Some long-term solutions for drought

The drought in Gujarat and Rajasthan has once again focussed the country's attention on water - our most vital resource. However, the crisis has been building up over the past few decades as we have abused and wasted our water endowment, and destroyed the capacity of our ecosystems to conserve water and be resilient to floods and droughts.

The current water crisis has created a national consensus on the value of indigenous water, harvesting technologies and the high cost of having neglected them and allowed them to fall into decay.

But the neglect of water harvesting technologies is not the only cause of the deepening crisis - unless we simultaneously address the other root causes of drought and water famine, droughts will continue to recur.

Deforestation of vulnerable catchments due to logging and mining is an important factor in the creation of droughts and floods. When catchment forests are eroded, or are replaced by industrial monocultures, ecosystems lose their capacity for infiltration and percolation; streams and groundwater sources are not recharged; the rain runs off immediately to cause floods in the monsoons; and in summers dry streams and rivers are left behind.

It is not an accident that the first water conservation movement in India was a forest conservation movement.

The Green Revolution also contributed to drought vulnerability by displacing drought-resistant local varieties, replacing them with 30 seeds which have a high response to chemicals but need three to four times more water than indigenous seeds.

Native wheat requires 12 inches of water while Green Revolution varieties need 36 inches. Jowar and bajra, the traditional crops of Rajasthan and Gujarat, need only 500 mm, but rice requires 100 mm. In terms of water-use efficiency, millets which have been referred as ``inferior grains'' have two to three times higher efficiency than rice.

Bajra has two times more protein and iron, three times more minerals, and four times more calcium than rice. Both in terms of food security and water security, millets are more productive.

Yet, rice acreages have spread, while millet cultivation has dramatically declined, increasing water demand and water withdrawal. Non-sustainable agricultural technologies have an important role to play in the creation of drought and water scarcity.

The shift from organic manure to chemical fertilizers has also made our soils vulnerable to drought and desertification.

Organic manuring reduces runoff by 50 per cent. Soil loss can be reduced by six tonnes per ha with six tonnes per ha of organic matter. Organic residues are also food for earthworms and micro- organisms which increase the water-holding capacity of soils.

Monocultures, typical of Green Revolution practices, also increase risks of crop failure. Sole cropped sorghum has been found to fail once in eight years, pigeon pea once in five years, but a sorghum-pigeon pea intercrop fails only once in 36 years in experiments carried out by the Project on Dryland Farming.

The long-term solution to drought therefore lies in water conservation both through water harvesting as well as promotion of sustainable ecological agriculture based on biodiversity which prevents runoff, increased moisture-holding capacity of soils, reduces risks of crop failure and reverses the life-threatening processes of drought and desertification which have already engulfed large areas of our country.

To prevent the waste of scarce water resources through unjust and ecologically destructive practices, the Pani Panchayat movement was launched in 1972 by the Gram Gourav Pratishan in Pune in Maharashtra.

The central idea underlying the formation of the Pani Panchayats is that in a drought-prone area no individual should be deprived of a rightful share of the limited water resources on which life and livelihood depend.

To ensure justice, the Pani Panchayats manage as a community resource, not as private property. Sugarcane cultivation was completely banned for being inconsistent with the principles of responsible and sustainable resource use in drought-prone regions.

Anna Hazare's work in Ralegaon Shiddi and the Tarun Bharat Sangh's work in Alwar are also lighthouses in the search for solution to the crises of drought and water scarcity.

Yet, ignoring these community successes, the World Bank and Government are proposing privatisation of water as a solution to water scarcity. It is privatisation of water use that has crated the crisis.

It cannot be a solution. Water conservation and sustainable use of water can only be based on democratic control over water resources.

Hence the need for a nationwide Jal-Swaraj movement to protect this vital resource and defend people's water rights.

-(The writer is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.)