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Running on empty

Don’t fret about the monsoon. Be worried about India’s overall water situation.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2009 22:58 IST

The expected failure of the July monsoon is not a cause for doom and gloom. The Indian Meteorological Department believes that the monsoon will recover in the subsequent two months.

More to the point, the link between the monsoon and the country’s overall agricultural and economic performance is far weaker today than before. El Niño, the ocean-atmosphere phenomenon closely linked to the monsoon’s success, was roughly the same in 1994-95 and 2002-03.

In the former year, agriculture grew by 4.7 per cent and the overall economy by 6.4 per cent. In the latter year, agriculture did not grow at all but the economy rose by 7.5 per cent. India will also enter this monsoon with record wheat and rice stocks. This does not mean the government can afford to be complacent. Even a slightly reduced kharif crop will impact already high food prices. More damaging may be worsening power shortages, especially in eastern India, because of low reservoir levels.

What the government could do, however, is use the present flutter over the monsoon as an opportunity to try and address the short-sightedness and wastage that afflicts India’s entire water management system. Because no serious attempt is made to link usage to prices, farmers have been depleting groundwater levels at a phenomenal pace across the country.

Water-short states like Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have become trapped in a vicious cycle: they are sinking 20 to 30 per cent more tubewells a year and making themselves even more arid as a consequence. An additional problem is that because of the lack of pricing, rural India has become addicted to water-intensive crops like sugarcane which are profitable in the short-term but unsustainable even in the medium-term.

India needs to become a lot more concerned. As a study by the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences of IIT Delhi has shown, over the past 50 years the monsoon has become more erratic with less periods of lengthy rain. Things can only get worse if even a fraction of the claims regarding the impact of climate change are true.

Throw in deforestation, accelerated glacier melt and the demands of urbanisation, and the country is already running on empty when it comes to water. The monsoon may be uppermost on everyone’s mind. But it is, in truth, only a small part of the country’s water worries.