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Tigers & Water Security Of India: The Crucial Link

Tigers & Water Security Of India: The Crucial Link

By Dr. Subhadeep Sarkar (Asst. Professor, Department Of Zoology, Serampore College ) & Dr. Suman Dutta ( Asst. Professor, Department Of Botany, Serampore College)


Right from the beginning, “Project Tiger” in India has often been considered as one of the most successful conservation saga of recent times. Aim of this project is not only focused on the conservation of tigers in the Indian subcontinent, but also presented as a holistic approach in terms of conservation of whole forest ecosystems with all charismatic and non-charismatic species alike, the co-predators and prey base species, along with all the plants they feed and depend upon. In recent times, the success of this project, in terms of full-proof protection of tigers, has been re-evaluated. In this context,

the relevance of this project should be critically analyzed in terms of water security of our country, a much less discussed but extremely important aspect. Tiger is often described as an ‘umbrella species’ supporting a whole range of life and natural life support system. However, in our view, the most significant outcome of conservation of tigers and their habitat forests, in terms of our national interest, has been securing provision of a very effective carbon sink and clean water. In fact, water has long been inextricably linked to forests and wetland ecosystems through the hydrological cycle. Forests and wetlands serve as natural water treatment and purification systems to regulate water availability for mankind. Forests also do play an important role to regulate soil erosion helping both desertification and salinization. Local climate and rainfall are another two important aspects controlled substantially by forests through emission of water vapor into the atmospheric system. The surrounding society also enjoys crucial economic benefits from the link between water, forests and wetlands. For example, protected forest areas provide a significant portion of the drinking water supply to at least one third of the world’s large metropolitan cities. Forested wetlands, like mangroves, protect human communities from natural catastrophes such as tidal surges, cyclones and tsunamis. In India, the rivers and wetlands associated with tiger reserve like Sundarbans, Pench, Corbett, Kanha and Ranthambhor among many others are scientifically documented national environmental assets for reasons elaborated above.


Of all the natural resources available to mankind, water is counted as the most precious one without which existence of life is possible in no way. From the dawn of civilization, water has played a significant role in the social, political and economic history of mankind. Access to clean water has been conclusively proven to be one of the primary pre-requisites for maintaining good health. In view of the expanding human population and habitat, availability of clean and usable water has become a central issue in every sphere of human development and environmental protection more than ever before. Today, along with other crucial issues, water security of a country has become instrumental in maintaining its sovereignty, peace and prosperity. Not only in the context of recent time, but also for days to come water security has become an issue, a legacy that we will leave for posterity. Today’s decisions and actions to insure this, therefore, have far reaching consequences. India has never been considered as a country with scanty water resource, rather the problem of limited access to clean usable water is gradually becoming a matter of grave concern due to a number of factors like population explosion, inefficient usage of rain water, lack of awareness and over-exploitation of this precious resource coupled with the fact of growing demand of drinkable water. Moreover, there is an intrinsic issue of the mindset of common Indian people that water is an inexhaustible and free natural resource to which very little attention, if any at all, needs to be paid. This calls for immediate attention by all the stakeholders to make sustainable use of the available water resources to ensure equitable sharing and better quality of life for the present and future generation(s).

Water Availability: The Gross Global Scenario

This blue planet is not water scarce, but only a very small fraction of this water is fit for human use. This is because of certain facts. It has been estimated that about 70% of the earth surface is covered with water, which amounts to 1400 million cubic kilometres. However, 97.5% of this water is sea water and hence salty and unfit for use for most purposes. Desalination is possible but it is still a matter of formidable expense. Fresh water availability is abundant over 35 million cubic kilometres only. Out of the total fresh water, 68.7% is locked in frozen ice caps, about 30% is stored underground and only 0.3% water is available on the surface of the earth. Out of this surface water, 87% is stored in lakes, 11% in swamps and 2% in rivers. As all the sweet water is not extractable, only 1% of the total water can be used by human beings.

Water Availability: The Gross Global Scenario

In terms of global availability and accessibility toward usable water, the following facts need to be noted. The water resources are unevenly distributed across different countries and continents. Some countries have surplus water while many other countries are facing scarcity of it. Also, there is skewed growth of population in different continents, resulting in a wide mismatch between the existing population and water availability e.g. Asia has 36% of the available fresh water reserves, with over 60% of the world population where water is a scarce commodity. At the other end of the spectrum is Australia with 1% population owning 5% of the fresh water reserves, North and Central America with 8% population and 15% water reserves and South America with 6% global population and 26% fresh water reserves. This highly diverse pattern of water usage is due to a number of factors including population pressure, social practices, culture and lifestyle of the concerned population, industrial growth etc. It may be observed that the per capita water use is only 245 m3 in Africa followed by 478 m3 in South America, 519 m3 in Asia, 1280 m3 in Europe and 1861 m3 in North and Central America. The available water is generally used for agriculture, industrial production and domestic purposes. Water is also needed for fishery, hydro-power generation, transportation and maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance. The proportion of water used for agriculture and industries varies from country to country depending on the lifestyle, extent of industrial development and efficiency of water use. With rapid industrialization and urbanization of third world countries like India, use of water is all set to shoot up in near future. For example, the projected increase of water use in India is 167 litres per day in 2050 from the current level of 99 litres per day.

Water Resources In India: Present Trend And Future Concerns

A major part of India observes substantial rainfall barring a certain portion in its western part during the monsoon which lasts for nearly 5 months. The average rainfall in India is ~1170 mm/year with an uneven distribution. While the eastern and southern parts of India receive most of it, the western and to some extent, the northern part remain deprived. The desert areas of Rajasthan receive an average of only about 100 mm of rainfall per year. However, major part of this country is blessed with moderate to heavy rainfall. The country also has a number of rivers, lakes and wetlands, which probably has played a role over the years to create a kind of complacence in the Indian psyche regarding the water security of the country. However, with the rapid growth of population, intensive cultivation practices, industrialization, urbanization, an increase in domestic use of water for various purposes has all played a significant role for change of this situation. In 2009, a report from the Govt. of India has clearly indicated that per capita water availability has drastically been reduced to 1820 m3 per year in 2001 from 5177 m3 per year in 1951. What the more alarming fact is the projected per capita water availability in 2050 is 1140 m3 per year. Thus, the present trend says that India has to be satisfied with less and less water available than ever before as the demand skyrockets every day. This trend has the alarming potential to create a situation where upon India, which has never been exposed to an overall possibility of water scarcity, may have to experience water stress in near future! Presently, a situation is considered to be water stress condition when the per capita water availability ranges between 1000 to 1700 m3 and water scarcity when the per capita water availability drops to 1000 m3. This problem of water scarcity will lead to multifaceted trouble in our national life. Some of these are listed below:

  • Limited access to drinking water may encourage the increased threat of water borne diseases.
  • Inferior type of sanitation, particularly in marginalized society, leading to a spiraling detrimental effect on public health, loss of man day, more and more expenditure and subsidy on health and sanitation by the state etc.
  • Water pollution and both surface and ground water contamination.
  • Retarded industrial growth and unemployment.
  • Decreased agricultural production and expansion.
  • An unprecedented and unpredictable effect on the biodiversity of the country.

It has already been reported that 27% of our villages and 4-6% of the urban population in India do not have access to safe drinking water. Over 70% of the water consumed by rural population of India does not meet World Health Organization (WHO) standard. As a result, 80% of rural illness, 21% of communicable diseases and 20% of child deaths below the age of 5 years are attributable to consumption of unsafe water. As clean water fit for drinking and other domestic use becomes more and more scarce, consumption of unsafe water increases and so does the cost of water purification and health related morbidity, mortality and expenses.

Pollution of surface and ground water is a serious threat for India today. The major causes of water pollution in this country are –

    • Direct discharge of untreated urban sewage into rivers and other water bodies. It is estimated that in New Delhi, 36 million tons of sewage is generated everyday of which only ~50% is treated and the rest is discharged into the river Yamuna directly. Same is the situation in other metropolitan cities. Only 31% of the sewage water generated in 23 major cities is treated and the rest is constantly polluting 18 major rivers in the country. Most of the rivers in the country are also contaminated by fluorides, nitrites and several toxic metals.
    • Discharge of untreated industrial effluents;
    • Surface runoff of heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic chemicals, particularly during rainy season from non-point sources;
    • Excessive use of fertilizers in agriculture;
    • Eutrophication and organic load in water bodies.
    • Excessive use of ground water for agricultural purposes. Pumping water with subsidized and even free power supply has been constantly depleting ground water, while encouraging wastage of water in many states like Punjab. As a result, the water table in the country is dipping every year by an average of 0.4 m. In many coastal areas, there has been heavy insurgence of sea water, making fertile agricultural lands unfit for cultivation. Down the ages, farmers in this country have been practicing flow irrigation which is resulting in huge wastage of water, while causing severe soil erosion, leaching of fertilizers, increase in infestation of pests, diseases and weeds and suppressing the crop yields. Necessary immediate attention to increase water use efficiency minimizing wastage can help combat the impending water scarcity of the country (Rosegrant et al. 2002) significantly. Traditional irrigation practices and the issue of over-watering along with improper water conservation measures and too much use of water-intensive crop varieties are the important key factors for which India is still lagging behind most of the developed countries in terms of water use efficiency in agriculture. Farmers are also very much reluctant to conserve any water since they receive no special allowance from Government to meet the expenses for such purposes.
    • Global warming and climate changes are also indirectly responsible for deteriorating water scenario of our country by causing unprecedented climatic extreme events.
    • Lack of public awareness, poverty and inability of and inadequacy in our education system to sensitize sizable mass in issues like protection of water quality, judicial use of water, rain water harvesting and perils of compromised water security.

Water-Related Services Rendered By Forests

Among many ecosystem services rendered by forests, a very significant one is the provision of clean water fit for sustaining myriad forms of life including that of man. Water is inextricably linked to forests and wetland ecosystems through the hydrological cycle. Forests absorb rain, refill underground aquifers, cool and cleanse water, slow storm runoff, and sustain watershed stability and resilience. Forests anchor ground, store intercepted rain water and release it slowly. The following section summarizes the intricate inter-relationship between forests and water:

      • Forests, along with wetlands regulate water availability to mankind and serve as natural water purification systems. It has been estimated that riparian forests act as “living filters” for sediments, and help storing and transforming excess nutrients and pollutants carried in runoff from adjacent lands. For example, they can reduce the nitrogen concentration in water runoff by up to 90%, and can reduce phosphorous by up to 50%. Even the concentration of water borne pathogens like Giardia intestinalis becomes less in water flowing through forested watersheds. Wetlands have been found to remove 20-60% metals in water.
      • Forests help route water in a watershed by stabilizing soils, which allows water to enter them, and also regulate soil erosion. The upper canopy of branches breaks the rainfall and the lower branches catch the rain water holding on to every possible drop. From here, water trickles down to smaller, shade-loving trees, from there to small creepers, bushes and ultimately to the forest floor where fallen leaves sponge the rain before allowing it to seep into the top soil, protected by the leaves. The collected water forms tiny streams and rivulets and replenishes the water table in aquifers before reaching the lakes and rivers that flow through and come out of the forest with precious fresh water. Forest vegetation thus sponges rain, permitting it to percolate into aquifers, which feed wells, lakes and rivers. Roots also help by binding the soil. This maintains catchments, prevent salinization and desertification.
      • Forests help prevent harmful contaminants from entering streams, lakes, and ground water in a number of ways. Root systems of plants keep the soil porous and allow surface water to be filtrated through various layers of the soil before entering into ground water. Through this natural filtering process toxins, nutrients, sediment, and other substances can be filtered off from the water. Leaves and other debris on the forest floor also play a role. Through the process of denitrification, for example, bacteria in wet forest soils convert nitrates (which can otherwise cause harmful algal blooms if poured in excess in water bodies) into nitrogen, releasing it into air.
      • Forests also emit water vapour into the atmosphere, thereby regulating local climate and rainfall. In turn, forests depend on groundwater and soil moisture for their survival and rely on wetlands to replenish this.
      • Forested wetlands, particularly mangroves, protect human communities from natural catastrophes such as tidal surges and tsunamis, thereby protecting inland communities from events like floods, salinization of soil due to sea water ingression and epidemic.

Economic Benefit Of Water Related Services By Forests

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study estimates that water-related services of tropical forests account for more than US$ 7,000 per hectare each year. This exceeds the value of timber, tourism and carbon sequestration combined. In fact, water purification service rendered by forests is economically quite significant. An analysis conducted by the American Water Works Association and the Trust for Public Land came out with the conclusion that drinking water treatment costs decrease as the amount of forest cover in the relevant watershed increases. It has been clearly demonstrated that the cost of water treatment by using modern technology becomes much higher compared to natural water treatment rendered by forests. In 2002, a survey by the Trust for Public Land and the American Water Works Association revealed that for every 10% increase in forest cover in the source watershed, treatment and chemical costs decreased by approximately 20%, up to about 60% forest cover. Forested watersheds generally offer higher quality water than watersheds under alternative land uses such as agriculture, industry and human settlement, because all these increase the pollutant load in the water under consideration. In most cases the presence of forests can substantially reduces the need for treatment for drinking water and thus drastically reduces costs of supplying water. To summarize, the following economic benefits may be highlighted in relation to water related ecosystem services rendered by forests:

      • By naturally filtering water, forests can reduce drinking water treatment costs.
      • By reducing soil erosion, forests can keep sediment and excess nutrients out of waterways. For example, riparian forests can prevent nitrogen from entering waterways at approximately one-third of the cost per pound of nitrogen relative to wastewater treatment plants. This prevents pollution and eutrophication of water bodies.
      • By filtering water through its porous soils, a forest can minimize wastewater treatment costs. According to some estimates, a forest or forested wetland can filter water at approximately one-seventh of the cost per thousand gallons than can conventional wastewater treatment systems.
      • In addition to filtering and purifying water, forests naturally regulate the timing and amount of water flow, which helps control flooding during heavy rains.

Forests & Urban Drinking Water Supply

We mostly live in urban environments and therefore, the question of constant supply of safe drinking water is of utmost importance to us. Globally, forests are contributing a lot in terms of making provisions for safe drinking water in urban environment. In a report of research jointly undertaken by the World Bank and WWF it has been clearly shown that approximately one third of the world’s 105 largest cities obtain a significant portion of their drinking water from protected areas and that well managed natural forests provide benefits to urban populations in terms of high quality drinking water. Protecting forests thus helps ensure a supply of safe, clean water for the urban population in some of the world’s largest cities. In the present world, around half of the global population lives in towns and cities, and out of that, about one-third portion live without any access to clean water or adequate sanitation (United Nations Human Settlement Programme, 2003). Municipal authorities adopt various ways of supplying drinking water in towns and cities. They mostly focus on improving water supply, including improved distribution systems, treatment plants and sewage disposal. It is now well documented that forests play a major role in purifying water, so municipal authorities are now increasingly paying attention to land management systems that can help maintain pure water at the source.

An in-depth study conducted by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the role of forest protection for drinking water provision (Dudley and Stolton, 2003), including a survey over more than 100 of the world’s most populated cities, has revealed a clear link between forests and the quality of water coming out of a catchment. There also occurs a variable link between forests and the constancy of flow.

Some examples of contribution of forest land in maintaining urban water supply are cited below:

      • The study described above (Dudley and Stolton, 2003) indicated that about one-third (33 of 105) of the world’s largest cities obtained a significant proportion of their drinking-water directly from forested protected areas. At least five other cities in the review obtained water from sources originating in distant protected forested watersheds, and eight more obtained water from forests managed in a way that gave priority to their functions in providing water.
      • In a number of cases there is also good evidence that forests help maintain water flow e.g. in Melbourne, Australia and in some cities fed by forests such as the Caribbean National Forest in Puerto Rico.
      • The city of New York, USA has become renowned for its use of protected forests to maintain its highquality water supply. The inhabitants of New York enjoy one of the cleanest, healthiest drinking water in the world. In the late 1990s, New York City abandoned a $6 billion water treatment system and instead opted to go with natural landscape management to clean the water it receives from the Catskill/Delaware watershed in upstate New York. The focus is on creating conservation easements along streams and reservoirs, and protecting forest lands to keep sediment and runoff from entering the water supply. The watershed provides most of New York City’s daily supply of drinking water, more than 1 billion gallons per day.
      • In California, USA people use the clear water flowing from Plumas and other national forests. Melting snow and rainwater flow from the Plumas into the Feather River and eventually to the Sacramento River. Water from the Plumas solely relies on natural cleaning by means of trees to keep it clean and healthy in central and northern California.
      • Other cities in the USA also rely on forested catchments. Around 85% of San Francisco’s drinking water comes from the Hetch Hetchy watershed in Yosemite National Park.
      • In Tokyo, Japan, the Metropolitan Government Bureau of Waterworks manages the forest in the upper reaches of the Tama River to increase the capacity to recharge water resources, to prevent reservoir sedimentation, to increase the forest’s water purification capacity and to conserve the natural environment.
      • The Mount Makiling Forest Reserve south of Manila, the Philippines is a 4244 ha area of forest administered and managed by the University of the Philippines. More than 50% of the reserve is forested, and its watershed ecosystem supplies five water districts and several water cooperatives serving domestic, institutional and commercial water users.
      • In the Dominican Republic, the Madre de las Aguas Conservation Area protects the headwaters of 17 rivers that provide energy, irrigation and drinkable water for more than 50% of the country’s population.
      • Examples of major cities drawing some or all of their drinking water from protected areas include Mumbai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Karachi, Pakistan; Singapore; Bogotá, Colombia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Quito, Ecuador; Caracas, Venezuela; Madrid, Spain; Sofia, Bulgaria; Cape Town, South Africa and Harare, Zimbabwe.
      • The 10 km2 area of the Shimla Water Catchment Sanctuary is vital to the water requirement of 1.5 lakh citizens of Shimla town.

India’s Tiger Reservers And Water Supply

When Project Tiger started in the early 1970s, it was theoretically conceived that by protecting tigers as an umbrella species, a whole gamut of wildlife and natural landscape would be protected. To protect tigers, it would be mandatory to protect its prey base which, in turn, would require protection of vegetation of the forests. Thus, protection of tigers would ultimately necessitate protection of its habitat in the form of pristine forests and landscape. Since a number of rain-fed perennial rivers are connected to the forest cover in our country, conservation of tiger forests would mean conservation of the intricate and obvious connection between forests and water. The tiger’s forests are among the nation’s most reliable water sources. Thus, in the process of saving the tiger’s forests, India would be protecting the catchment forests assuring water security of the Indian subcontinent.

Some notable examples of rivers and the forest cover that feeds them are as follows:

      • The Indravati Tiger Reserve is washed and drained by the Indravati river, which rises from the highlands of Jorhmal and drains in the Eastern Ghats of Odisha before flowing westwards to Madhya Pradesh.
      • The Kanha Tiger Reserve is the southern source of the river Narmada, the seventh largest river in India passing through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
      • The Melghat Tiger Reserve feeds the Tapi river. The reserve and its surrounding forests cover only four per cent of arid Vidharba in Maharashtra, yet these forests supply over 30 % of the fresh water requirement of the area.
      • The main source of water supply to Nagpur city is from the Pench river whose catchment forests are part of the Pench Tiger Reserve.
      • River Ramganga flows through Corbette National Park and Tiger reserve.
      • The main arm of the Krishna river that flows through Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh rises from a small spring in the forests of the Western Ghats.
      • Mumbai’s water security depends on the catchment forests of four lakes in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Borivli (Tulsi and Vihar) and Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary (Tansa and Modak Sagar).


India’s forest cover is fast dwindling because of pressing demands for agriculture, industries, mining, development works and a massive pressure for human settlement because of an ever-exploring population. Even if all other vital ecosystem services of forests for the ultimate survival of our nation are ignored, the contribution they make in terms of ensuring water security of our country warrant immediate attention from policy makers and stakeholders alike. Forest management, therefore, needs to be very carefully designed, rational, forward looking, flexible and responsive to ongoing changes in order to ensure sustained supply of pure water. Forest management strategies should lead to preservation of hydrological flows, mitigation of extreme hydrological events, retention of soils and sediments, support productivity and biodiversity, as well as maintenance and purification of water supply. Conservation of water resources is already a widely accepted forest management objective (Creed et al., 2011).

The following principles may be strictly observed in devising a sound forest management strategy to ensure supply of clean water from the forests (Creed et al., 2011):

      • Forest management should define hydrological response units based on the dominant hydrological flow-paths on the landscape.
      • Forest management should conserve areas where precipitation infiltrates into the ground (e.g. recharge zones), where water exits the ground and discharges into receiving bodies of water (e.g. discharge zones), and where water is stored along the hydrological network.
      • Forest management should minimize disturbance to hydrological features with critical source, transfer and storage functions. For this, disturbance to soils, especially within or near source areas that focus the recharge of water into subsurface pathways has to be minimized along with disturbance in filter areas around streams, wetlands and lakes, and other sensitive sites and storage areas such as wetlands.

India’s tiger forests are crucial for the water security of our country. Once any of them is degraded or lost, the country marches one step forward towards destroying its water sovereignty and security that it is enjoying for thousands of years. So long as the tiger lives, the forests remain protected and under sharp focus of the scientific community as well as commoners. And with it remain protected myriads of streams, wetlands and rivers that form the web of water security around us, one of the most highly values treasures of mankind.