rivers and to the people who depend on them. Normally all the tributaries of the rivers are originating from mountain ranges. Therefore, the entire mountain ranges in our country which are above 9 degrees or 20 per cent (1:5 vertical to horizontal) slope be should be kept perennially under forest cover.
However, several surveys have shown that the average depletion of greenery in our country is almost 80% including the catchment areas. The forest cover in some of the most important States, as per survey by National Institute for Transforming India, January, 2017 in percentage are: Andhra Pradesh 16.7; Bihar 7.7; Gujarat 7.5; Haryana 3.6; Jammu and Kashmir 10.1; Jharkhand 29.4; Karnataka 18.8; Madhya Pradesh 25.2; Maharashtra 16.4; Punjab 3.5; Rajasthan 4.7; Tamil Nadu 18.3; Uttar Pradesh 5.9; and West Bengal 18.9.
They are far below the prescribed national average of 66.6 percent; most of them are at single digit level. Now let us look at the forest cover in the major mountains ranges in India to have a deeper understanding of the pitiable and precarious condition water resources in India.
The Western ghats which should have 100% forest cover lost 35% during the nine decades. Even five per cent loss of forest in Western ghats is a great loss environmentally. Whereas the total forests cover in Eastern Ghats decreased from 100 % to 31.7 % by 2013. It is reported that the natural vegetation cover of Aravalli hills has decreased from 30% in 1982 to 15% in 1998-2001 while the latest information gathered by Indian Remote Sensing and Wide Field Sensor is that the forest cover in Aravalli mountain ranges is reduced to just 7 per cent. The forest cover in the five Himalayan States is reduced from a minimum optimum of 66% to mere 31 per cent. Though the forest cover in the North East is comparatively high no rivers except Brahmaputra, flows into the Indian sub-continent.
The above data show that the forest cover in all the mountain ranges in India are far below the required level; hence the rain water holding capacity too is abysmally low resulting in the steady drying of all the rivers originating from those mountain forests as we are observing.
Now we shall take stock of the number of rivers originating from the major mountain ranges in our country. In Karnataka, there are 16 major rivers and their tributaries originating from Western Ghats; in Tamil Nadu there are 25 major rivers and their tributaries originating from Western Ghats; in Kerala 41 rivers are originating from Western Ghats; Tapti river and its tributaries originate from Satpura range whereas river Narmada originates from Maikal ranges in M.P. Both Vindya and Satpura ranges are the origin of many tributaries of Narmada and Tapti.
More than 21 rivers and their tributaries are originating from the Eastern Ghats besides major rivers like Tungabhadra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri cutting across Eastern Ghats which also provide many tributaries to them. The origin of Mahanadi is Sihawa mountain range in Chhattisgarh; Tunga and Bhadra rivers though called Tungabhadra river originate from Western ghats of Karnataka; Godavari originates from Brahmagiri mountain range on the Western Ghats of Maharashtra; Krishna originates from Mahabeleswar in Maharashtra, a part of Western Ghats. Though they are included in the list of rivers originating from Western Ghats they flow to the East and join the Bay of Bengal.
Totally fifteen rivers are originating from the Aravalli mountain range; The major Himalayan rivers are the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Beas, Ravi, Saraswati, Sutlej, the Ganga (or the Ganges), the Yamuna, and the Brahmaputra. The Indian subcontinent harbours about 400 major river systems; the Ganges river system alone contains about 85 rivers; Narmada river system consists of about 45 rivers.
Over 400 rivers are originating from all the mountain ranges in our country. River Saraswati is no more to be seen; the same shall be the fate of all other rivers in the Indian sub-continent if the present trend of deforestation in the catchment areas is continued.
As a result, the water depletion in our rivers varies between 45 and 95 percent. We notice that most of the southern rivers are drying up after the rainy season and river beds have become the playground for children and youth. The Northern Rivers are in a better stage as they are fed with 4 per cent glacier water. It is also our experience that the water level in all the rivers are decreasing steadily and also the drying up process is taking place earlier and faster than the previous years.
About 84% of the water available in India is used for agriculture. Due to increasing water shortage the organic matter in the soil is steadily decreasing. Normally the organic matter in agriculture soil should be between 2.5% and 5% whereas in Indian soil it is not even 0.05 per cent. Agriculture sector all over India is failing; crops are drying up year after year; farmers are committing suicide in thousands every year; thousands are giving up agriculture and migrating to cities.
According to FAO report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017”, over 191 million (14.5%) people are undernourished in India. Also, 51.4% of women in reproductive age between 15 and 49 years are anaemic. Further, 38.4% of the children aged under five are stunted (too short for their age), while 21% suffer from wasting, meaning their weight is too low for their height. Malnourished children have a higher risk of death from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malaria.
The Global Hunger Index 2016 ranks India at 97 out of 118 countries on the basis of three leading indicators: (1) prevalence of wasting or tuberculosis and stunting in children under 5 years; (2) mortality rate of children under 5 years; and (3) the proportion of undernourished in the population. ( Hunger in India, https://www.indiafoodbanking.org/hunger).
When Indian states are compared to countries in the 2008 Global Hunger Index, Madhya Pradesh ranks between Ethiopia and Chad. India scored 66th place in the 2008 Global Hunger list of 88 countries. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which were lands of forest once upon a time, are topping in hunger deaths. These are actually Unrecognized National Tragedies: Invisible Injustice.
Without water no humans, animals, plants or microbes can survive. In future death by thirst will be more than death by diseases and disasters.
(The writer is retired professor and specialist in soil & water conservation, XIM Bhubaneswar, Email. firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published on 23rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 43)