Running dry for over 50 days in a row, water conflicts have become a way of life in Maharashtra’ s Manmad town

Manmad seems like any other small, bustling Indian city. But it has the dubious distinction of going without water for days at end. This time it did not have tap water for over 50 days at a stretch!

In many senses, Manmad’s story is a wake-up call for several upcoming Indian cities that are dependent on distant water sources for water supply.

With a population of 125,000, Manmad is a major junction of Central Railway. Part of its water comes from Waghdardi Dam, which is already dry and is facing problems due to upstream abstraction through several weirs. Other part comes from Patode Tank, which in turn gets its water from Palkhed Dam, 78 km upstream, through Palkhed Canal. This dam is on the Kadwa river, a tributary of the Godavari.

Following sit-ins and dharnas, 4.5 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) water was released into the Palkhed canal for Manmad on March 5, a week ahead of the schedule, giving some respite to the thirsty population. But, after an agonising wait of over two days, this water never reached the tank. Whatever little that reached was so insufficient that the pumps would not run.

There were huge protests against this ‘water theft’ by upstream farmers. Indeed, in the upstream, hundreds of farmers were siphoning off canal waters through ingenious pumps. It is easy to blame them, but these farmers have their grape vines in fruiting and no water means that they will have to witness the grapes shrivelling on the vines. Police force was deployed along the canal, pumps were confiscated and cases were filed against over 200 farmers for lifting water.

Water conflicts are a way of life in Manmad where the entire city depends on a parallel water economy of water tankers, tractors and private bore wells. The tiny streets get clogged with cans and tanks and when the tankers come to fill these, there are regular fights, brawls and traffic jams. The Manmad Municipal Council has sunk over 300 bore wells, while there are over 600 private bore wells. The water table is falling rapidly.

Even when faced with such an acute water crisis, the Municipal Council has not taken any steps to encourage groundwater recharge, grey water recycling or rainwater harvesting (RWH). While the officials assert that they need a functioning RWH plant before granting completion certificates, the Council building itself does not have one. Neither does it have any strong plans for securing water, except a few more ambitious schemes and a project to overhaul pipelines in the city. Two rivers that flow through the city are chronically polluted.

This year’s drought is worsening not only hardship, but also water conflicts in Maharashtra. Even Palkhed Canal, one of the best known examples of participatory irrigation management in India through Water Users’ Association is no exception to this. But this is also an opportunity for cities in Maharashtra to learn the lesson that far-flung water sources are not an answer to water security; on the other hand, they get increasingly vulnerable during periods of water stress.

The State’s Water Resources Department is not capable of handling either equitable water supply or ensuring that water reaches its destination. Local solutions like RWH, groundwater recharge and grey water recycling may not be panacea to all ills, but they are the first step towards water security. Other steps include a participatory and open conflict resolution platform, unlike the top heavy, zero participation Water Resources Regulatory Authority that Maharashtra currently has. Without these, banking on distant water sources is like going after a mirage.

(The writer is a member of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People)

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