Drought-hit Denganmal in Maharashtra, one of India’s driest places, has of late caught the attention of sociologists, rather than policymakers.
In a strange impact, a constant water crisis has made its largely monogamous population turn to polygamy. Men take up to three wives because one isn’t enough to fetch hard-to-find water.
Women with metal vessels clutched to their waists trek long distances foraging for the day’s fill. On bad days, it can take three or four expeditions under a harsh sun. So more wives mean a more equitable division of labour. Over time, this has skewed the local sex ratio. Researchers began calling this the ‘water-wives’ phenomenon.
Elsewhere in arid Vidarbha and Marathwada, multiple crop failures have caused wives to take the lead. They are facing up to taboos, braving stares and sniggers as they begin to work outside the home for the first time, selling bangles door to door to keep their children in school or trading in livestock so they can buy medicine.
Water has indeed become India’s scarcest resource, which isn’t just hurting the economy, but its people too. A back-to-back drought after failed monsoons has pushed large parts of the country to crisis point.
Last year, heatwaves killed an estimated 2,500. This year, more than 100 have perished already. If a similar number were to die in, say, terrorist violence, a national alert would have been sounded.
On March 13, the Ganga ran so low on water near West Bengal’s Farraka that eastern India’s largest power plant had to be temporarily shut down.
In Latur, water is being transported in rail wagons. In Bundelkhand — an impoverished region spanning 13 districts across UP and Madhya Pradesh — district magistrates have to ensure nobody uses drinking water for anything else. In 91 nationally monitored large lakes and basins critical for power, drinking and irrigation, levels have fallen by a third.
Although the immediate reason for an exacerbating water crisis is always a monsoon failure, bad rainy spells are not the main cause. It’s about how water is utilised, particularly in a country with only 4% of the world’s water resources and 16% of the global population.
The country’s public water-supply systems are creaky. In large cities, much of the assured supply is hogged by the rich. Urban demand is currently 135 litres per person per day, three times as much as rural India’s 40 litres, excluding farm use.
In mountain state Meghalaya, one of the rainiest places on Earth, residents face shortages.
“We don’t have the funds to create storage for the surplus runoff,” says Richardson Sangma, an irrigation department official in Shillong, the state’s picturesque capital.
As rural incomes plummeted following successive bad farm seasons, the make-work National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme — a crucial social safety net — was sputtering. It was unable to ramp up work opportunities or provide timely payment to drought-stricken farmers, due to a funds crunch. Slowly, the country hurtled into its worst rural distress in decades.
In Beed, Maharashtra, this crisis is taking the form of under-age marriages. The only work available is in sugarcane units, and they pay more if you work in pairs. As a result, girls as young as 13 are being married to boys just a couple of years older.
“Over the past three years, as farm yields have fallen, we have witnessed at least a 20% rise in the number of under-age marriages,” says child rights activist Tatwashil Kamble. “We know it’s happened when they suddenly stop attending school or college. Some reappear for the exams, wearing a mangalsutra.”
When droughts occur, calls for ramping up India’s poor irrigation from the current 40% of total arable land grow loud. Yet, even with a relatively insufficient irrigation network, agriculture use accounts for 80% of the country’s total water consumption.
Water-guzzling crops, such as rice and sugarcane, are the single biggest threat to its plunging water table.
India’s per capita availability of usable fresh water is about 1,123 cubic metres, down from about 4,000 cubic metres in 1947, and against the current global average of 3,000 cubic metres.
The real problems are irregular supply, widespread contamination and growing demand in the face of declining usable sources. All this can quickly worsen into a humanitarian crisis when successive monsoons fail.
“Our agriculture demands huge water. It’s the biggest consumer. Drinking accounts for less than 10%. It’s worrying,” says Ghanshyam Jha, chairman of the Central Water Commission.
Jha is worried not for nothing. According to McKinsey Consulting’s 2030 Water Resources Group, India will be one of the largest centres of agricultural demand for water by 2030, with projected withdrawals of 1,195 billion cubic metres in 2030. This will require a doubling of its usable water generation.
India’s green revolution in the 1960s saw a spurt in water consumption, as the government provided cheap electricity and diesel for farm use, in a bid to raise output. Given water availability patterns, the green revolution should have been promoted in eastern India, a rain-surplus region. Instead, much of the irrigation expansion has been in the north, where the share of cultivated area covered by irrigation has risen from 78% in 1996 to about 90% in 2007.
Geographically, India is carved up into 5,723 groundwater blocks. Nearly 1,500 are overused, making it impossible for rains to replenish them.
“In Bundelkhand, there is no famine-like situation but agriculture has been badly hit for three seasons now. Right now, what is required is urgent relief, not long-term plans,” said Sudhir Panwar, a member of the UP State Planning Commission. Aside from two bad summers, a series of hailstorm in March 2015 ravaged winter crops in five states: Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
In many rural areas, it’s tough to get to a water source. According to the NSSO, in Jharkhand it takes 40 minutes one way, without taking into account waiting time. In Bihar, its 33 minutes. Rural Maharashtra clocks an average of 24 minutes. According to the World Health Organisation, a household is considered water-stressed if it spends more than 30 minutes getting to its water source.
The current dry spell should end when the monsoon, predicted to be normal, arrives in June. But the long-term prospect isn’t rosy.
“It will require dramatic changes in agriculture, higher pricing of water for the rich, more renewable sources for electricity and newer technologies to minimise farm use of water,” says Vasudha Deshmukh, a former water consultant for the government, who has also consulted with the WHO and World Bank.
According to Deshmukh, policymakers tend to rely on short-term goals. One such step is a lumbering wagon train that currently pulls into Jaipur railway station each week from Delhi with much-needed cargo: 12,000 gallons of water.