Why do parts of Maharashtra experience different water stress levels? | Explained

Even when wells and reservoirs run dry in Marathwada, Maharashtra’s coastal areas experience severe flooding

Published - June 26, 2024 05:00 am IST

There is a mass migration of people out of dry Marathwada to Western Maharashtra’s Sangli, Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Solapur, and Ahmednagar, a.k.a. the sugar belt.

There is a mass migration of people out of dry Marathwada to Western Maharashtra’s Sangli, Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Solapur, and Ahmednagar, a.k.a. the sugar belt. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini/The Hindu

After the deficient monsoon last year, the Maharashtra government declared many parts of the state to be drought-hit earlier this year. Much of the Marathwada region received less than 75% of its average rainfall. Its impact manifested across the region over this summer as wells ran dry, and officials brought tankers to provide drinking water and water for irrigation. Multiple reservoirs in the region, especially in Beed and Dharashiv districts, were reported to have 0% ‘live’ water storage left. This situation is in sharp contrast with the State’s coastal areas, where rainfall has often been in excess, leading to severe flooding.

Such paradoxical conditions are in fact visible across the country, where different climates, agroecological features, water sources, and human-driven land use changes have created multiple challenges in different landscapes, exacerbated by climate change. This diversity is why climate adaptation measures have been challenging to formulate and implement. They have to be tailored to the precise drivers of risk in a place and to communities’ needs. Such analysis is particularly important in regions like Marathwada, which has faced a string of droughts over the last few decades, resulting in the loss of thousands of farmers’ lives. The region’s predicament is shaped by its geographical location, topography, soil type, agricultural practices, and crop choices.

What is the rain-shadow effect?

Marathwada lies in the rain-shadow region of the Western Ghats. When moist winds from the Arabian Sea encounter these mountains, they rise and cool, causing heavy rainfall (2,000-4,000 mm) on the western side. But by the time these winds cross the Ghats and descend into Western Maharashtra and Marathwada, they lose most of their moisture, leaving Marathwada relatively much drier (600-800 mm).

A 2016 study by IIT Gandhinagar researchers indicated that climate change is worsening the situation in central Maharashtra. The region has experienced an increasing trend in drought severity and frequency of late. As a result, Marathwada and North Karnataka have emerged as the second driest regions in India after the country’s northwest region.

What’s the effect of water demand for crops?

The agricultural practices of Marathwada are not well suited to its low-rainfall regime. A major contributor to the region’s water crisis is sugarcane cultivation. Sugarcane requires about 1,500-2,500 mm of water in its growing season — outstripping what natural rainfall in the region can provide. While pulses and millets require four or five irrigations across the crop life, sugarcane needs to be irrigated almost every day.

Indeed, the traditional crops of this area — including cotton, pulses, and millets — require relatively less water. But the area under sugarcane along with the number of sugarcane mills increased steadily between the 1950s and the 2000s. The extent of sugarcane cultivation plateaued in the past decade due to the limits of water availability. Still, the crop currently occupies 4% of the total cropped area in the region but consumes 61% of the irrigation water. As a result, the average river outflow in the upper Bhima basin has almost halved.

Long-standing government support for sugarcane pricing and sales has expanded water-intensive sugarcane irrigation, which has restricted the irrigation of more nutritious crops. For every one acre of sugarcane, for example, four acres of traditional crops are deprived of water. Since December 2023, the Indian government has been promoting sugarcane-juice-based ethanol production, which may not be a wise decision for this water-starved area. The country needs its sugar but 82% of the sugar grown in Maharashtra comes from low-rainfall areas.

The State has also been incentivising sugarcane production in the region for decades. The interests are deeply entrenched now as many sugar mills are owned by leading politicians. The Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission in 1999 recommended that sugarcane should be banned in areas that receive less than 1,000 mm of rainfall per year, but production has only increased.

What is the local soil composition like?

Marathwada’s soil composition further complicates its water management challenges. The region has predominantly clayey black soil, locally called “regur”. This soil is fertile and retains moisture well. However, it has a low infiltration rate, meaning that when it does rain, the water is either logged or runs off rather, but doesn’t percolate down to recharge groundwater.

To capture this high runoff, Maharashtra has been building many dams — such that it is today the State with the most large dams in the country (1,845), more than double the next State on the list.

The clayey black soils have low hydraulic conductivity and hold on to the water for a long time after rains. The clay particles are so small (<2 micrometres) that they have a high affinity to water particles, even holding on to them against gravity. WELL Labs’ work in the region has found that a lot of farmers in the area face crop loss due to such water-logging.

What are the effects of topographic variations?

Within Marathwada, water scarcity is not uniform: the uplands and the valleys behave differently. The area has parallel tributaries of the Godavari and the Krishna flowing southeast. Each tributary flows in the valley and is separated by a gently sloping hill. The valleys have perennial groundwater while the uplands have seasonal groundwater. This is because groundwater slowly moves underground from upland areas to the valleys.

Typical hydrogeological cross-section of a Deccan trap basalt micro-watershed to illustrate the occurrence of groundwater bodies with related water-supply prospects and management needs.

Typical hydrogeological cross-section of a Deccan trap basalt micro-watershed to illustrate the occurrence of groundwater bodies with related water-supply prospects and management needs. | Photo Credit: World Bank (Case Profile Collection no. 18)

The wells in upland areas often dry up a few months after the monsoons — and this is where the water scarcity is most acute. The photographs of drinking water scarcity and dry wells that emerge from Marathwada are often from upland areas. They are at a natural disadvantage and must be given special support.

To ensure source sustainability of the drinking water sources in the region, for example, the State government should consider pumping the water uphill and improving surface water storage for drinking. This may be expensive but will improve the resilience of these disadvantaged areas.

Can Marathwada become more water-resilient?

We know climate change is expected to induce more frequent and more intense droughts in Marathwada and Western Maharashtra. It is imperative then that drinking water sources and livelihoods in the region become more resilient. This in turn needs both supply-side and demand-side solutions.

Supply-side solutions are about making the most of the available resources. They include classical watershed management work (such building water-conserving structures like contour trenches, earthen bunds, gully plugs, small check dams, etc.). 

But water conservation structures are also not a panacea. Rainwater that runs off agricultural fields also carries the very soil that doesn’t allow the water to percolate. So a lot of these structures accumulate silt and stop working after a season or two. Funds under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme could be used to address these specific challenges, such as designing silt-trapping mechanisms and organising training programmes for farmers on periodic desilting.

How can we manage water demand?

Supply-side solutions ultimately don’t create new water. They only help capture some of the rain more effectively. In a low-rainfall region, we must still manage water demand, including by practising water-efficient irrigation, cultivating drought-resistant crops, and diversifying livelihoods.

Ultimately, we must control sugarcane production, if not reduce it. Marathwada must shift to other high-value, low-water-using horticultural crops, while sugarcane production — both for food and for ethanol — must move to wetter states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal, which receive more rainfall.

Marathwada’s water crisis is a stark reminder of a delicate balance between agricultural practices and environmental sustainability. By adopting more sustainable policies and agricultural practices, drought-prone regions in peninsular India can mitigate their water crisis and build a more resilient future in the face of climate change.

Vivek Grewal is a groundwater hydrologist and managing partner (technical consulting) at WELL Labs. Veena Srinivasan is the executive director of WELL Labs.

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