District collectors of four districts in the region—Latur, Osmanabad, Parbhani and Beed—are preparing a note requesting the state government to get the railways to help supply water, said one of them on condition of anonymity.
“Taking help from the railways to supply water is one of the measures being discussed," confirmed a water resource ministry official in Mumbai, adding that the district collectors were asked to assess the situation and suggest options to provide drinking water to the region.
Last week, the water crisis in the region turned into a law and order issue, forcing the district collectors to invoke Section 144 of CrPC to forbid more than five people from gathering around water storage tanks or water-carrying vehicles.
The drastic step was taken to ensure strict water rationing after residents complained that local political leaders tried to intervene in order to ensure more water supplies for their own constituencies.
“Section 144 has been clamped to make sure that the available water is distributed judiciously and there is no political interference from local leaders. It has not been imposed to prevent people from taking water," said one of the three deputy collectors appointed by the Latur district administration to deal with the situation.
Currently, about 1,450 tankers are distributing water in Latur town every day.
“The situation turned very bitter when local politicians started taking decisions about water distribution. We cannot afford any political interference of this sort because tempers are already running high," the deputy collector said.
Water shortage is worse in the urban areas of the region as the creaky supply lines are causing huge distribution losses.
In Latur, water supply through taps stopped two months ago.
“The leaking system resulted in 50-60% distribution losses when it operated," said environmentalist and social activist Atul Deulgaonkar.
“In most cities, water distribution systems are just not working and need to be reformed. The pressure on cities to fetch water from longer distances will only rise in the days to come," said Aurangabad-based surface irrigation expert Pradeep Purandare, who has also been very vocal against farmers cultivating sugarcane, a water intensive crop, in the current scenario.
Purandare said that despite drought, new sugarcane factories are coming up.
“Even though system failures and causes of this situation have been identified and documented, government and society continue to make the same mistakes like giving permission to new sugarcane factories and not regulating the illegal businesses of tankers and bottlers," he said.
Deulgaonkar said the district administration had promised to install global positioning system, or GPS, equipment on all tankers to ensure equitable distribution but that has not happened.
Water scarcity has triggered social tensions, too.
Twenty-nine so-called “water deaths" have been reported in the Marathwada region in the last one-and-a-half months, according to Deulgaonkar.
“These are people who died while trying to fetch some water home. The deaths include two 14-year-old boys who got stuck in mud while trying to take water from a pond," he said.
Deulgaonkar, who has seen the 1972 drought in Maharashtra, says the ground situation is unprecedented.
“Never before has section 144 been imposed for water in Latur. But the rationale behind imposing it is valid," he said.
The water levels in major dams in the region have dropped below 55% of the capacity, according to the water resource ministry official quoted above.
“Government officials say there is about 5 million litres capacity available in dams, but it may be less than that," said Deulgoankar.
Purandare said the aggregate figure does not tell the individual water levels in dams.
“Most dams have gone completely dry," he said.
In Mumbai, which gets its water from seven big reservoirs, civic officials are planning to introduce a 17% cut in supply “anytime soon", in addition to a 20% cut effected in August 2015.
Before these cuts, the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation supplied 3,750 million litres to Mumbai every day.
A municipal water supply official requesting anonymity said the seven reservoirs have about 1 million litres of water left, which is just about enough for the city’s needs for 120 days.
A 21 March report by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation’s hydraulic engineering department said the seven reservoirs had 4,73,974 million litres useable water as against 5,70,126 litres on 21 March last year.
“With cuts which may be introduced in a staggered manner, we can just about survive till mid-July," said the municipal water supply official.
The three major cities in Mumbai’s metropolitan region—Thane, Navi Mumbai, and Kalyan—have introduced 20% to 35% water cuts.