India Plans Solid Steps to Face Looming Water Crisis
Madhvi Sally & Himangshu Watts
New Delhi: IIndia is in the grip of a water crisis that has been years in the making even as temperatures shoot up to a scorching 46 degrees Celsius. With the situation expected to deteriorate further, the government is planning to make demand management a priority by funding drip irrigation for farmers, penalising overexploitation of groundwater and enacting a model water law, an official said, adding that at this level of shortage, China had declared a crisis. “Water crisis is indeed looming large at us,” water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation secretary Shashi Shekhar told ET.
“If we go by figures, in 2000, we started with 2,000 cubic metres water per person per year. Today, we have reached about 1,500 m3 and in next 15 years it will go to 1,100 m3. At 1,500 cubic metres per person per year itself it is called a crisis. China has declared it a crisis at 1,500 cubic metres per person per year. We are likely to go below that.”
Measures to mitigate scarcity head the government’s agenda as two failed monsoons have left many parts of the country parched and very little water left in reservoirs. Shekhar said the crisis has been in the making for many years as traditional ponds and water bodies have not been maintained, while industrial demand along with water-intensive agriculture had ravaged groundwater reserves.
In Maharashtra, one of the worst-affected states, water is being transported by train to parched areas, and a debate is raging over using it for irrigating sugarcane or in processes such as making beer-making rather than saving what’s left for drinking purposes.
Measures to mitigate scarcity head govt’s agenda as two failed monsoons have left many parts of the country parched
A maximum temperature of 46 degrees Celsius was recorded at Titlagarh in Odisha, with the India Meteorological Department forecasting heatwave conditions persisting over the next week or so.
Shekhar said drip irrigation was necessary to curtail demand and the government had to support farmers in this effort. “So I am saying that if you ask farmers to take such a risk of sprinkler, drip irrigation, change in crop pattern, it becomes difficult,” he said. “They don’t have that type of money to take that sort of risk. So the government will have to come to take that responsibility. When people see development and income rising they will follow.”
He said similar steps had succeeded in Greece, where the government had fully funded a drip irrigation programme and paid for seeds, recovering 10% of the amount from the sale of tomatoes in the first year. In the following years, the government continued with 100% funding but gradually increased the amount it recovered from the sale of produce until the market took over and the area developed.
Water-management initiatives will be launched in Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka, he said.
“It is the first time we are moving away from the supply side. We are going to the demand side which is the problem,” Shekhar said. “How you change the mindset of farmers, incentivise them to move away from water-guzzling crops, take them to the development process and see everyone gets equitable distribution of water is what we will work on. It is right now in pipeline and Cabinet clearance will take place. Hopefully by the end of this year we should start the project.”
DARK ZONE, MODEL LAW
The government also plans to amend groundwater rules, which specify restrictions that kick in after a region is declared a ‘dark zone,’ a term for highly stressed areas where the groundwater is depleting faster than it is recharged. In a dark zone, drilling of wells and use of electricity to pump out water is regulated. However, the declaration of such zones faces opposition. Shekhar said the ru- les would be amended so that restrictions are triggered automatically after a threshold is crossed. Water management is primarily a state subject, leaving little room for the Centre to intervene but the government plans to enact a model law for water conservation. “We are making a model law which will be ready in next 15 days,” he said. “Model law is a framework which means we send it to a state and they may or may not agree (to implement it). When we talk about river-basin management, it has to be entire basin approach, the allocation, the river’s economy, river health. We have completely ignored rivers’ health. All rivers are dry. If rivers don’t flow they don’t recharge the ground water.”
In the model law, ground water should be given greater importance than surface water, he said.
“That is what will give us resilience against climate change. That is what will hold water for 365 days,” he said, adding that “85% of drinking water comes from ground water. Unfortunately in our development process we neglected groundwater, which we thought was in plenty.”