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Farmers in Kurukshetra’s Thanesar, a paddy-growing region of Haryana, are faced with a peculiar dilemma. Over the past few weeks, acres and acres of standing paddy have been destroyed by flood water from the Ghaggar and Markanda, two of the main rivers in the state. Gurmel Singh, 42, for one, is at his wit’s end. With depleting groundwater levels, the government has been asking farmers to switch to other crops which consume less water. “Our paddy fields are under two-three feet of water. The crop has been destroyed. What other crop would survive here?” he asks, surveying his hard labour going waste within days. Floods have occurred here earlier too, but not with such ferocity. Crisis on the surface, crisis below the surface, Kurukshetra’s water woes now has a paradoxical character.
Ask Jayanta Sharma about such contradictions. Sharma, 33, buys nearly 300 litres of water daily from a private firm, delivered by tankers directly to the overhead tank in his apartment in Guwahati. Yet, he and his family of three cannot step out of their homes on many days during the rainy season as even brief showers flood the entire locality. “We are having a tough time with water. The irony is that the roads are flooded with water and we are buying in trucks,” says Sharma, who works in a private company. Over the past decade or so, Guwahati has seen an unplanned growth of housing apartments, leading to fast depletion of its groundwater level. And floods in Assam’s capital are now a recurring problem, an urban nightmare that also blights Mumbai and other cities annually.
Across the length and breadth of India, millions of people are grappling with water—more often for the lack of this life-sustaining elixir. It’s an unequal—some say, losing—battle. The conundrum was never so prominent, or puzzling. Every year, around this time, while parts of the country reel under droughts, there are others that are flooded. Taps run dry in cities, including the major ones, and rural areas that get enough rains depend on faraway sources. Cities like Chennai, which were once self-sufficient, now face water shortages. It was the same city that came to a standstill for days due to floods. In both urban and rural India, the crisis is acute. We are in the midst of shortages, toxic contamination, raging disputes between states over water sharing, and heightened cross-border tensions in the subcontinent.
All’s Well in Bundelkhand
In Banda, a perennially drought-prone district in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, a people’s movement, Bhujal Badhao, Payjal Bachao (Increase groundwater, save drinking water), aims to find practical solutions to acute water shortage. The plan involves conserving water and recharging groundwater to the extent of 11,000 cu m by constructing contour trenches around 2,183 handpumps and 260 wells. The campaign was supported by 471 village panchayats, as well as Banda district magistrate Hira Lal. The bureaucrat managed funds from the MGNREGA, and the panchayats got the local communities to offer free labour and financial support. WaterAid India, which is involved with the project, is also working on similar initiatives in Fatehpur and Kanpur districts of the state.
The red light had been blinking for a while. Now, it’s official. Government think-tank NITI Aayog said in a 2018 report that India is facing “the worst water crisis” in its history, with about 60 crore people facing high to extreme water stress. About two lakh people are also dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water, the report titled ‘Composite Water Management Index’ said. This happens in the same country where hundreds die every year due to floods. Last month, Union water resources minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat sent out another warning. The water shortage could impact agriculture and thereby cut food exports from India. The country urgently needs to revive its reservoirs, lakes and other traditional water bodies, he said in a statement (see interview). For a country where a majority rely on the farm sector, this almost sounds catastrophic. For the first time, water has entered our socio-political consciousness. PM Narendra Modi talked about the need for conservation in one of his Mann ki Baat episodes.
Although the belief is that floods are caused by natural causes, like high rainfall, the reasons for modern floods are, in most cases, man-made. It is human mismanagement, either in the implementation of water projects, or their maintenance, that plays a key role. One of the prominent causes of the Kerala floods in 2018 was said to be inadequate and inefficient management of the dams. In many states, deforestation has aggravated flood situations as green cover controls water run-off and helps prevent soil erosion. So is the case with droughts and water-scarcity.
Residents of Mawsynram in Meghalaya, which receives the highest rainfall on earth, have to travel several kilometres to get fresh water as large-scale deforestation has left the land barren. In 2017, nearly 5.5 million hectares were affected by floods across India; 18.64 million people faced the fury of the deluge. The damage to crops extended over 5 million hectares, and 2,014 lives were lost. In a country highly dependent on the June-September monsoons for growing crops to feed its teeming millions, even a slight variation in rainfall leads to drought. Crop failures bring in its wake farmer suicides, the numbers growing over the years.
It’s a nightmarish situation. Successive governments have sought solutions in grand schemes, which are politically palatable, but have huge social and economic costs. The interlinking of rivers can lead to different kinds of problems in the future, as is the case with big dams. Tap water for all, apart from its high costs, can lead to higher demand due to increased wastages. The Clean Ganga project may yield inadequate results. Hence, what is required is a medium- and long-term blueprint for water management. There are simpler and easier solutions to tackle the problems.
Rainwater harvesting, conservation, recharging of groundwater, and recycling hold the key to the country’s water security. Or else, like in the other parts of the globe, India may find itself in the midst of intense water wars—battles between states, conflicts with our neighbours and civic unrest. The signs are there; it’s time to wake up, and smell the bitter coffee.
In the drought-hit Bheed district of western Maharashtra, people line up their pots two days ahead of the arrival of a government tanker that brings them potable water every week. But once the vehicle arrives, all hell breaks loose as people rush and fight to be the first to get their quota. There are also reports of violent brawls over sharing water from community handpumps, sometimes leading to deaths. Last year, a 60-year-old man and his 18-year-old son died after a fight with some of his neighbours in northwest Delhi. Around May this year, as India reeled under a blistering heat wave, police were deployed to guard tankers and control crowds after several cases of violence over water.
Facts and figures (see) give a clear picture of the grim situation. Given the demand projections, the available drinking water may be reduced by 50 per cent over the next two decades. The country’s dependence on the monsoon is high, as most land is unirrigated. Over 50 per cent of the water sources are contaminated with nitrate, and 38 per cent with fluoride and iron. We lose more and more lives every year due to floods and droughts.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says there is a lack of awareness about water issues among policymakers, politicians and people. “Governments look for easy and lazy solutions.” Adds Pradeep Purandare, a water expert: “We need recharging of groundwater. We need roof-water harvesting. Treated water should be seen as a source of pure water. But what matters the most is the use of water. Continuous use with no thought for tomorrow is not going to help.”
Mumbai priests stand in water vats and chant shlokas to win over the rain gods.
According to the ministry of urban development, 17 per cent notified cities and towns face water shortage. Among the states, Tamil Nadu has the maximum number of such urban areas, followed by Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In large parts of urban India, contend experts, one hectare of land uses the same amount of water as is required to grow sugarcane in rural India. The Bureau of Indian Standards recommends a minimum supply of 200 litres per capita per day for domestic consumption in cities with full flushing systems.
We know the problems. Growing urbanisation, increase in population and construction of vertical residences and commercial centres put pressure on the largely inefficient municipal bodies. The simple solution is to enhance supplies, rather than manage demand, or recharge groundwater. “Our approach has been to supply more water because of our flawed assessment of the availability of water,” explains Himanshu Kulkarni, executive director of the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management.
At the same time, policymakers tend to overestimate what is available, underestimate how much we use. Hence, say experts, they think that given the monsoons, the country can afford to use more water through the construction of dams and wells. Take the case of Delhi, which earlier got its water from Bhakra Dam, then from a barrage on the Yamuna, followed by Tehri Dam. Now, according to Thakkar, there is the demand for Renuka Dam and Sharda-Yamuna river-linking to address the demand.
Look at the state of affairs in Chennai, which was touted as a shining example of solving its water crisis through rainwater harvesting. It too went through a crisis after the failure of the northeast monsoon in 2018. “About 50 per cent of harvesting installations have to be improved,” says Dr Sekhar Raghavan, director of the Chennai Rain Centre. “Things could have been worse in Chennai, but for successful initiatives in many high-rise complexes. This awareness needs to spread across the country too.”
Free power, which was meant to help farmers, has proved to be a major disservice to the agriculture sector. Thanks to this, the crop-growers draw huge quantities of groundwater, which depletes the water table fast. In addition, market dynamics work against efforts to wean them away from water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and paddy. Take the case of Marathwada, which, despite the severe droughts, has witnessed a huge increase in the area under sugarcane cultivation. “We are not using available resources properly as there is hardly any management or rules and regulation,” Purandare warns. “In Marathwada, we had record sugar production this year. This should be opposed, but is not happening. Actually, it is a cruel game as the dams in Marathwada have little water due to droughts, and farmers use groundwater. This fast depletion, with no recharging, can lead to desertification.”
The farmers, though, are caught in a kind of Hobson’s choice. The crop that gives them financial security is sugarcane, not millets. The solution lies in changing cropping patterns and methods of irrigation. However, large parts of the country continue to rely on rainfall for agriculture needs. If the rains fail, groundwater is the casualty. “Farmers, especially those with assured irrigation, changed their crops and cropping systems over the past decades. This was in response to policies that support water- and chemical-intensive production, pricing mechanisms and subsidies,” says Rajeshwari Raina, professor at Shiv Nadar University. “But these are no longer sustainable. There is a need for policies that will help farmers in specific agro-ecosystems shift to more sustainable, ecologically suitable cropping systems.”
Another flashpoint is the tussle between industry and farmers. It is not just competition for land, as was evident in clashes between corporations and local communities in West Bengal (Nano project) and Odisha (mining projects), but also a fight for the use of available and shrinking water resources. The water demand by industry, which is largely set up in rural India, is expected to go up by nine times over the next few decades.
Consider the case of farmers’ suicides in Vidharbha (Maharashtra). Recently, 35 farmers’ organisations in the region fought against expansion of the Koradi Thermal Power Station, which is coming up near Nagpur city. The fear is that water will be diverted to the power plant, making farmers suffer. “The region is facing acute shortage and diverting water for power generation will add to our woes,” says Vidharbha Environmental Action Group convenor Sudhir Paliwal.
However, it is not all bad news on the rural front as community-led efforts, backed by panchayats, have gained ground. Across the country, over the past three decades, several jal chaupal or pani panchayats have emerged. They are democratic platforms for communities to decide about how they will conserve water, and plan its utilisation. “Our experience so far of jal choupal initiatives is that within three to four months, awareness and action on water are increased, which is encouraging. A clear understanding is emerging that the burden on women over issues related to water should come down,” says Raman V.R., head of policy, WaterAid India.
Government studies indicate that average rainfall declined from 1,050 mm in the kharif (summer cropping) season of 1970 to less than 1,000 mm in the kharif season of 2015. Similarly, in the rabi (winter cropping) season, average rainfall declined from approximately 150 mm in 1970 to about 100 mm in 2015. Dry days, or days without rainfall, during the monsoons increased from approximately 40 to 45 per cent during the same period. Clearly, the impact of climate change has kicked in. Yet, these factors are not taken into account to study water availability and resource management.
States versus states
Post-Independence, when the Indian states were reorganised based on language, the government formulated the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956, to resolve conflicts over use, control and distribution of interstate rivers or river valleys. However, it failed to resolve any of the interstate disputes, which have become hot-button issues for political clashes and civic unrests. At present, dozens of states fight over sharing of water from dozens of rivers and dams.
“Every state wants to be prosperous and, as water is crucial, everybody wants more,” says a senior state official from Tamil Nadu. Interstate water conflicts depend on several factors such as politics, water requirement, and weather conditions. Dragging water conflicts to courts or tribunals helps to justify to the populations that the governments are fighting for their shares.” Amicable solutions aren’t possible in an environment of political and bureaucratic egos, and the cases drag on.
The ambitious idea of interlinking rivers originated when Sir Arthur Cotton, an irrigation engineer, suggested the interlinking of the Ganga and Cauvery rivers for navigational purposes. Post-Independence, the idea was taken up by late PM Atal Behari Vajpayee and was formally launched during Modi’s first tenure. This government hopes to implement three sub-projects, including Ken-Betwa Link Project (Rs 35,000 crore), Damanganga-Pinjal Link Project (Rs 4,000 crore), and Par-Tapi-Narmada Link Project (Rs 10,000 crore). However, experts have questioned their merits.
“Rivers change course, and there is no clear way to predict it,” says an IIT expert. “River-linking will cause deforestation, and lead to increase in water conflicts.” He adds that if the Indian rivers don’t have enough water to feed themselves, how can they help others?
Besides, the government hopes to tackle floods through the project, but remains unconcerned about the situation in the summers and winters. But politicians prefer big schemes, which can be packaged as the future water temples to solve the scarcity crisis. Most sections of society are excited by them as they hope to get more water in the future. In the process, what remains forgotten is that there are simpler, more practical and sustainable solutions, which, more importantly, individuals and groups have implemented successfully in their local areas.
Recently, a message on social media talked of how the various generations have imagined water, and its availability. Our great grandparents and grandparents saw it in the form of broad, full and fast-flowing rivers. Our parents witnessed it in wells and bore-wells. For us, water is what is available in bottles, and through machines (ROs). What about our children? Will they imagine it in the form of drops. May be, drops of tears?
For India, the time to act is now.
By Lola Nayar and Jyotika Sood with inputs from Salik Ahmed and Abdul Gani