ISSN 2330-717X

Emerging India Battles A Water Crisis – Analysis


By Aniket Bhavthankar*

India’s newspaper headlines are full of stories of the “water crisis” in certain parts of India with the country’s Supreme Court urging the government to treat the drought in agrarian parts of western India as a “national disaster”. Water trains have been despatched to Latur, situated in Marathwada region of Maharashtra state, where authorities fearing violence over water, have imposed prohibitory orders against the assembly of four or more persons around well and water distribution points. Such is the environmental and agricultural crisis that has beset parts of Maharashtra, India’s most industrial state, whose capital is Mumbai, the financial and entertainment capital of the country and home to some of its richest denizens.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said in its latest assessment report that one major impact of climate change is erratic rainfall. Proving this point, Marathwada has had a history of chronic droughts in the past two decades due to erratic rainfall. Rainfall in drought-prone Marathwada has been half of normal this year.

In Latur, a city of about half a million population which had a disastrous earthquake in 1993 that resulted in 10,000 deaths, the government sends a tanker every 20-30 days, and locals have to depend on private operators to procure water. The water table level in the region has depleted at an alarming rate. Most of the rivers and reservoirs in Latur district are dry. Manjara dam, which is the source of water in Beed, Osmanabad and Latur districts, has less than 1 percent of stored water.

Latur is not the only city in India which has reeling under water crisis. Presently, more than 10 states in India are facing severe drought. In Tikamgadh of Bundelkhand, people are forced to guard their water with the help of pistols. Even, Shimla, a favorite summer retreat in northern India, is under the grip of water scarcity and that threatens city’s tourism industry.

Recently, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court (SC) rapped government authorities for their negligence and non-seriousness about the situation of drought in the country. After SC’s stringent observation, the government is releasing INR 8000 crores (1.2 Billion USD) towards unpaid wages under rural job scheme Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) for the 2015-16 fiscal as many states are battling with the drought and consequent agrarian crisis. In Bundelkhand, many people have already left their villages due to nonpayment of wages under MNREGA. It is necessary to find out, why India is facing such a severe drought?

Due to prevalence of strong El Nino conditions over the Pacific Ocean, rains have decreased for a third year in a row in India. Hence, the crisis aggravated. Impacts of climate change are starkly visible. However, in India, we need to understand several dimensions of the drought being faced currently. Roots of this ‘natural disaster’ are actually linked with many manmade activities. Most importantly, government of India adopted the ‘National Water Policy’ for the first time in 1987; it was updated for several times. Latest policy, updated in 2012, gives water allocation priority in the following order: Drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, navigation, industrial and other uses. However, these priorities were not practiced honestly and citizens are also responsible for bringing distortion in the said priorities.

During his campaign for last general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on growing middle class of India. Majority of this class resides in urban parts of India. Surface water and ground water are two important sources of fresh water. Later constitutes for around 55% and it also accounts for 60% of India’s irrigation needs. This is directly in conflict with growing urbanization needs as urban demand per capita is three times more than rural demand. According to UN figures, India’s urban population will touch 50% mark by 2050 and this will be very difficult situation to manage. And, if Modi government really wants to double the income of farmers then it needs to walk on the tightrope between expectations of aspirational urban population and needy farming community.

Another pertinent issue in case of current crisis is a cropping pattern. Despite scarce rainfall there was heavy sugarcane cultivation in the drought prone areas with the support of heavy weight politicians. Sugarcane is a very water-intensive crop and pushes water table further down. It is necessary to demonstrate the profitability of horticulture and vegetable farming, even on a small land holding, if we are to counter the gigantic growth of sugarcane. M.S.Swaminathan, father of India’s ‘Green Revolution’, suggested for adopting cropping pattern based on the agro-climatic conditions of the area. Prevailing situation in the country has forced us to ponder over it and start implementing the same.

Another issue is of better water management. Successive governments have turned a blind eye to water management. Leaky pipelines and connections worsen the situation. Water leakage in several parts of India is about 50-60%. We should understand it is a duty of each and every individual to work for improving situation of water distribution and ameliorate overall situation of water management. In Marathwada situation is worst, as water leakage is more than 60-80%.

Developed countries manage water in a much better ways. For instance, Australia is suffering from drought for ninth consecutive year, while in parts of America this is fourth year of drought. However, these countries have adopted more stringent and efficient models of water management. In these countries, the proportion of water leakage is less than 5%. There is also a need to use recycled water in a more competent manner. Our industrial sector should also share the burden and extend their helping hand for treatment of polluted water.

If we are really serious about fighting the drought then we need to think for long term remedies. Water management is a key to avoid any water related crisis. In fact, we should take cognizance of success stories of water management. In Ralegan Siddhi, a village of social activist Anna Hazare in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, successful implementation of watershed management program raised water table of the surrounding area. Anna Hazare inspired villagers for undertaking watershed development through community participation. The watershed development work helped in conserving each drop of rainwater in the village itself and in recharging the groundwater aquifers. Anna Hazare replicated this program in nearby villages too. Success of Ralegan Siddhi teaches us a lesson that people from drought-prone areas should take their own initiatives rather than depending on government.

Since last few months, Government of Maharashtra has undertaken a flagship scheme titled as ‘Jalyukt Shivar’ for soil and water conservation. It will be very early to comment on success or failure of the scheme. However, it will be interesting to watch out for results of this scheme. The entire drought affected area of 10 states falls under rain-shadow region. Hence, it is obligatory on our part to conserve each and every drop of rain water. Drought affected areas should provide impetus to rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.

In fact, with greater climatic variations caused by global warming, droughts and crises like in Latur are expected to be more frequent.. The crippling water shortage in this city of about half a million in the drought-stricken region of Maharashtra is emblematic of the deep crisis people are facing across the country. This is our future, unless we act fast.

*Aniket Bhavthankar, is a Senior Reserach Associate. He can contacted at [email protected]

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