The summer of 2016 has seen vast tracts of the country wilting under a scorching heat wave and water availability has been the first casualty. Regions such as Marathwada, Bundelkhand, Telangana, and northern Karnataka are reeling under drought-like conditions. The situation was already grim in late 2015, when 57 per cent of the control wells across the country monitored by the Central Groundwater Board saw a fall in water levels relative to the year before. Given that the last year’s monsoon presented a 14 per cent shortfall and was the worst since 2009, this year’s drought-like conditions are taking a serious toll on the water table. Parched villages and cities, driven to desperation, have plunged headlong into a borewell-digging spree. From Mumbai to Hyderabad, borewell operators are frenetically drilling, sometimes against municipal regulations and bans, to below 400 or 500 feet, yet not always hitting water. In most of these parts a vicious cycle has taken root, where deeper borewells are driving water even further beneath the ground. In part this is because in the Deccan area, unlike the Gangetic plain, there is less alluvial soil but there are more rock formations that are not conducive to water table recharge.
A warm sun baked the parched land as Harishchandra Yerme trudged towards a far corner of his farm to take stock of the livestock feasting on a patch of vegetation, the leftover from the vagaries of a poor monsoon. It had been a cruel summer. The fruit farmer stopped in the shade of a tree to rest and scoffed at the expanse in front of his eyes.
The view alternated dry vegetation with dozens of ugly pipes, a painful reminder of two consecutive seasons of drought that forced Yerme to sink 12 borewells, some as deep as 800 feet into the arid land. “This was filled with over 3,000 sweet lime trees, before these [borewells] came up in an attempt to survive the drought,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes.
At last count, as many as 63 borewells dotted Yerme’s fruit farm in Jagalpur village of Jalkot taluka, Latur district, where an extended drought has devastated crops of several farmers.
Even a local panadi , or water diviner, brought from nearby Osmanabad district to conduct a customary ritual could not change Yerme’s fortune. “He spun coconuts and sticks to identify two spots across the field, but the water never came of out of it. I swore never to depend on [borewells] for irrigation. That was the last time I dug any,” he said with a wry smile.
The rules permit the digging of only five borewells every one square kilometre with a depth of not more than 200 feet. With the total district area of 715 sq km, the number of borewells in Latur should ideally not cross 3,575.
Yet there are 90,000 borewells here even as the official count of the ground water survey authority stands at a measly 34,778, experts said. “The groundwater levels have sunk in so rapidly that people have dug borewells as deep as 1,300 feet to fetch water, destroying the deep aquifers which take years to refill,” said Atul Deulgaonkar, environmentalist and author.
He added, “In Marathwada, it is estimated that 10,000 new borewells are sunk every month, with most people suffering from a 'drought mentality' that urges them to store water even when not needed.” As a consequence the average fall in the groundwater levels last five years has been around 5.56 metres.
Warnings have also been sounded against over-extracting groundwater in Latur and Osmanabad for irrigating water-intensive cash crops such as sugarcane, banana, grapes and oranges. Even where farmers knew the disadvantages of borewell irrigation — low dependability of yield, low discharge and recuperation rate — they still opted for these crops.
The government has undertaken schemes like Jal Yukta Shivar to artificially recharge depleting water bodies and make 5,000 villages drought free every year. But its impact will only be known after a good monsoon.
“In Marathwada, the scant monsoon culminated in low storage capacity in dams and water bodies even as water brought lots of silt along with it. The state should have better extended at the village and taluka level an outreach programme to remove silt from the water bodies, that never happened,” said Director of Central Ground Water Board, P.K. Jain.
The indiscriminate exploitation of ground water, poor maintenance of water bodies, construction of new check dams and storage tanks at an indiscriminate pace also restricted the natural flow of water in recharge, storage and discharge areas of the Marathwada terrain, experts believe.
In Latur, the groundwater levels in the eastern regions of Jalkot, Udgir and Ahmedpur have dipped alarmingly compared to the greener west, where the water from major dams and barrages keeps the land replenished.
“The indiscriminate construction of artificial water bodies and check dams by the government made matters worse,” said BG Dhokarikar, water consultant and former Director of State GSDA (1988-1991).
But this could change soon if lessons are not learn fast.
A ground report from Latur and a detailed infographic on ground water availability and borewell exploitation across the country in the first of a six part series.