Don’t get carried away by the promise of good rains
If the winter months in India (especially the north) are spent battling air pollution and figuring out ways to control it, the summer months are about keeping an eye on the monsoon winds and the water table. This summer has just begun but already news about India’s water situation is trickling in. The bad news, first: the latest India Meteorological Department (IMD) data shows mild to extremely dry conditions in 404 districts (India has 640 according to Census 2011) due to poor rainfall since October 2017. Of these, around 140 districts were termed severely to extremely dry in the October 2017-March 2018 period. Another 109 districts were moderately dry while 156 had mild dry conditions. The good news is that on Monday, IMD said India could receive 97% of its Long Period Average (LPA) rainfall this monsoon. While this news has come as a big relief to everyone, including farmers reeling from an agrarian crisis and politicians (three important states go to the polls this year and the parliamentary elections are scheduled for next), forecasts can go wrong (and IMD’s have) on account of the inadequacy of the models used and other environmental factors. And the overall rainfall numbers could hide deficiencies in rainfall in some parts of the country.
A good monsoon, however, will help us just tide over this year’s problems. In the longer run, we are still in a crisis. According to a latest report released by the World Resources Institute based on a new satellite-based early warning system, shrinking reservoirs in India ( the report also mentions Morocco, Iraq and Spain) could spark the next “day zero” water crisis like the one that hit Cape Town recently. Such a crisis, coupled with falling groundwater levels, destruction of water bodies such as lakes and lack of adequate number of water harvesting structures, could lead to economic and farm distress and social tensions.
Already, there is anxiety in Gujarat over water allocation for two reservoirs connected by the Narmada river. Last year’s deficient rainfall saw levels at the upstream Indira Sagar dam at a third below their seasonal average. When some of this shortfall was passed on to the downstream Sardar Sarovar reservoir which supplies drinking water to 30 million people, it created problems , forcing the state government to halt irrigation and appeal to farmers not to sow crops.
India has to evolve a long-term plan to tackle the water crisis, especially in this era of climate change. The plan should include decentralisation of water conservation, community management of aquifers, and a shift from water-intensive agricultural practices. Addressing these new challenges also requires a new institutional and economic architecture for water management. Both the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board were set up in a different era. And parties across the political spectrum may have to bite the bullet when it comes to levying “user charges”.