Prof. T K Thomas

The trigger for writing this piece is a story in The Guardian last week [12th June] on the ongoing water scarcity in Maharashtra. At a time when our national media give rather lacklustre coverage, here is a foreign newspaper reporter who sweats it out to go to the ground zero of the water crisis in a district in Maharashtra. The title, “Indian villages lie empty as drought forces thousands to flee.” The subtitle was, “Sick and elderly left to fend for themselves with no end in sight to water crises.” There was this disturbing photograph with the title, “An Indian migrant shepherd kneels down among his dead sheep at a field in Ranagadh village in Surendranagar district.” [Well, Surendranagar is not in Maharashtra but is in the state of Gujarat!]

One felt that the whole story, painstakingly written, but bordered on sensationalism. The opening line of the Guardian story for example has mentioned that hundreds of Indian villages have been ‘’evacuated as a historic drought forces families to abandon their homes in search of water.” It is not appropriate to say that it is a ‘’historic drought” . Yes, there are some districts in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka etc which periodically are drought prone. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself while addressing the Fifth Annual Conference of the NITI Aayog , last Saturday [15th June ] had talked about agrarian crisis and water shortage and “a drought like situation.”

The focal point of the Guardian story is the Beed district of Maharashtra where people have “no water to wash clothes, clean dishes, or flush the toilets”. Women therefore wait for nightfall to use the open fields to answer the call of nature defeating the campaign for an Open Defecation Free India. The situation in Maharashtra is indeed very grim. The Indian Express, which highlights real issues of people, has been covering the problem almost every day bringing into sharp focus the gravity of the situation. The only source of water, according to its reports, for the residents of 5127 villages and 10867 hamlets is that supplied by the state government in tankers. This indeed has almost been an annual feature. In 2016 when there was another major water scarcity 6016 tankers were supplying water to the thirsty population; this year the number has gone up to 6597 on certain days. With water levels precariously low in the major reservoirs only an early abundant monsoon can mitigate the situation. Same is the story with the ground water table.

Water emergency is not confined to Maharashtra, Gujarat or Karnataka. Water reservoirs across the country presently show a grim picture. The Central Water Commission Report released last week says that, the water levels, in at least 71 of the 91 reservoirs across India, have shown a downward trend. The report flags grim situations in Gujarat, Maharashtra and the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While in Maharashtra deficiency in water reservoirs is at 68%, Gujarat faced a shortage of 22%.The deficiency in Kerala reservoirs, according to the report in one week from June 6th to 13, from 13 to 24%. The situation in Sabarmati in Gujarat, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery is also not encouraging.

Yesterday [17th June] was observed by the United Nations as World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. Surprisingly, the focus of the message on the occasion by the Secretary General of the United Nations was more on desertification than drought. The Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said, ”desertification, land degradation and drought are major threats affecting millions of people worldwide, particularly women and children, Twenty five years ago,197 countries adopted a landmark convention aimed at mobilizing global action, yet much remains to be done.” But for our country the Day had more relevance to drought as a major one is staring at us.

The Guardian story refers to the situation in Beed district as a “historic drought’’, but it has not been officially declared as drought hit; authorities refer to a “drought like’’ situation. It may be pointed out that droughts / drought like situations and famines are not new to India. Deficit rainfall during the monsoons in some parts of this vast country is almost regular. At least in some parts of the country, agriculture is entirely dependent on rains; old teachers of Indian economics used to call Indian agriculture, ‘a gamble in the monsoons’. If the monsoon arrived late or were insufficient, farmers faced acute distress.

In fact there have been devastating droughts and famines like the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which resulted in the death of an estimated 2.1 to 3 million people in the then Bengal province alone. Many historians blame the colonial government who neglected the local population at the cost of their preoccupation with World War II. Policy failure has always been considered the major cause of droughts and famines. A recently published study by researchers in Indian Institute of Technology [IIT] Gandhi Nagar throws new light on the problem beyond policy failure. The paper ,”Drought and Famine in India1870-2016” by Vimal Mishra, Amar Deep Tiwari, Saran Aadhar and others published in “Geophysical Letters” in January this year reconstruct soil, moisture[agricultural] drought in India for the period 1870-2016. The study points out that. “In the over this century and half period, India experienced seven major drought periods [1876-1882, 1895-1900, 1908-1924, 1937- 1945, 1982-1990, 1997- 2004, and 2011- 2015]. The study further adds, “Five major droughts were not linked with famine, and three of those five non –famine droughts occurred after Indian Independence in 1947.”It is indeed heartening that our scientists and researchers are engaged in such studies and in order to find solutions for the vexed water scarcity problem.

There are lesser known areas other than Maharashtra where acute water shortage on account of inadequate monsoon has affected even the traditional cropping patterns. Gokak of Belagavi district of Karnataka, known for sugarcane cultivation, during the last seven years experienced 40 to 60% rainfall shortage as a result of which 30 to 50% area of sugarcane cultivation has shrunk. On a visit to the area presently, one was told this by Maruti N. Malawadi and Dr.Suraj Koujalagi, both Krishi Vigyan Kendra [KVK], Belagavi –I scientists. They also added that drought situation has worsened in Karnataka with 80% of districts reeling from water scarcity and crop failure.

This is not just a problem in a few states. One of the worst affected cities in India is the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai. People are so impatient and desperate waiting for water tankers, that there have been instances of violence and even murder over water.

At the NITI Aayog annual Conference last week, agrarian and water crisis were discussed as priority issues. The affluent urban population has not realized the magnitude of the problem as they can’t feel the pain of waiting for water tankers in serpentine queues. When they keep the taps open, waste water while bathing, shaving, brushing and use drinking water to water their gardens they have to realize that such luxuries may soon vanish.

Wastage and indiscriminate use of water are some of the reasons for water shortage. It may be pointed out that in Mizoram a state of undulating hills with very heavy rains, where one lived for a few years in the late 1970s there was severe water shortage. But the local population adopted their own indigenous technique of collecting rain water which otherwise would have gone down the hills. Almost every house, most of them built on stilts had facility to collect the rain water from the slopping roofs using slit bamboos or metallic pipes that would collect the water into large tanks on the ground or even into underground tanks. This was the source of water for all household use except drinking, almost throughout the year. During last year’s devastating floods in Kerala the rivers over flew and all the water just was disgorged into the Arabian Sea. Can our scientists think of putting into use at least some part of that water.

A friend reminds that most of the middle -eastern countries actually exist drinking the water of the Arabian Sea! They just desalinate the sea water. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have succeeded in providing water to their people. Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer of desalinated water where more than 70% of its water needs are satisfied by desalination. The cost of course is astronomical but huge amounts spent on cosmetic or ego satisfying projects can be used for treating sea water for human consumption. Water is one of the basic needs of man and it is the duty of elected governments to provide water to their citizens. It is fine to send water tankers to the affected areas but don’t we need lasting solutions and not ‘band aid’ solutions to the perennial scarcity of water across the country? Problems that threaten human wellbeing warrant creative and out of the box solutions!