World Water Day Water and the threat to its very existence

N. Shyamsundar Singh *

 Collecting water from a Hand pump near  Loktak Lake :: Februray 2010
Collecting water from a Hand pump near Loktak Lake in Februray 2010 :: Pix - Thingom Premarani

A. Nature's Gift : The Gift Pack of the nature for all living beings on the planet "Earth" contains water along with other essentials like air, heat & light etc. This fact itself signifies that water is indispensable to all forms of life.

B. Water Is What Water Does: It has been found that in some organisms, like plants upto 90% of their body weight comes from water and upto 60% of the human adult body is water while the babies have the most at about 78%.

According to HH Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and the heart are composed of 73% water and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79% and even the bones are watery- 31%.

Thus, water serves a number of essential functions to keep us all going. Generally, an adult male needs about 3 likes of water per day while an adult female needs about 2.2 litre per day. In fact, a person meets the demand partly from drinking liquids and the remaining from the food he or she eats.

Therefore, there just would not be any living being without existence of an ample liquid water supply on Earth. The unique qualities and properties of water are those that make it so important and basic to life and it has no substitute. Therefore, we can simply say "water is what water does".

C. "As Easy As Water" Is Not Valid : The total amount of water on earth remains almost the same. However, the water available in the seas and oceans that cover almost two-thirds of the earth, has salts dissolved in it and the saline water is not fit for general use.

Numerically, the world's total water resources are estimated analytically at 1.37x108 million Ha.m. Of these global water resources, about 97.2% is salt water, mainly in oceans and the balance 2.8% is available as fresh water on the planet at any time. Out of the total quantity of fresh water, about 78.6% (i.e. 2.2% of the whole) is available as surface water and the balance 21.4%(i.e. 0.6% of the whole) as ground water.

Again, out of this 78.6% of surface water, 97.7% is fresh water in glaciers and icecaps. The balance which is of the order of 2.3% is available in different forms- as water in lakes, reservoirs, rivers & streams, as vapour in atmosphere and as soil moisture in the top soil. Therefore, the quantum of pure water readily available for day-to-day multipurpose use is very limited and finite. Moreover, it is decreasing fast due to over usage.

In Manipur, there was a time, about 45 years back, when we used to drink couple of glasses of raw water from hilly streams after a 3-4 kms walk without any hesitation about side effects. Today, that kind of pure water is not to be found anywhere. Rather, we need to pay Rs. 10 or more if we like to have a glass of potable water. We may not get it sometimes even though we are ready to pay for it. Simply because, more than 25% of the world's population is without safe drinking water. Therefore, the old saying- "As Easy As Water" is apparently not valid now.

D. Water Begets Water: If we happen to recollect the functioning of the Hydrological Cycle (also known as Water Cycle) we shall realize very well that the cycle or the circulation of water is made effective and timely by a series of activities pursued by forest, water, air, radiant heat & light from the sun etc strictly under the laws of nature.

Water available in our ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, wells and oceans, comes on earth in the forms of rain, hail and snow. A part of the total precipitation gradually percolates through permeable soil, recharges aquifers and also forms ground water.

When the level of ground water decreases drastically, the water cannot be used anymore. The surface run off goes directly to the oceans through streams and rivers. However, evaporation occurs as soon as the precipitation reaches the surface of the earth and it is more in the sunlight. Water vapour gets continuously added to air even in the night as the air surrounding us gets heated during the day time. Thus, water from the surface of the earth goes into the air as vapour to form cloud through the continuing process of evaporation.

At the same time, the plants that collect a large amount of water from the soil, (i.e. percolated water) for preparation of its food and other different purposes, release a part of the collected water in the form of vapour through its leaves by a process called transpiration. For instance, wheat plants that can give one kilogram of wheat, release nearly 500 litres of water into air. Therefore, it is not easy to assess the quantum of water released in the form of vapour by the plants of all the forests, crops and grasslands across the globe together.

When the water vapour comes into contact with the surrounding cold air in the atmosphere, it condenses and forms tiny droplets known as clouds. These floating droplets come together to form large sized drops of water and they began to fall as either rain or hail or snow depending upon the pressure & the temperature conditions at the high altitude.

Thus, the water is brought back to the surface of the earth by rain, hail or snow. It follows the same path as stated earlier and replenishes water in ponds, lakes, rivers and wells etc. and also completes the water cycle. Therefore, it is a proven fact that we need water bodies as well as forests on the earth's surface to bring precipitation down on earth. In simple words, we can firmly elucidate that Water Begets Water.

E. Intrinsic Relation: In the preceding para we have discussed a little more than what is required for this paper, reason being that we need to know the Intrinsic Relations among Forest, Water and Wetland and the vital role it plays in performing the duties assigned by the nature.

E.1. Between the Water & the Forest: As already explained, we cannot expect a good precipitation without the natural contribution in the form of vapour from the leaves of the plants of the forests. At the same time, forests also need good rainfall for its perfect growth and development at large.

E.2. Between the Water & the Wetland: Similarly, the intrinsic relation between the water and the wetland also plays a distinctive role in bringing back the precipitation. Wetland, also known as Wealthland in some section of the society, contributes a large quantity of vapour into the air and helps the cloud to form huge amount of precipitation.

E.3. Between the Forest & the Wetland: Normally, forest is available at a higher altitude than that of the wetland. The surface run off from the forest comes to natural streams that drain the water to the nearby wetlands. A part of percolated water also joins the wetland downstream. These activities are natural and closely associated with water cycle.

E.4. Wildlife Sanctuaries : Wildlife cannot survive at all when any one of the above three is missing in the sanctuary. Therefore, we must not do anything that can meddle the nature or the environment. Because, it would simply mean digging our own grave.

F. Manipur and its Scenario: In early eighties, Tamenglong district of the State was having an average annual rainfall (aar) of about 1500mm. The valley area of the State was also having rainfall well above the normal at that time. Since then, the rainfall has gradually been decreasing in all parts of the State.

Over the last few years, the aar has gone down much below normal (about 1000mm). It shows that the water cycle has been distorted to a great extent in the State. The scanty rainfall may be the clear indication of loss of both forests and waterbodies. It may also be due to the impact of climate change.

F.1. Loss of Forest : Reportedly, several hundreds of acres of forest were burnt/destroyed in many districts of the State every year. Forest fire usually occurs during wildfire season i.e. January to May. The year 2020 recorded 11,340 forest fire incidents-the highest number of forest fire in the last 18 years. Forest Department has come out with a long list of forest fire incidents recorded since 2003 (TSE, 15th Jan. 21).

However, it was silent on total area affected, actions taken for afforestation of affected area, security measures to protect the forest, conservation of the adjoining forest and action against the criminals etc. One must not take the incident lightly because it is a heinous crime against all living beings.

Elsewhere, large scale felling of trees has also been done for commercial and domestic purposes. In addition, widespread cultivation of ganja and poppy over several thousands of acres of land in the hill districts have also been reported very often in local dailies. This practice has been adopted with the intention to earn livelihood easily.

It may be taken as a more serious crime because the top fertile soil will be washed out or eroded during the rainy season and the barren land cannot be used for any kind of vegetation/plantation for several years. Therefore, the concerned authorities may take adequate initiatives to monitor and conserve the forest as done in the case of "Sangai" and other endangered species.

F.2. Loss of Water Bodies : Wetlands are an inherent part of our culture.

Through the ages, ponds, lakes and streams have played a significant role in the supply of water for drinking and irrigation purposes. Sometimes, these wetlands also serve as flood cushions. However, the custodians of these wetlands have paid scant attention to the well being of the water bodies that are considered to be really important for their ecosystem values for the flora & fauna they sustained, and also for their contribution towards maintaining temperature, water cycle and ecological balance. But, knowingly to otherwise, over the years, these bodies have been encroached extensively, built upon or reduced to dumping grounds for solid waste and sewage.

This shortsighted approach has also caused all forms of harm and damage to the bio-resources. In the meantime, large scale deforestation at this upper reach has also caused extensive damage in the form of silt & debris deposition in the water bodies. As a result, all of them have lost its original glory and aesthetics. Rather, they are critically degraded and on the verge of extinction.

These facts have been brought out very impressively by the team of Journalists that visited these wetlands during the last month (Feb'21). The question that remains unanswered so far is that whether their submission can open the eyes of concerned authorities like: the Revenue Department, Forest Department, Agriculture Department and Fisheries Department etc. of the State Govt. Perhaps, they are enjoying blame games.

G. Extent of Damage : All possible attempts have been made by different agencies to collect detailed information about the extent of damage done to the forests and wetlands by differently interested groups. But it may not cover all.

However, the same can also be seen if we take two Satellite Imageries for a particular area- one taken sometime in late seventies or early eighties and another taken very recently and compare them minutely. These two imageries will speak volumes about the changes that have taken place in that area over the last couple of decades. Similarly, table top studies on the satellite imageries can be done for all the wetlands including Loktak to assess the extent of damage. This kind of study should precede all the investigative activities.

H. Conclusion: All the living beings on earth need fresh water, therefore we need to save it. Else, our survival will be at stake.

(i) Therefore we may refer to a satellite imagery taken sometime in late seventies for the wetlands and initiate rational action for eviction, protection and development of all the wetlands based on the factual records.
(ii) The areas at the full reservoir level may be well demarcated so that it can be conveniently protected. Otherwise, it becomes a no-man's-land.
(iii) Close monitoring with the help of drones or village authorities may be initiated for the forests as done in the case of "Sangai".
(iv) Behavioural change of the people is the most essential one and it only can help solve the environmental problems. Proper motivation and awareness campaign may be helpful.
(v) Above all, commitment of the authority i.e. the owner is a must. Mere promise will not bear any fruit.

* N. Shyamsundar Singh, FIE , wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is former Chairman, JERC for Manipur & Mizoram
This article was webcasted on March 25 2021.

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