TWO successive years of deficit rains in 2014 and 2015 — of 12pc and 14pc respectively — are having a disastrous impact on India this summer. Hundreds of millions of people across the country are facing an acute scarcity of water and governments and local authorities are desperately trying to provide emergency supplies.
The worst-hit is Marathwada in the western state of Maharashtra, a hardscrabble region comprising eight districts, which usually reels under the impact of drought every few years. Lying in a rain shadow region, it has been ignored by successive governments in the state, who have been more than generous in doling out funds to western Maharashtra, the sugarcane belt.
But Marathwada is not the only place that is suffering from water scarcity. The Indian government told the Supreme Court last week that 10 of the 29 states were reeling under the impact of a drought caused by two consecutive years of bad rains.
The drought has impacted about 330m people across the country. According to Uma Bharti, the union water resources minister, seven states — including Maharashtra — are facing a severe drinking water crisis.
Indian Railways has been running ‘water trains’ from Miraj in western Maharashtra to Latur in Marathwada, a distance of nearly 350km, for the past few days. Each train carries about 0.5m litres of water.
But this is just the beginning of summer and there are still two more months before the onset of the south-west monsoon over peninsular India. Last week, the Central Water Commission (CWC) issued a warning that the water level in the 91 major reservoirs in the country were plunging drastically.
According to the CWC, water in the reservoirs had dipped to 23pc of the total storage capacity of 157.79bn cubic meters (BCM). This was 67pc of the storage capacity at the same time last year. A majority of the reservoirs are in the southern (31) and western (27) parts of India, whereas the eastern (15), central (12) and northern (six) parts account for the rest.
Most of the reservoirs get filled up during the four-month south-west monsoon, but those in Tamil Nadu get water during the winter rains. The situation in Maharashtra — which has 17 large reservoirs — is critical, with just 2BCM of water available now.
In Marathwada, the water levels in the reservoirs are down to a historic low of 3pc and in most of the dams, the level is down to dead storage capacity, which means the water has to be pumped out of the reservoirs. Waters from the reservoirs are used for agriculture, industrial purposes, power generation and for drinking purposes.
But in states like Maharashtra, the government has been ensuring abundant water supplies for sugarcane and cotton farmers, who are not known to conserve the resource. It has been estimated that almost 2,500 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of sugar, and a whopping 22,500 litres/kg of cotton.
Maharashtra is among the largest producers of these two crops. It is not surprising then that the state faces an acute scarcity of water when the rains fail. Groundwater levels have been plunging over the years because of misuse.
THE situation in Maharashtra is so perilous that the district administration in Latur had to enforce prohibitory orders, banning the assembly of more than five persons near water tankers, to prevent water riots.
Even the Indian Premier League cricket matches had to be shifted out of the state after a public interest litigation questioned the need to water the pitches in cities such as Mumbai and Pune, when most of the state is facing scarcity. The Bombay high court directed the shifting of the matches to other states.
Ironically, the state is facing water shortage despite it having a 720km-long coastline. For years there has been talk of setting up desalination plants along the coast and especially near Mumbai.
However, politicians have never gone beyond token gestures and the absence of such units means the residents suffer during the summer months. In a developing country like India, water is a sensitive commodity and local administrations are reluctant to charge even a token amount for supplies.
But millions of urban Indians do not mind shelling out anywhere between Rs15 to Rs100 for a litre of bottled water.
An expert committee, appointed by the state government, had suggested the setting up of two desalination plants of 100m litres/day capacity near Mumbai. But the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) is strangely reluctant to establish the plants, citing lack of land near the seashore.
It is estimated that each plant would require about 25 acres of land and investment of around Rs10bn. The cost of desalinated water would work out to Rs70 for 1,000 litres. The water could be sold to five-star hotels, corporates, clubs, sports associations and others who have large requirements and would not mind paying for it.
Another ‘disincentive’ for the civic body is the abundant availability of water in the numerous lakes surrounding Mumbai and located within a distance of about 150km. These lakes, located along the Western Ghats, ensure that the city gets about 3,750m litres of water daily for almost 10 months of the year.
More importantly, the BMC is able to supply the water to the residents at a ridiculously low rate of Rs4.3 for 1,000 litres. Despite facing an acute scarcity of water every few years, desalination has not caught on in India.
The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted good rains this year, so there would be no urgency to do something drastic about the water crisis. A few weeks from now, as the monsoon showers start filling up the reservoirs, there would not be many takers for setting up desalination plants, linking rivers, or taking other steps to conserve water.