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Conserving the last drop

The way forward may be to not rely only on dams, interlinked rivers, and borewell drilling — but to supplant these with effective water conservation, storage and groundwater recharge

May 09, 2016 01:53 am | Updated September 12, 2016 12:20 pm IST

Bone dry: “Establishing harmony between water extraction and restoration could help us avoid a bleak future.” Girls heading to fetch potable water in Latur city. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Bone dry: “Establishing harmony between water extraction and restoration could help us avoid a bleak future.” Girls heading to fetch potable water in Latur city. Photo: Vivek Bendre

For the past one week, The Hindu has explored the multi-faceted crisis of water scarcity that has gripped India this summer, through a daily series titled ‘Last Drop’. The series sought to give our readers a comprehensive understanding of six critical themes underpinning the scarcity question.

For each theme the series outlined the contours of the crisis at a national level; it also supplied grassroots context, telling compelling stories from villages across the country, to illustrate the hard realities that millions of water-starved rural poor live with daily.

The series kicked off with a close look at the frenzied pace of borewell drilling that can be found across many parts of India, from the suburban neighbourhoods of Hyderabad to the parched dry lands of Latur.

Land of 90,000 borewells In the first article of the series (“ >Drilling for their lives ”, May 3), we visited the heartland of Marathwada, which is in some ways the epicentre of the 2016 drought. There we discovered a land of 90,000 borewells, a number so breathtaking that it even defied calculations of the official well-enumerators of the area. It had also driven the water table 1,300 feet into the ground in some parts.

We next visited the heartland of the Deccan plateau in Telangana (“ >Telangana’s tanker economy ”, May 4), where a severe deficit of rainfall has pushed distressed households into the arms of the private water tanker economy.

At this early stage in the series, it was becoming increasingly evident that to avoid suffering the worst effects of the water-scarce months, a bridge had to be built between flood and drought, in the words of Professor S. Janakarajan, Professorial Consultant at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and President, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies.

In our goal to provide our readers with a 360 degree view of water problems in India, we shifted our gaze from quantity to quality concerns, and nowhere in the country were water quality issues more starkly exemplified than in a small pocket of northwestern Tamil Nadu, in the districts of Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri (“ >Drinking water, sipping poison ”, May 5). This region has been seriously afflicted by fluoride-contaminated groundwater, with sometimes catastrophic health consequences for the population. Our report shone a light upon the unusually high prevalence of kidney disease, renal failure, epileptic seizures, and mental retardation among the people here, notwithstanding a major Japan-financed fluorosis mitigation project.

Delving further into some of the solutions that the Indian government has come up with over the years to stave off periodic droughts, the ‘Last Drop’ series re-examined the logic and potential pitfalls associated with big dams and the proposal to interlink major rivers (“ >Interlinking: An idea with flaws , May 7”).

In the Mettur region of Tamil Nadu, we unearthed a curious paradox of poverty amidst plenty, in the currency of water (“ >Scarcity in Mettur’s vicinity ”, May 6). At the heart of this conundrum was the ever-prevalent problem of wasted runoff, or water that is improperly channelled and fails to efficiently recharge groundwater levels.

The failure to upgrade water storage capacity can be traced back to inadequate policy attention towards de-silting dams, tanks and canals, and also on repair and maintenance to plug leaks along the way.

Problem in policy Policy is also to blame in some parts of the country, for deeper, systemic failures with regards to water scarcity. For example, in Maharashtra, endemic corruption has beset large-scale construction deals, and drought expert P. Sainath explained that Rs. 1,18,000 crore was spent in that State over 12 years, and yet only 18 per cent of gross cropped area was under irrigation.

Similarly, Maharashtra and parts of the Deccan peninsula exemplify the distorting effects of crop subsidies and a skewed agricultural produce market that rewards farmers who cultivate unsuitably water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and other cash crops.

Yet policy is also shaping the very fundamentals of river-based irrigation and drinking water systems, especially through the mega project of interlinking the key river basins across the country. This proposal has found enthusiastic supporters in the present government. But as our article on its flaws explained, there are several monumental consequences that it will have to reckon with. These include the risk that it could displace nearly 1.5 million people due to the submergence of 27.66 lakh hectares of land.

If such risks are rigorously managed, then there could be tangible benefits in terms of 35 million additional hectares of irrigation, the generation of 34,000 additional megawatts of power, and “incidental benefits” of flood control, navigation, fisheries, salinity and pollution control, according to the Central government.

If India is to boldly march into a water-secure future that it builds for itself, then it must also glance backward to learn how our ancestors invested meticulously in conserving water, harvesting rainfall and allowing these savings to nurture the aquifer and water table.

Rounding off the ‘Last Drop’ series, we therefore invited our readers to join us on a delectable journey through time for a glimpse into how the ancient bawari system, or stepwells, of Rajasthan promoted a sustainable, community-focused approach towards water conservation (“ >Conservation: Lessons from ancient India ”, May 8).

Indeed the way forward may be for India to not rely only on large dams, interlinked rivers, and borewell drilling, but also supplant these extraction-focussed projects with more effective and widespread water conservation, storage and groundwater recharge.

Establishing this harmony between water extraction and restoration could help us avoid a bleak future ravaged by endless cycles of floods and droughts.

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