Tag Archive Water


The Four Ways in Which India's Water Blessings Are Turning Into Disasters


India’s water resources establishment, led by the Big Dam ideologues at the Central Water Commission, has ensured that the government doesn’t even acknowledge that groundwater is the country’s water lifeline.

Blessings are complicated. They come with a lot of attachments. And if you cannot manage them, you could invite disasters.
India is a blessed country in so many ways as far as water endowment is concerned. We are blessed with monsoons, rivers, aquifers, the Himalaya, the rich traditional techniques and management systems, to name a few. But the cumulative impact of our mismanagement over the last several decades has now coming out in the form of a many-headed crisis.
Unfortunately, the government treats water management as its exclusive monopoly. To call for a people’s movement for water conservation in such a situation would be disingenuous, to say the least – particularly when the water-resources establishment is doing everything against sage advice. For example, the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, the government’s top priority among such projects, involves cutting down 46 lakh trees in drought-prone Bundelkhand and facilitate the export of water to other areas. Imagine how much water the 46 lakh trees can harvest.
Or consider this other example: Between April 25 and June 12, 2019, the Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar dams, on the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers respectively, released over two billion cubic metres of water in non-agricultural season, most of which flowed away to Pakistan. This was of course against the public statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the erstwhile Union water resources minister Nitin Gadkari, both of whom had said not a drop of water would flow out of India’s share of Indus water to Pakistan. Leaving that aside, it is well-known that Punjab and Haryana suffer massive groundwater depletions every year. So why was the dam water not used to recharge groundwater?
This brings us to the following question: so what are some of the key dimensions of India’s water management crisis? There are four.
I. The groundwater lifeline
Most of the water India uses today comes from over 30 million wells and tubewells. Irrigation is India’s biggest water need, and over two-thirds of the irrigated area uses groundwater. About 85% of the rural domestic supply and over 55% of the urban and industrial water supply comes from groundwater, and these numbers have only been climbing for at least four decades now. In fact, some estimates show that over 90% of the additional water that India used since about 1980 has come from groundwater. It sounds like an immitigable blessing. But that’s not how blessings work.
Data from the Central Ground Water Board shows that in about 70% of areas, groundwater is being depleted and in many places, it has been exhausted or is on the verge of exhaustion. Its quality is deteriorating. Warning signs have been visible for decades now, but the government has done little to address the crisis.
In fact, India’s water resources establishment, led by the Big Dam ideologues at the Central Water Commission, has ensured that the government doesn’t even acknowledge that groundwater is India’s water lifeline. That would be the first step. Such an acknowledgement, through the National Water Policy, would mean that India’s water resources policy, plans and programmes will effectively be working to preserve this lifeline.
This would need action on four fronts. First, we need to understand where groundwater recharge happens, and protect recharge mechanisms like forests, floodplains, rivers, wetlands and local water bodies. Second: we need to enhance recharge from these mechanisms where possible. Third: we need to create more recharge mechanisms, including reverse borewells. Fourth, and most importantly: we need to regulate groundwater use.
Such regulation is necessary according to the resource’s location and its contours. Groundwater occurs in aquifers. Aquifers in most places are local, and groundwater use is also local. Ergo, regulation has to start at the local level, enabled by legal, institutional and financial instruments. For cities and industries, this may include pricing mechanisms, with higher price for higher users and an element of cross subsidisation for the poorer people.
Unfortunately, no effective action has been taken on this groundwater regulation front. The Central Ground Water Authority, set up under the Supreme Court’s orders in 1996, has been acting like a licensing body rather than a regulating body. Regulation does not mean you pay and exploit. It would mean restricting and stopping wasteful and unjustified water-use activities in critical areas. Regulation should ensure that water withdrawal is within the limits of annual recharge.
II. The degraded catchments
While Chennai’s water scarcity grabbed headlines this summer, few remembered that only in July 2018, all the dams on the Cauvery, the most important river basin of Tamil Nadu, were so full that water had to be released to the already-flooded downstream rivers. The Mullaperiyar dam provided another bounty to Tamil Nadu in August 2018.
When the Cauvery dams were overflowing around July 24, 2018, the southwest monsoon in the basin was actually below normal. What does this phenomenon – of overflowing dams less than halfway through the monsoon, and when rainfall is below normal, followed by an unprecedented water crisis less than a year later – signify? The answer would be relevant for most river basins in India: that our catchments have a lower capacity to capture, store and recharge rainwater than before. So rainfall in catchment areas is quickly ending up in the rivers and reservoirs, leading to floods during the monsoon but dry riverbeds and water scarcity soon thereafter.
Deforestation, destruction of wetlands and other water bodies, and the declining capacity of the soil to hold moisture, are all contributing to this tragedy. So the way to reverse the scarcity crisis is to reverse all of this.
III. The urban water policy vacuum
The urban water footprint is going up in multiple ways, but the urban water sector is operating in a policy vacuum. Specifically, there are no policies, guidelines or regulations to guide the sector. Under the circumstances, the cities won’t harvest rain, won’t recharge the groundwater, won’t reduce transmission and distribution losses, won’t adopt other demand-side measures, won’t protect its water bodies, and won’t treat and recycle its sewage. Instead, they demand lazy, easy solutions like more and bigger dams, more river interlinking projects and/or massive desalination projects. The government has a Smart City programme but, inexplicably, it is not for water-smart cities.
As a first step towards correcting this situation, India urgently needs a National Urban Water Policy that will define what a water-smart city is and provide best-practice guidelines for various aspects of the urban water sector.
IV. Outdated water institutions
India’s water institutions were established soon after Independence, though some were older They operate with an outdated mindset and within an institutional architecture. An overhaul has been overdue.
The clearest problem with India’s water institutions is symbolised by the fact that we don’t have reliable information about water in India. This is because the Central Water Commission, which heads India’s water institutions, is involved in so many functions that are in conflict with each other. We need an independent institution, along the lines of the US Geological Survey, with the principal mandate to gather all the key water information on a daily basis and promptly place it in the public domain. But such an institute should have no role in water resources development or management.
Similarly, we need a National Rivers Commission to monitor the state of India’s rivers and produce reports and recommendations about what ails these water bodies. Similarly, river-basin organisations will have to be inter-state bodies that develop all the relevant knowledge about the state of the country’s river basins.
Prime Minister Modi, in his Mann Ki Baat on June 30, 2019, the first episode in his second term, highlighted the importance of water conservation and then used the 8% figure: “You will be surprised that only 8% of the water received from rains in the entire year is harvested in our country.” Where does that 8% come from? Modi did not elaborate but India’s annual rainfall is around 4,000 BCM, 8% of which comes to 320 BCM. That is approximately the storage capacity of India’s big dams. However, big dams are not rainwater-harvesting options; they are storage options.
Then again, they aren’t the only or best storage options. Those titles belong to groundwater aquifers, which are benign, naturally gifted, low cost, low impact and efficient. Wetlands, local water bodies and the soil are similarly qualified alternatives. But by mentioning this 8% storage figure, the prime minister is privileging big dams as well as ignoring all the others. And until our water-resources establishment does not get out of this bias for big dams and big projects, there is little hope that our water blessings will not become disasters.
Himanshu Thakkar is the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and a water expert.

Economic Survey Calls for More Efficient Use of Water in Agriculture


It says the cropping pattern in India is currently skewed heavily in favour of crops that are water intensive.

The document puts the blame on incentive structure like the minimum support price (MSP) regime, subsidy on electricity, water and fertilisers as contributing factors to the ‘misalignment’ of cropping patterns in the country. The survey has argued that states where land productivity is higher tend to have lower irrigation water productivity.
It has contended that if the current patterns of use of water in agriculture continue, by 2050 India will be in the global hotspot for water insecurity. “Adopting improved methods of irrigation and irrigation technologies will have a critical role in increasing irrigation water productivity along with re-calibrating the cropping patterns,” it said.
Also Read: Economic Survey’s Call for MGNREGA to Become ‘Rural Distress Indicator’ a Nod to Jobs Crisis?
The economic survey has also recommended that a new development strategy should move ahead prioritising “smallholder agriculture in order to promote sustainable livelihoods and for reduction of poverty in India.” It has argued that smaller land holdings will be better at improving resource use efficiency.
The survey also showed that the share of marginal land holdings has increased from 60% in 2000 to 68% in 2015-16. This, the economic survey, sees as an opportunity.
“Devising policies to incentivise farmers to adopt efficient ways of water use should become a national priority to avert the looming water crisis,” the economic survey said.
It has suggested that micro-irrigation systems be used to improve water use efficiency, arguing that states with higher penetration of micro irrigation systems have shown better efficiency in water use and also fertiliser consumption.
Next, the survey recommends that the focus in agriculture should shift from ‘land productivity’ to ‘irrigation water productivity’. It also argues that the use of fertilisers and pesticides needs to be economised. Another recommendation made by the economic survey is to incentivise farmers to move to natural and organic farming.
Currently, India is staring at a water crisis as the monsoon has underwhelmed in its early days. In the month of June, India received 33% deficient rainfall. This comes at the back of a significantly deficient pre-monsoon season, the lowest rainfall in 65 years. In the preceding year, the monsoon had a deficit of 9% in the country, with large parts faring much worse. As a result, early kharif sowing is down almost 15%.

The deep water crisis

P. Sainath

A few thousand drilling rigs roll into parched states each year and drill over a thousand feet to extract scarce groundwater for the farm.
The Hindu A few thousand drilling rigs roll into parched states each year and drill over a thousand feet to extract scarce groundwater for the farm.

Hard-working rig-operators are providing a real response to a very real demand from farmers, but with grave consequences for groundwater supplies
No other town can boast as deep a connection with the rest of the country as this little one in Tamil Nadu. Machines from here have struck great depths in most Indian States (and in many African countries as well). Tiruchengode is the nation’s borewell rig capital and thousands of machines and operators from here go down as much as 1,400 feet on any day, most months of the year. The monsoon has paused their activity in States like Maharashtra where they have picked up a great deal of business in recent years. But there are parts of the country where they’re still drilling for water.
The water-crisis in Maharashtra — which only gets highlighted in summer — saw many thousands of borewells drilled in just the Marathwada region in the first three months of this year. The truck-mounted borewell rig was omnipresent in the fields. And the borewell itself was a major source of debt, if not of water, in the rural districts. Most of the rigs we saw rumbling along the roads turned out to be from Tamil Nadu. (Some were from Andhra Pradesh). “They seem mostly to be from a single town,” a senior geologist of the government of Maharashtra had then told The Hindu. That town, it turned out, was Tiruchengode in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu.
“I stayed four months this year in a village close to Nanded in Maharashtra,” C. Vaiyapuri of Sree Balamurugan Borewells told me in Tiruchengode. He is a dynamic, hard-working rig-operator. In four months, this single operator sank about 500 borewells in Maharashtra, mostly in water-stressed Marathwada. “You can do up to 1,300 feet a day,” he says, “if the soil is ‘loose formation’ and so easier to drill. Which means you can sink even four a day if the wells are under 300 feet. If it’s ‘hard formation,’ you won’t go past 1,000 feet in a day.”
Each truck-mounted rig is supported by a second large vehicle ferrying both equipment and men. The whole team could be up to 20 people. A manager, two drillers, two assistants, two drivers, a cook and 12 manual labourers. The workers bring another pan-Indian dimension to Tiruchengode’s reach. The rig operators of Tamil Nadu have agents and brokers in every State. The workers are mostly from Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Just a handful is from Tamil Nadu. The standard pay is Rs. 200 a day plus three meals for work that could last many months in the year.
It’s hard work, and the rate varies according to how tough the job is. In some of the harder surfaces of Andhra, you can’t go beyond 80 feet in an hour. That fetches Rs.75 per foot. So drilling a 1,000 feet a day brings in Rs. 75,000. In the “loose formation” soil where Vaiyapuri says you can go as low as 120 feet in an hour, the rate drops to Rs. 56 a foot. But you can reach 1,300 feet, or almost Rs.73,000 a day. Even if you’re on the job for just 200 days (it’s often much more), that would total close to Rs.15 million.
How many rigs are there in Tiruchengode town and taluk? Not more than 5,000, says T.T. Paranthaman, Managing Director of PRD, a major drilling rigs concern. Nearly 7,000, estimates N.P. Velu, president of the Tiruchengode Lorry Owners Association, and a rig owner himself. Up to 20,000, insist other operators. All three estimates could be right — at different levels. An industry veteran says: “A lot of the owners and rigs are here. But many rigs are registered in other States, perhaps for tax purposes.”
Meanwhile, rig operators are returning from places as far off as rural Rajasthan. One had even sunk borewells in Jammu. There are two or three months in a year when the rigs take a break for servicing. That’s mostly when the rains have set in.
The average borewell depths vary in different States, says Mr. Velu. “In Karnataka, the average is now close to 1,400 feet. Not very much less in Tamil Nadu. It all started with a drought in the 1970s.” Sensing an opportunity in this sector, groups of farmers and workers engaged in sinking wells, pooled resources and bought a few rigs. (Even today, over a third of the rigs here are owned by such groups).
“At that time, the depths at which we hit water was no more than 100-200 feet,” says Mr. Velu. “Maximum 300. The greatest increase in depths to which the wells are sunk has come in the last five years.”
The story of this town’s rig operators throws up a serious dilemma. They have brought jobs and prosperity to Tiruchengode and nearby regions. Among them are those once illiterate workers who banded together in the late 1970s to buy their rigs and work their way out of poverty. (This entire belt of Tamil Nadu, including Coimbatore, Karur and Tirupur, has an impressive history of entrepreneurship from below). The rig operators also respond to a real demand from farmers across the country. A demand driven by despair.
The same process, though, implies grave consequences for groundwater supplies. Rampant exploitation of that resource has seen the water table plummet across the country. The Collector of Osmanabad in Marathwada said this March that the water table in his district (where the rigs had been active) was five metres below its five-year average. If 10,000 rigs from just one part of Tamil Nadu are sinking a 1,000 feet a day on average across India — that’s 10 million feet. Doing this even for just 200 days a year would make that 2 billion feet. That’s a lot of drilling. Even with high failure rates, that’s a lot of groundwater being sucked out.
The Tiruchengode rig operators did not choose this path of development for the country and can’t be faulted for that. They did not impose the regime of unchecked groundwater exploitation that prevails. And though they are the major force, there are also other operators in the country. Further, rigs have other uses too, but the great demand is for borewells. And the explosion of those signals disaster. (The groundwater accounts for two-thirds of irrigation water and over four-fifths of drinking water in India). The much-needed social control of this process won’t happen in the present water regime.
Why are there so few many machines at work in your own neighbourhood, I asked one Tiruchengode veteran. “There’s not so much water here, now,” he said. “We’re hitting 1,400 feet in nearby Erode town.”