Thursday, December 1, 2022

Water catastrophe: Dripping with Misery

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In India, 75 million are deprived of sufficient water. Over the last 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. How will we ever tackle this gargantuan problem including legal hurdles?
By Ramesh Menon

In a few years from now, Indians in several states will feel they have been sentenced to hydrological poverty. This situation is already prevalent in some regions, particularly in summer. We have simply forgotten how ancient civilizations prospered on the banks of rivers.

Water will emerge as one of the biggest crisis of our lives. This year, we are already getting a taste of it as the levels in 91 major reservoirs are dipping. According to the Central Water Commission, the water level in India in mid-April this year was 33 percent less than last year.

Some of the most affected states are Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha. Water trains are being sent to Maharashtra and in Madhya Pradesh, water tankers are likely to be sent to villagers. In Bundelkhand, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, there has been no water to sow the winter crop. In Odisha, farmers have broken embankments of public lakes in a bid to save their dying crops. In Gujarat, armed police guard waters of the Narmada canal. It is not a pretty picture.

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As it is, 54 percent of India faces high to extremely high water stress, according to the World Resources Institute. With no rational water policies, India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world. In fact, 55 percent of India’s total water supply comes from groundwater resources. This is an important water source—60 percent of water for irrigation comes from groundwater, nearly 30 percent of urban water supply and 70 percent of rural water supply too is from this source. But 54 percent of groundwater levels are falling. Already, ground water is plummeting in cities like Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad due to mindless urbanization. We have been carelessly drawing water for years without bothering to replenish it. Nature can give only if it is supported, not exploited.

India gets enough rain for its annual needs, but it just gets drained away into highly polluted drains and rivers. Water is also heavily subsidized as politicians see it as an opportunity to grow their vote banks. This has led to a lot of wastage. As farmers get free electricity, they often carelessly pump out more water than required. Drip irrigation is a great idea but it is hardly promoted by the government, though Water Resources Secretary Shashi Shekhar has said that the government needs to push it.

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Water Resources Minister Uma Bharati said that India should now work towards long-term solutions to clean rivers, conserve water and ensure water management. “The new tragic story is of states like Punjab and Haryana which have over-exploited rivers,” she said. Haryana is using three times the water that it recharges. It is a grim scenario. According to MIT scientists, a billion people could be without water in Asia by 2050. Global demand for water is projected to increase by 55 percent by 2050. In India, 75 million are already deprived of sufficient water. “The poor are paying for water today in water-starved areas. Water mafias profit from the shortage and are known to be operated by powerful politicians,” said Vikrant Jongad, an environmental activist with Social Action for Forest and Environment. Water from a tanker can cost up to Rs 2 a liter. WHO maintains that 50 liters are required daily per person to maintain health and hygiene and meet domestic needs.

As the specter of drought stares in numerous states in India, Latur in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra hit the headlines due to severe water shortage. Special water trains were dispatched to stave off a serious crisis. In an unprecedented step, Section 144 was imposed there, barring the assembly of more than five people to prevent water riots.

Just Imagine.

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There is hardly three percent water left in the dams of Marathwada now and it is so little that it cannot flow. So the water has to be pumped out. This is the fourth consecutive year of drought and over 8,500 villages have been affected. The Maharashtra government is considering cutting off water supply to breweries and not granting any new licenses for sugar factories. Another unprecedented disaster was when five units of NTPC’s thermal plant at Farakka in eastern India was closed down for some days due to low water levels in a feeder canal which brought in water from the Ganga.

Water Wars

Water is an emotive issue not just for people but for many states in India. Agitations over this vital resource have often led to courts and legal wrangles which go on for years

Here are some of the main ones:


The tiff between Punjab and Haryana over sharing of Ravi and Beas waters took a turn for the worse when the Badal government on March 14, 2016, moved the Punjab Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Propriety Rights) Bill 2016. This seeks to return land acquired for construction of the SYL canal and got unstinted support from Capt Amarinder Singh of the Congress. Earlier on July 12, 2004, Punjab enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill, annulling all inter-state agreements relating to the sharing of these waters.

The present provocation for Punjab was the hearing of the Presidential Reference to the Supreme Court on the 2004 Bill to terminate all water agreements unilaterally. Before any adverse court ruling could be made, Punjab moved the 2016 Bill so that any ruling could become infructuous and unimplementable. Sadly, it took the judiciary 12 years (after 2004) to even consider the issue.

The genesis of the problem took place during the reorganization of Punjab and Haryana in 1966. In 1979, Punjab filed a suit in the Supreme Court demanding that the earlier government order of splitting water equally should be written off. In 1986, a government tribunal was set up under Section 4 of Article 131, Water Dispute Act, 1956, to resolve the issue. And in 2004, Punjab struck down all previous agreements.


The Cauvery water dispute started in 1974 after the agreement between Mysore and Madras Presidency collapsed. In May 1990, the SC directed the center to constitute a tribunal. In June 1991, the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal announced an interim award in which Karnataka was ordered to release 205 tmcft. It refused to do so. In July 17, 2005, Karnataka refused to implement the distress-sharing formula and ruled out Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. On February 5, 2007, the Tribunal said that the two agreements signed between Madras and Mysore of 1892 and 1924 were valid. On September 19, 2012, in the seventh Cauvery river agreement, former PM Manmohan Singh directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu at Biligundhu. In 2013, Tamil Nadu approached the SC seeking directions for constitution of the Cauvery Management Board. On July 28, 2013, Tamil Nadu filed a contempt petition in the SC against the Karnataka CM. In 2015, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu clashed during the third meeting of the Cauvery supervisory committee over the latter’s share of the river water.


Kerala and Tamil Nadu too are locked over the Mullaperiyar Dam dispute. The dam is situated in Kerala but operated by Tamil Nadu which signed a 999-year lease agreement with the British. Kerala has pointed out the unfairness in the 1886 lease and has challenged its validity. In 2006, Kerala enacted the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation Act to ensure safety of all endangered dams in the state. On February 18, 2010, the SC decided to constitute a five-member committee to look at all the issues of Mullaperiyar Dam. In May 2014, the SC struck down the Kerala Irrigation Water Conservation Act and ruled that water level in the dam could be increased from 136 ft to 142 ft.

— Compiled by Deepti Jain

Coal plants in the country guzzle about 22 billion cubic meters of water, according to the Centre for Science and Environment. And with the increasing demand for electricity, the pressure on water availability is only going to increase. Water required by power plants might also lead to local shortages. The worst case scenario would be if power plants are closed down. Maharashtra is now considering whether thermal plants in the state should use treated sewage water.

Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court in a landmark decision ordered the BCCI to shift matches of the ongoing IPL out of Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur after April 30 as a lot of water is being consumed to prepare the grounds. This may be a symbolic move to bring the attention of the country to the problem of water. But if one looks at the larger picture, it is miniscule compared to the daily wastage of water through leaking pipes and taps.

Another looming crisis, said Shekhar, is that ponds and water bodies have not been maintained for years even as the demand for water has gone up. The government is reportedly planning to amend groundwater rules, restrict drilling of wells and regulate the use of electricity to pump out water, he said.

With the weather office predicting above-normal rains in the months to come, there might be some respite. Ashok Chawla, chairman, Governing Council, TERI, points out: “Even after 70 years of planned development, we still have to look up to the skies. What we need is a pragmatic, rational and forward-looking water policy where both the center and the state are on the same page.”

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Rituals of numerous religious festivals continue to pollute and poison India’s rivers

A large part of India’s 240 million households are involved in agriculture. If there is water shortage, many of them will be in distress. According to the Central Water Commission, agriculture consumes 85.3 percent of water. Domestic usage is just 6.6 percent and industry is only 1.3 percent. As a predominantly agricultural economy, India needs to look at this seriously as food security will be one immediate casualty.

Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, told India Legal: “Why do we try to tackle drought only after it has struck and not do any forward planning? Why is it that India does not cut down on water-intensive crops like sugarcane which require about 60 lakh liters per acre? On the other hand, millets require just 300 liters per acre. If we promote rice and sugarcane which are water intensive crops, there will always be a problem with water,” he said.

India can encourage highly nutritious millets like jowar, bajra and ragi that require very little water. But this will not be easy as the sugar lobby is controlled by politicians across all parties in Maharashtra.

India’s water crisis is worsened by the lack of forward planning. Policy planners have to plan our water requirements. Leena Srivastava, vice-chancellor, TERI University, said: “We know all the solutions of rainwater harvesting and water conservation, but it is not being implemented as civil society is not being engaged. The normal perception is that water is a problem that the government has to deal with. People have to be a part of the solution.”

Look at how rainwater is wasted. Where are the water catchment areas? Rajas and maharajas of yore built water channels all over cities to direct water to harvesting structures. But today, all those channels are blocked with construction.

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Dozens of water pumps try to retrieve the little water that remains

For example, look at Jaipur. Long before independence, its architects had carefully laid out water channels all over the city that got little rain and harvested it in ponds and water catchment areas. Today, none of these channels exist as construction has come up over them. Similarly, in Varanasi, traditional water channels have been destroyed with careless planning and illegal construction. Poor management of water resources has seen aquifers—which provide 85 percent of drinking water—get depleted in 56 percent of the country.

In the last 50 years, the per capita availability of fresh water has declined sharply from 3,000 cubic meters to 1,123 cubic meters. Compare this with the global average which is 6,000 cubic meters.

Over 180 million Indians are estimated to face severe water scarcity all year round. The worst sufferers are women as they are carriers of water both in urban and rural India. The National Sample Survey indicates that the proportion of people travelling 0.2km to 0.5km daily to access drinking water is increasing year after year.
According to UNICEF, only a quarter of India’s population has drinking water on their premises and nearly three-quarters of all diseases are caused by contaminants in the water supply.

Vinod Tare, who was involved in the Ganga River Basin Management Plan, said that though we worship rivers, we have polluted all of them. “A penny spent on pollution and waste will gain dollars elsewhere in our economy. We have to realize the importance of the ecological entity of rivers and water bodies that are shrinking. We have to now scientifically manage river basins as the nation’s economy depends on water.” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently said that India could achieve 8.5 percent growth if there were good monsoons.

This shortage of water has also led to irritants among many water-sharing states. Tamil Nadu has disputes with Kerala and Karnataka, while Delhi has locked horns with Haryana. Internationally too, India has water conflicts with Bangladesh, China and Pakistan.

Though the BJP government is once again keen on river linking and has started the process of studying it, this may not be viable as it would take a lot of engineering prowess and money to do it. Also, what does one do with highly polluted rivers? It would be a better idea to replicate simple water management techniques adopted by villagers like Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi, Rajendra Singh in Alwar and Popatrao Pawar in Hiware Bazar. All they did was dig ponds and allow rainwater to collect in it so that it slowly recharges groundwater. But governments want to look at huge construction projects like river-linking with the contractor lobby strongly backing it for obvious reasons.

Fawzia Tarannum, a professor at TERI University, points out that India had a wealth of knowledge as traditional water storage and harvesting systems worked in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Bihar. There, people took turns to share water for irrigation and collectively took decisions about which crop to grow. But all that has been lost with modern water systems that brought in tap water, she said. Former Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal says that we can either conserve and save water or perish.

As many as 3,228 farmers in Maharashtra committed suicide in 2015. Between January and March this year, 273 farmers took their lives in Marathwada region.

As the sun burns in the sky, it holds the threat of unleashing more tragedies during this summer.

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