Studies warn what we call a seasonal drought is, in fact, a full-blown water crisis, accentuated by poor planning. Groundwater and sand extraction from river beds and basins has turned unsustainable, say many government and independent studies. (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Studies warn what we call a seasonal drought is, in fact, a full-blown water crisis, accentuated by poor planning. Groundwater and sand extraction from river beds and basins has turned unsustainable, say many government and independent studies. (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

A wish list on water from parched India

Fixing India’s water crisis will need saner policies, meticulous strategy and a massive amount of public participation

Nagpur: The drought did not wait for the elections. It has been here for months anyway. Staring at his wilting guava plants in Vadgaon village on the Beed-Aurangabad road, Prahlad Jagtap breaks down. He hasn’t come here in days. “I can’t see this," he says.

Over a thousand 11-12 feet tall four-year-old trees—which would have given fruits in the coming winter and a handsome income to him—are dying and there’s nothing he can do. There’s no water. Four dug-wells on their family land are sans water. Every single well and borewell in the village, which is 4km from Georai town, is without water.

Prahlad has a 10-acre farm in Beed, one of the worst drought-hit districts in Maharashtra. His orchard stands on four acres, supplemented by drip irrigation to use the scarce resource efficiently. The 43-year-old farmer, inconsolable at his irreparable losses, wonders what more could he have done other than working hard and converting arid rocky land into a productive multi-crop farm.

It’s a simmering hot day in the first week of May 2019. The fervor of the Indian general elections has eclipsed the hardships people are experiencing. Things haven’t changed much since and expectations from the long-awaited monsoon run high in the region. Prahlad bought tanker water since November every other day to save his plants, but he ran out of money to buy more water. Marathwada is home to a booming private water markets and tanker operators.

His kharif and rabi crops came a cropper as last year’s monsoon failed. Beed got less than 50% of the long term average annual rain in 2018. One major drought, he says, and he has been pushed back by years. Prahlad and his family escaped previous droughts in Marathwada—2013, 2015 and 2017. Not this time.

It’s the same story with thousands of others. Maharashtra and nearly half the country is facing a drought and crippling water scarcity over the past few months. Rains in 2018 in many parts were below normal with long gaps between rainy days. That was compounded by an unprepared state machinery. Forget small and marginal farmers, big farmers like Prahlad are wrecked by multiple problems including water shortages and difficult trade-offs: do you save your cows or orchards? Prahlad preferred to save his expensive cows.

Maharashtra and nearly half the country is facing drought and crippling water scarcity. Rains in 2018 in many parts were below normal with long gaps between rainy days
Maharashtra and nearly half the country is facing drought and crippling water scarcity. Rains in 2018 in many parts were below normal with long gaps between rainy days (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Not only farmers, urban dwellers in cities and towns across India are also staring at a never seen before drinking water scarcity. The onset of the monsoon might end the agony in a week’s time, but fixing India’s structural water crisis will need saner policies, meticulous strategy, and a massive amount of public participation, experts say.

New nomenclature

Water is a top priority, the BJP said in its manifesto ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections. So, as it stormed back to power on 23 May, the Modi 2.0 government while renaming the water resources ministry as Jal Shakti Mantralaya (a new nomenclature that clubs Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation) promised that it would ensure potable, piped drinking water to every home by 2024.

On 5 June, the BJP’s official handle tweeted that the PM had fulfilled the promise of creating the Jal Shakti ministry. The target, the tweet read, is to provide drinking water to every household by 2024, link the rivers, and improve irrigation to farms. The question is (given water is a state subject): how?

Providing water for drinking and irrigation is the responsibility of the state, so unless water becomes a union subject, these plans will remain mere plans. And linking rivers is, of course, fraught with ecological and environmental costs.

The Waterman of India and Magsaysay award-winner, Rajendra Singh, has repeatedly warned that interlinking of rivers—a promise in the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto—is a bad idea. In September 2017, addressing a press conference in Vijayawada, Singh said: “Governments should work not to interlink the rivers, but to link the hearts and minds of the people with the rivers. Only then would the rivers become healthy. A river is not like a road. It has its own rights."

Nearly all the major perennial rivers are in the doldrums. Take Cauvery, for instance. She or her tributaries haven’t met the ocean for decades—the upstream dams choke its flows downstream, affecting people in Tamil Nadu. Or the Krishna, which runs dry in her delta region for most parts of the year. Even Godavari is sans water post-monsoon for most of the year—a recurring feature for decades now.

Water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power and 40% thermal power plants are in areas facing high water stress, a recent WRI report says
Water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power and 40% thermal power plants are in areas facing high water stress, a recent WRI report says (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The groundwater and sand extraction from most river beds and basins has turned unsustainable, according to many government and independent studies. Hundreds of small and seasonal rivers are perishing permanently. Tanks and ponds are encroached upon. And dug-wells and borewells are constructed with alarming impunity to slide deeper and deeper to suck water from greater depths—to satiate the growing demands.

Much to worry

There is much to worry about on the water front since there aren’t any quick fix solutions. India sits on a freshwater time bomb that promises to alter her demographic and economic character, as many studies warn. While drought and water scarcity are topical exigencies, and usually grip several regions during the summers, our water crisis is turning more structural and stems from mostly man-made factors.

Magsaysay award winner and veteran journalist P. Sainath says there are several kinds of water transfers taking place, turning water distribution and use unequal. “You have water being diverted from food-crops to cash-crops; livelihoods to lifestyles; rural to urban—mismanagement is a bigger reason for the drought." It’s also the reason why water conflicts between urban and rural masses, regions and states, districts and blocks, and sectors are getting fiercer along with worsening imbalances in water access.

Sample this: As food-crops come a cropper, cattle face fodder and water shortages, and thousands of hectares of horticulture plants die in Marathwada, the beer industry of Aurangabad saw an 18% jump in production this year. Beer sales too went up. While Maharashtra is in drought, agriculture department records say that sugarcane acreage shot up to 11.63 lakh hectare in 2018-19, as against 9.02 lakh hectare in 2017. Sugar production also went up to 927.20 lakh tonne in 2018-19 compared with 831.34 lakh tonne in the previous year. It is well known that sugarcane consumes a disproportionate amount of water and water-stressed regions must make an effort to move away from the crop.

But such systemic solutions are hardly ever attempted in India’s parched landscapes. The result: monsoon rains may have set in along the Kerala coast, but water woes are unraveling in many parts of the country.

Bengaluru, by all accounts, sits on acute water shortages akin to the ones witnessed by Cape Town in South Africa recently. According to a statement issued by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) ahead of World Water Day in 2017, the water table in the southern metropolis has sunk from 10-12 metres before the surface to 76-91 metres in a mere two decades, while the number of extraction wells went up from 5,000 to 0.45 million in a span of 30 years. The water crisis has also brought many parts of Chennai to a standstill. Tens of thousands of people from the arid Bundelkhand region have long left for cities to escape hunger and water scarcity. There’s no water there. No work.

Village after village along the dry Godavari throw up soulless hamlets of fishing communities, the Kolis and the Bhois, who have migrated in search of tanks and ponds and rivers where they can fish and make a living. They don’t figure at all in any drought relief plan. People living along the rivers are digging deeper and deeper to extract water from beneath the ground. What is more, the usually ebullient Narmada River that horizontally dissects the country has fallen silent this year and turned into a parking bay for cars of the pilgrims headed to Chandod in Gujarat’s Vadodara district. With little or no water released from the upstream Sardar Sarovar dam, the perennial river that once had an expanse of 300m is now reduced to a 20-feet stream.

India’s water crisis

Yet, water and related crises don’t draw the serious attention that they must, year after year. Look at how the political-administrative regime quietly buried a crucial July 2016 report on proposed reforms in water management institutions. It called for a comprehensive restructuring of India’s Central Ground Water Board and the Central Water Commission in order to create a new 21st Century management authority.

The report said: “While big dams played a big role in creating a huge irrigation potential, today, the challenge is to effectively utilize this potential, as the water that lies stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. At the same time, groundwater, which truly powered the Green Revolution, faces a crisis of sustainability. Water levels and water quality have both fallen creating a new kind of crisis, where the solution to a problem has become part of the problem itself. The new challenge is to manage our aquifers sustainably so that we can make sure we do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."

It warns that if the current pattern of unsustainable water use continues, about half of India’s water demand will be unmet by 2030. India’s water table is falling in most parts; there is fluoride, arsenic, mercury, even uranium in our groundwater.

Many other studies warn what we call a seasonal drought is, in fact, a full-blown water crisis, accentuated by poor planning. Would the mere renaming of a ministry without taking a state-by-state and river basin wise approach help?

A recent Water Resources Institute (WRI) report indicated that “water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power" and that “40% of the country’s thermal power plants are located in areas facing high water stress, a problem since these plants use water for cooling." Fourteen of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortage between 2013 and 2016, costing the companies $1.4 billion, the WRI study said. “It’s an issue that’s only poised to worsen unless the country takes action—70% of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030, thanks to climate change and increased demands from other sectors."

But India continues to put water-guzzling industries in water-stressed areas.

More than half of Maharashtra’s sugarcane is grown in low-rainfall drought-prone-zone. That in 1999 prompted the Chitale Commission on Irrigation to ask the Maharashtra government to not give permission for a new sugar mill in these areas. Of course, the state and the sugar lobby made sure the report and its recommendations were quietly buried. Due to this history of inaction and lapses, the country continues to flounder with the management of its rivers and under-stress aquifers. In Maharashtra, machines and not humans became the focus of a much-trumpeted program called ‘Jal-Yukta Shivar’ over the last few years. Under the program, a rush to clear bills for the deployment of earthmoving vehicles outweighed the wise calls for holistic water management.

What next

“The foremost law must be to have adequate quantities of water reserved for drinking and livestock before it is earmarked for other purposes," says Shripad Dharmadhikari, water policy researcher and head of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Pune. “Right to water should mean a high priority to drinking water."

Pradeep Purandare, a retired water policy expert at Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad, says India’s priority must be: 1) to make our irrigation and water (physical /engineering) systems amenable to modern concepts; 2) to complete irrigation and water sector reforms and 3) to implement improved water management, governance and regulation practices. The Maharashtra Integrated State Water Plan (IWSP)—a first of its kind integrated plan ratified by the state water council in 2018—is a good beginning, he says. “If we neglect ISWP the way we have neglected our irrigation laws, it will only be a showpiece," Purandare says. This plan calls for a river basin approach to water management; auditing and accounting of available water; and planning and management of all available resources by integrating legal and statutory provisions. India has so far seen the water sector in terms of irrigation projects or water schemes. “The river has not been our area of attention," Purandare says. “We need to balance between our water-needs and that of the river itself."

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based freelance reporter.

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