India's Historic Drought a Worrying Sign

Photo Source: Guardian

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Since 2015,  six hundred million Indians are facing extreme drought stress. The Indian government has accepted this fact in its own report ‘Composite Water Management Index: A Tool For Water Management’, published in June 2018.

Droughts have not only given crop failures but also poor soil health. The livelihood of farmers is so much affected that cases of suicides have gone up.

It will also be soon when forty percent of country’s population may have no access to drinking water. It is because ground water is being depleted at an alarming rate: some eight five percent of the country's drinking water comes from aquifers, according to Water Aid.

What is alarming is that this also has serious implications for India’s population. Currently, nearly two hundred thousand people die every year, due to scarce access to safe water. With seventy of India’s water contaminated, the country ranks 120th among 122 countries in a global water quality index. To make matters worse, water levels in India’s ninety major reservoirs have fallen to twenty percent of the total capacity, since 2019.

Arivudai Nambi Appadurai, head of India adaption strategy at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based group, believes that the quality of water being bought by homes in drought-struck areas has caused allergies, sending more patients to local hospitals. It has hugely impacted women and children. Farmers are also complaining that drought conditions are making their livestock sick, who often require medicines.

The effects of drought are visible more in the rural areas than in the urban areas. About three hundred thousand Indian farmers have killed themselves in the past twenty-five years. Many have deserted their crops, and moved to cities in search of livelihood, leaving behind the elderly. Experts suggest that the present situation could also inflame water conflicts between farms, and cities, and industries. In states, such as Maharashtra, and Bihar, petty crimes, clashes and even murders have happened over drought crises. The crimes that were taking place over water distribution were mainly between caste, communities, villages, and between urban and rural areas, due to inequitable water distribution. The water crises disputes, in 2018, were almost double the number in 2017, according to National Crime Records Bureau.

In rural India, villagers sometimes have to wait for days, in hot temperatures, before government tankers carry water trucks, where they desperately need them. But, these trucks only provide twenty litres per person a day, which people ration for everything including drinking, cooking, bathing and house work. People who don’t manage to put their pipes that day, simply don’t get water. Some people also buy water according to their finances, and it costs them around nine hundred rupees per month.

By the end of May 2019, forty three percent of India was experiencing drought, with failed monsoon rains seen as the primary reason. The country has seen widespread drought every year since 2015, with the exception of 2017. According to the ministry of agriculture, the frequent droughts, in the last four years, not only impacted the kharif and rabi crop, but also destroyed kharif supplementary crops.
According to an Oped in New York Times, written by Bryan Denton and Somini Sengupta: "the problem is especially acute across the largely poor central Indian belt that stretches from western Maharashtra to the Bay of Bengal in the east. Over the last seventy years, extreme rainfall events have increased threefold in the region, according to a recent scientific paper, while total annual rainfall has measurably declined.”

The majestic mountains of India, in the north, are also projected to lose a third of their ice, by the end of the century, if green gas emissions continue at their current pace. But, the scientists  believe that climate change is not the lonely culprit. Decades of greed and mismanagement are far more at fault, too. The lush forests that help to hold the rains continue to get deforested. Developers are given green light for their constructions over lakes and creeks. Presently, government subsidies are encouraged for over-extraction of groundwater.

By 2050, the World Bank estimates erratic rainfall, combined with rising temperatures, that are ought to worsen the living standards of nearly half the country’s population. As of now, twenty-one major cities in the country, including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, are expected to run out of water in the future.

Quite recently, prime minister Narendra Modi created the Ministry of Jal Shakti (water power) to oversee water resource management, and recapitulated his election campaign promise, to provide piped water to every rural home, by 2024. One year after the Modi government was elected, in July 2015, it launched a new scheme for farmland irrigation called the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. The aim of the scheme was concisely summed up in slogans: “Har Khet Ko Pani”—water for every farm—and “Per Drop More Crop.” However, in the last four years, central funding to the programme has drastically plummeted.’s analysis of government expenditure shows: Rs 2,284 crore (three hundred thirty million US dollars) allocated in 2014-15, for watershed work, shrunk by thirty five percent to Rs 1,487 crore in the first year of the policy shift. Agricultural experts believe the programme’s best features have been compromised.

Worse, since 2016, the government has stopped sanctioning new watershed projects. From watershed development work of over thirty nine million hectares of land, the programme’s aim has narrowed down to bringing just 11.5 lakh hectares of land under irrigation coverage.
By shifting the focus to farm irrigation, the central government has been taking water conservation efforts back by twenty years, according to Vijay Shankar, a founding member of Samaj Pragati Sahayog.
The integrated watershed management programme has been a culmination of two decades of careful evaluations, by several committees of experts, and countless experiments by grassroots organisations working on the ground. The decision to shelve it, however, appears to have been made without any consultations.
Shashi Shekhar, an expert, ascertains that government should empower communities in water management, by improving their knowledge, in areas like what is groundwater, how much rainwater percolates annually, and about water recharge pits. He believes, based on their updated knowledge, the people will take proper decisions on water usage.


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