The cover story we have written this week probably needs to be dinned into the heads of the reading public periodically so that the message it conveys remains indelibly etched in their memory. It is a painful reminder of the incontrovertible fact that the water crisis India has faced and is now facing—is a man-scripted story of neglect and a contemptuous self-destructive attitude to nature and the environment.
There is no need to go into statistics here—that would be repeating figures available in any sensible Google search as well as in our comprehensive report on this ongoing human-made catastrophe. The basic point is that India is still largely an agricultural country—about 70 percent of its people live off the land and more than 60 percent of the net sown area is dependent on rainfall. This has not changed and is unlikely to change in the near future.
The real tragedy, however, as 254 districts in the country reel under drought, is that this need not be the case. Notwithstanding periodical shortages in rainfall, followed by excess rainfall, the total amount of water contained in our atmosphere and seas and oceans has not changed. There is plenty of water. The heartbreak is that we have failed miserably to manage this bountiful resource, to store it after it pours down on us in abundance and to create irrigation systems that ensure rivers don’t run dry and are interlinked for rational apportionment to meet the needs of farmers and consumers.
A drought does not mean that there has not been sufficient rainfall in any given season or year. It means that in the absence of any rainfall, there is no availability of water. This may sound absurd at first reading. But not when you look at several ground realities. Israel, for example, gets little or no rain but its orchards are green and crops thrive. India’s state of Meghalaya, on the other hand, has more rainfall than most parts of the world and yet faces a water shortage. One day Chennai and surrounding areas are inundated by floods. The next there are drought-like conditions.
The explanation to these apparent contradictions is no rocket science. Our ancestors, it seems, knew better. They knew how to store water in village ponds, by building small check dams to capture the bounty from seasonal streams and rivulets and protecting the flood plans of rivers which absorb excess water and allow it to seep underground.
Underground. That is the magic world. That is nature’s storage facility. Our life spring is groundwater. India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world. In fact, 55 percent of India’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources. And the trick is to keep groundwater levels high through the dredging of village ponds, maintenance of bawadis or aquifers and known and proven methods of water harvesting. It is this precious resource that has allowed civilizations to thrive and survive despite persistent periods of drought. There was enough available
underground and in storage tanks and small river reservoirs created by check dams to meet the minimum needs for human and agricultural consumption.
I truly believe that one of the biggest crimes of this century is humankind’s neglect of storage systems which have created parched throats and parched earth. We have not only neglected these storage systems but have actually destroyed them. Among nature’s finest and brilliantly-crafted storage systems are mountains and forests.
Forested mountain slopes are known as catchment areas. This is because the foliage as well as the barks of trees and shrubs and ground mosses and ferns act as sponges to “catch” the rains—every drop from every drizzle—and allow this to seep gently into the ground, drip into aquifers (underground caves) which overflow and gently release the water into rivers and valleys.
This system is under savage attack from ruthless development in which mountainsides have been destroyed, forest cover has been annihilated. Here’s the horrifying result: the rain lashes the catchment areas. Since there is no sponge left to absorb it, the water hits the ground directly and cascades in torrents, taking with it boulders and surface soil—which can no longer be held in place because there are no roots to hold them firmly. This entire landslide crashes into the river displacing equal amounts of water that floods the banks and ultimately evaporates. The natural flow of the water ceases. The aquifers, which provided perennial water into the river systems, dry up. The next season, if there is no rain, the rivers run dry, and irrigation and water down the supply chain suffer.
In 1968, during the height of the Chipko movement against deforestation in the Garhwal Himalayas, environmentalist leader Sunderlal Bahuguna first explained this to me saying: “Ironically, floods and droughts are a similar phenomenon.” He then predicted that because of the unchecked deforestation in the catchment areas of the Bhagirathi river, there would soon be a huge flashflood and landslide. He was right. A few years ago this catastrophe he had predicted destroyed the Kedarnath temple.
And we haven’t learned a thing. The Met department tells us we are going to have a good monsoon this year because El Niño is receding. But have we made any plans to harvest this expected bounty from the sky whose arrival science has now made it possible to predict? Any major government thrust to create more storage tanks in villages? Check dams? Make water harvesting compulsory wherever possible? Desalinate water? Recycle sewage water as they do in Singapore which has no water resources of its own? Prevent the destruction of natural wetlands which create biodiversity and help keep groundwater levels up so wells don’t run dry? Build systems to prevent water runoffs? Prevent deforestation of catchment areas? Fix leaking pipes and taps in urban waterlines? Restore the flow in the Yamuna which is almost dead?
Here’s a shocking fact: In this session of Parliament, notwithstanding the drought conditions, the Rajya Sabha discussed the subject for 3.5 hours during 19 business hours, and the Lok Sabha, not once in 11 business hours.
It was left to a former chief justice—HL Dattu—now chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to remark: “The issue of crop rotation to conserve our soil and water levels as well as our food requirements needs to be addressed with a missionary zeal.”
Banning cricket in Maharashtra to save water used for greening the grounds is only a band-aid remedy. It isn’t going to save drought-hit Marathwada or prevent human migration from Latur. In fact, Maharashtra is a living testament to the uselessness of large dams in water management. It has the largest number of dams in India —about 100—and is still the worst affected. Part of the reason is that the largest consumer of water is sugarcane whose cultivation is the vested interest of the gargantuan sugar lobby that feeds Maharashtra’s politicians.
For years on end, experts have suggested that that one way of ensuring adequate water is to change cropping patterns by reducing sugarcane plantation and increasing the area of cultivation of millets such as bajra and jowar and ragi which are drought-resistant. But the resistance to these ideas comes from the cane lobby as does resistance to ideas such as river water sharing and canal links which comes from state politicians who are fighting water wars in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and Punjab and Haryana.
So monsoon or no monsoon, the dismal statistics will continue to grow: 75 million of India’s 1.25 billion people are deprived of sufficient water. Over the past 50 years, per capita availability of fresh water has declined from 3,000 cubic meters to 1,123 cubic meters. The global average is 6,000 cubic meters.
This year, 91 major reservoirs have dipping levels, hitting just 24 per cent of their total storage capacity. In 54 percent of 4,000 wells randomly surveyed all over India, groundwater levels are falling. As many as 3,228 farmers in Maharashtra committed suicide in 2015. Between January and March this year, 273 farmers took their own lives in Marathwada.
It’s a horror story. A man-made horror story. A horror story that need not be if you consider the example of not just far-off Israel but of Ralegan Siddhi right at home where Anna Hazare led a team of villagers to implement a watershed development program that helped in conserving rainwater and raised the water table. Where earlier it was not possible to cultivate more than 350 acres of land for one crop, the villagers now harvest two crops in 1,500 acres of land!
Where there is a will there is a way.