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Crisis and transformation have long been seen as intertwined. “Never let a good crisis go to waste," goes the adage. “The Chinese word for crisis includes characters for danger and opportunity," went the (incorrect) meme that showed up in rallying speeches around the globe. The actual translation, something like “critical point", summarizes the moment even better.

Tamil Nadu is facing a serious water shortage, its third high-profile environmental crisis in two years. The east coast floods of 2015 were among the world’s top 10 most expensive natural disasters that year. Cyclone Vardah, again an east coast phenomenon, made national headlines in 2016 as it felled trees, disrupted power generation and destroyed lines and transformers, damaged undersea digital cables and snarled tree-top cable lines.

Now we have a drought, this time across the state. After a disappointing south-west monsoon, the more important north-east monsoon dropped less than 40% of its typical rainfall on the state. The Mettur dam, where the Cauvery enters Tamil Nadu, is at about a third of full capacity, and storage of just over 10% of capacity. The Vaigai dam, which provides irrigation and drinking water to the southern districts, was at 4% of its storage capacity as 2017 opened. Water in the state’s 15 major reservoirs is at just 13% of storage capacity, even before summer starts.

Responses to the first two disasters were relatively swift, effective and impressively collaborative. There was a hue and cry about reservoir management and drainage preparedness in 2015 and criticism of uncoordinated flood relief. But within the confines of what it was possible to do with reservoirs that were designed for drinking water storage rather than flood control, land use patterns well out of line with hydrological realities, and rapid ramp-up of forces with limited infrastructure available, the response was not bad.

With Vardah, things started a little bit slowly since advance preparations focused more on boats and pumps than chainsaws and earth movers, and cash shortages slowed the mobilization of equipment and fuel. After these initial hiccups, however, the clean-up moved quickly, again with substantial community contributions.

The problem is that these two responses were just that—responses. Both incidents provoked deeper and ongoing public discussions about the need to rethink land-use planning, infrastructure development, financial and legal structures for risk management, and preparation for disasters. But translation of these discussions into specific plans, investments, actions, and, most importantly, visions for the state has been limited.

Responses to the drought are now kicking into high gear. The government has declared every district in the state drought-hit. The hunt for water is on, from investment in borewells to inter-state diplomacy.

The challenge this time is that simply responding will hardly be enough. Tamil Nadu relies substantially on water from rivers shared with other states. According to Tamil Nadu Water Supply And Drainage Board figures, 30% of its water storage capacity—more than that of its reservoirs—is in the form of “contribution from other states". Access to these allocations is, in principle, regulated by inter-state agreements backed by tribunals and courts, but all the cross-border flows are contentious and contended in courts, corridors of power, and the streets. The flow from the Krishna? That used to come from the old Andhra Pradesh. Now that one state is two states. The Krishna River Water Management Board (KRWMB) has to decide on contributions from each. The Cauvery? The wrangling has been on in tribunals and courts for decades. Recent variability in water supply and some dispute about “normal flows" have only complicated allocations.

Further exploiting the near-term sources will only compound the water problem. Supporting groundwater withdrawal by allocating power (as has been done for farmers in the delta for several years), or digging additional borewells (as envisioned in several district and municipality water management plans), for example, is a limited fix. There’s just not that much of a buffer left. A 2015-16 report of the Lok Sabha standing committee on water resources found that groundwater has been over-exploited (more water withdrawn than net recharge) in 33% of the blocks assessed in the states. It is critical or semi-critical (withdrawal more than 80% or 70% of recharge) in another quarter of the blocks assessed.

The drought is a critical point for emerging political configurations to make a long-run impact on the state’s development. It is an opportunity to rise above the tried-and-true but increasingly ineffective usual responses to water shortages and demonstrate forward-looking transformational leadership that cuts across the state’s economy. Reworking the role of water in the state’s economy will be expensive and disruptive in the short run, but may also help resolve other, less visible, structural challenges such as spatial inequality and an uneven agriculture-to-industry employment shift. It is an opportunity to build a consensus around the expense and dislocations of a strong push for water-saving innovation that, in turn, could contribute to the state’s future economic growth and exports. It could be the moment at which the state pioneers a shift from responding to environmental stresses that become impossible to ignore to developing a deeper, more integrated, more forward-looking strategy.

Wait and see. But the opportunity is there to seize and support.

Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.

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