Who’s Water Is It Anyway?

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By this time, you might have seen and read a lot about the drought in Maharashtra and it affecting your schedule — as in IPL. There has been a lot of hue and cry, lot has been said and accused. But very few are actually aware of the whole gamut of the situation. So, you may wonder, how did this crisis materialize out of nowhere suddenly during this IPL. Well, for starters, the call for drought, and water conservation and water shortage started after the last year’s monsoon. How do I know it, well, the firm that I work for, makes sure all the employees hear the broadcast of 50% water cut by Mumbai Municipal Corporation daily at the entrance gates!

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The monsoon is brought into action due to simple pressure-temperature gradient over land and sea. The winds determine the monsoon in India. When the land mass gets heated during summer, it creates a low pressure zone; the hot air being lighter rises above the land surface. The cooler air over the ocean air is in a high pressure zone. Owing to pressure gradient, ocean air is now sucked inland, moisture at its core, which precipitates as rain (read: monsoon). The poor Monsoon in 2015 was credited due to the onset of El Nino phenomenon, which causes warming of the waters of Indian Ocean and setting upon a reverse flow of winds, causing a drought-like situation over the Indian peninsula. Statistically, there are 40% chances that an El Niño will result in a drought situation in India. El Niño typically lasts for a period of 9 months to 2 years.

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A look at the rainfall distribution of the last monsoon is a telling confirmation that Maharashtra is experiencing a drought this year around. Historically, around 80–84% of agriculture in Maharashtra is rain-fed. However, the irrigation in the state is very low at 16%, compared to the national average of 42. To give you an idea of the scale of drought this year, dams across the state have only 27% water left compared to 43% at this time in 2015. In Marathwada, the worst hit, the story of major dams is devastating, with water levels down to 6% of the total capacity. The largest dam in the area, Jayakwadi has only 2% water left. In Beed, Latur and Osmanabad districts, the water level in dams is 1% or less (Click to view water storage in dams). The alarming discovery is that the groundwater levels are also rapidly on the decline. In Osmanabad, the average water level was 6.87 meters in January, compared to 5-year average of 2.74 meters. To make matters worse, IMD has already made a forecast this year that 2016 summer could be the hottest summer ever.

The below average monsoon in 2015 is indeed a party to the drought, but there are several other factors in the loop. A narrow understanding of drought, whereby linking it to the lack of monsoon rains is myopic. The latent economics and politics of the water usage in the region with a proclivity for sugar, steel and beer industries. Almost all the water from Jayakwadi dam has been consumed by industries and for drinking in the past couple of years, leaving trifle for irrigation. As a matter of fact, Jalna houses 30 steel industries, each guzzling around 1 lakh litres of water per day. Aurangabad, beer capital of India gulps down 6 crore litres of water daily!

These water-intensive industries are cancerous to the drought prone area of Maharashtra state. Also, the sugarcane industry (Click to read more about sugarcane cultivation). Maharashtra is the highest sugar producing state in the country. But not many people would know that sugarcane production requires water profusely. 1 kg of sugar consumes 2068 litres of water! And 79.5% of Maharashtra’s sugarcane is cultivated in drought prone areas. Despite the revenue generation by sugar-sugarcane industry, the flood irrigation technique for cultivation severely impacts the watercut available for agriculture and drinking purposes. However, sugarcane can’t alone be blamed for the Marathwada drought woes.

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There is lack of preparedness to deal with water shortage, poor research and information on the attributes of drought, coupled with gross mis-management, dereliction towards water conservation and rainwater harvesting, ignorance of groundwater recharging and rampant licensing to sugarcane industry. The cumulative effect — the state of Maharashtra faces droughts year after year. Drought has been identified as the seed for farmers’ suicides alongwith high debt burdens and government policies.

The other day I read an interesting article — Men in drought prone areas are now marrying water-wives; wives married only to fetch water from neighbouring wells. I was shocked at the apathy of this condition. The apocalyptic idea of water wars is barely a turn away. The state government will have to frame policies and schemes; large, medium and small irrigation projects/canals, protective irrigation to store water, recharge groundwater levels, monitor the water intake by industries, relocation of water intensive industries, restricting sugarcane production to water abundant areas, use of alternative techniques like drip/furrow irrigation for sugarcane cultivation, water recycling by sugarcane, steel and liquor industries could help alleviate the drought situation in Maharashtra.

However, after all this, there is a reason to rejoice, as most international models indicate that El Nino, the scourge of the monsoon in India, would dissipate by summer, providing neutral conditions for the rainy season in the country. It’s time to pray to the rain gods as in ‘Lagaan’.

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