The Great Indian Drought

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May 19, 2016
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The Great Indian Drought

Sharmistha Lal reports on the water crisis that has affected 253 districts and 330 million people in the country

The moment the trains arrive, activity breaks out in the otherwise listless Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Men and women run to the green coloured tankers on wheels that have been carrying litres of water to the drought stricken area. It hasn’t helped much. The 50-wagon trains carrying 2.5 million litres of water daily are not sufficient to meet the needs of the population. The locals say they have only had this facility once before and that too, was days ago. But then, they also know that they must make-do with what the government has to offer. There is no other choice. They also know that they are luckier than the likes of 11-year-old Yogita Desai who died of a heat-stroke while collecting water from a hand-pump in western Maharashtra. The pump which was barely 500 meters from her house, had a long que for water and the girl died of dehydration and heat.

BJP party workers pose for a picture in front of the first water train in Latur, Maharashtra.

BJP party workers pose for a picture in front of the first water train in Latur, Maharashtra

According to Shivani Deshmukh, a women’s right activist who has been working in the drought affected areas of Maharashtra, women have been the biggest sufferers in the current water crisis. “Traditionally, women are seen as nurturers. So the duty of bringing water falls on them. More often than not, they walk miles to get it. Not only does it take a physical toll on them, but it also affects them mentally. To add to that, young girls, as small as 6-years-old, are being kept away from school so that they can manage their siblings when their mother has gone to look for water. Some are being trafficked because their families have no other choice. It’s a social epidemic,” she says, “for lower caste women, it is worse.”

India is suffering the worst drought it has seen in the last four decades. 253 districts and a quarter of its population, 330 million to be precise, has been affected by this water and rain shortage. To make matters worse, the temperatures are heating up and more than 120 people have already died from the heat wave.

Woman collecting water from spring

Woman collects water from a spring

According to the Central Water Commission, water availability in India’s 91 reservoirs is at its lowest in a decade—29 per cent of their total storage capacity. 85 per cent of the country’s water comes from aquifers, but WaterAid, an international agency that tracks global water conditions, states that their levels are falling too. Even without global warming, 15 per cent of India’s groundwater resources are over exploited states the World Bank. It also states that “although it is difficult to predict future ground water levels, falling water tables  can be expected to reduce further on account of increasing demand for water from a growing population, more affluent life styles, as well as from the services sector and industry.”

60 per cent of India still relies on the monsoons for its water supply as two-thirds of its agricultural land depends on rains for a good harvest. India has had a very poor monsoon for the last two seasons, at 12 per cent and 14 per cent below the national average respectively. Some central regions which rely entirely on direct rainfall for farming have had a shortfall of as much as 40 per cent. In 2013, the World Bank published a report that states that India is already feeling the heat of the rapidly changing climates and global warming. The report states that, “a 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures will make India’s summer monsoon highly unpredictable. At 4°C warming, an extremely wet monsoon that currently has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of the century. An abrupt change in the monsoon could precipitate a major crisis, triggering more frequent droughts as well as greater flooding in large parts of India. India’s northwest coast to the south eastern coastal region could see higher than average rainfall. Dry years are expected to be drier and wet years wetter.” The report also says that crop yields are expected to fall dramatically because of extreme heat by 2040.


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

Farmers in Odisha have already encroached water bodies and riverbeds to save their fast drying crops. While Punjab and Haryana continue to squabble over their rights to the waters from their rivers. Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams and Rivers has stated that this has been the worst water crisis in India since Independence. “Water scarcity across rural India is very bad. Our groundwater levels are depleting and demand is going up. The drought is the most severe we have seen in decades.” 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.

Bundelkhand is another affected area that has been in drought for the last fifteen years. Some 18.3 million reside in this 13 district region spread across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The situation is so severe that the state government has hired gunmen to fend off desperate farmers at dams and reservoirs. An NGO called Swaraj Abhiyan carried out an extensive survey in the area earlier this month and found that, in 40 per cent of the villages surveyed, there were barely one or two functional hand pumps that supplied drinking water. Thirteen droughts in fifteen years have left the region ravaged and thirsty. “Most women here, spend their entire day fetching water. Almost 600 people in the village use the same hand-pump that barely gives more than a trickle. But then, we have to make do. We are not upper castes, we don’t have our own pumps,” says 50-year-old Pratap Kumar, a small-time farmer near Bansi village, Bundelkhand. “For the last two years, even our crops have failed. There is no work available here because there are no businesses. We have no money. No water. No food.”  Water thefts. Caste wars and petty corruption over water have made living unbearable for residents of the area. 79 per cent of the people in this region reside in rural areas and a third live Below the Poverty Line (BPL).  Although a special relief package has been announced for the region that gives BPL card holders food, most have not registered for the packages as they are unaware of them. The ones that have, complain that the food is barely enough to get by and nowhere near promised.

The MNREGA scheme too has failed them as it takes up to four months to transfer funds. That is a long time to wait for these poor farmers in drought stricken conditions, so naturally, migration levels are at an all-time high. Some 200 people have the left their homes in the last two months alone. The community efforts alone, coupled with the help of NGOs are the only factors that are keeping the poor from starving.

An armed guard protects the water canal from local exploitation

An armed guard protects the water canal from local exploitation

Things are no better in Haryana where five villagers died last week trying to dig up a well in the Jind district. The Supreme Court last week criticised the governments of Haryana, Gujarat and Bihar for ignoring their water crisis and failing to declare a drought in the respective regions. It also came down heavily on the central government saying that it must address the drought situation and not shirk responsibility onto the states.

In Karnataka, this is the third successive year of drought. Over 135 taluks are drought-hit and 125 of the 127 villages in Aland Taluk in Kalaburagi district are being supplied water through tankers. The government is finally ready to take matters into their own hands and the state’s water resources minister, MB Patil has stated that they would use dead storage (the water below the lowest outlet in a dam) in its reservoirs to meet the needs of drinking water.


Farmers assess their poor crop

While we can blame the monsoon for the water crisis, bad rains are not the only cause of the drought. Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment has said that the 2016 drought cannot be compared to earlier droughts of poor India. “This drought is of a richer, water-guzzling India.” What it means is that poor utilisation of water is what has created the water shortage. India has only 4 per cent of the world’s water resources and 16 per cent of the global population. In both, urban as well as rural areas, most of the water supply is used by the rich. The current urban demand for water is 135 litres per person per day. Which is three times as much as rural India’s 40 litres per day which doesn’t include farm use.

Broken water supply pipe delhi

Children enjoy a broken pipeline in New Delhi

Technically, India is carved up into 5,723 groundwater blocks. Nearly 1,500 are overused, making it impossible for rains to replenish them. According to the World Health Organisation, a household is considered stressed for water if it spends more than 30 minutes getting to its source of water. In India the number of water-stressed households is rising. According to NSSO, Jharkhand households take up to 40 minutes one way to get to a source and that doesn’t include wait time. Bihar takes up to 33 minutes and Maharashtra takes an average of 24 minutes excluding wait time. 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. Immediate long-term solutions by the government are the only thing that can save India from this long term disaster.


Just last week, Uma Bharti, India’s water minister announced that the country is set to work on a large scale river diversion scheme which will channel water away from the north and west of the country to drought prone areas in the east and south. The dubious project that has environmentalists already up in arms over the damage that it will do to the local ecology is waiting for a clearance from the ministry of environment. Under this project, water will be re-routed from rivers such as Ganges and Brahmaputra, to canals that will link to Ken and Betwa rivers in central India and Damanganga-Pinjal in the west. Plans to link rivers were first the brain child of the Indira Gandhi government in the 1980s. The plan never came to light because it didn’t win the much needed approval from the states. But since the Supreme Court mandate last week to address the drought issue, the project just might see the light of the day. The project will take up to 20 years to complete and will have long term repercussions such as more water disputes, not only within the states but also neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, even though the government has assured that it will ensure Bangladesh gets its share of water.  The biggest challenge for this project is finding a dry river next to a river with surplus water. A phenomenon that doesn’t geographically exist in the country. If the plan will work, only time will tell. But currently, government hopes are pinned on this solution.

To read the entire World Bank report, click here
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