Droughts and floods: Why can’t we have national water policy?

S Madhusudhana Rao

We have a North-South divide, monsoon-wise. While the south of Vindhyas is staring at drought conditions, the other side is reeling under floods. The two generally ‘dry’ states Rajasthan and Gujarat have one of the wettest spells of this season while Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are witnessing another bout of summer. Neighbouring states Maharashtra and Karnataka are no better.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

A few showers in June-July doused the sun’s fury in the Telugu states. Otherwise, the summer season would have been one of the longest in recent years. However, the intermittent rains are no consolation to farmers or ordinary citizens. With water levels fast depleting in river reservoirs, ground water vanishing in urban areas and weather pundits predicting a heavy deficit in rainfall, alarm bells have started ringing all around.

It’s no longer the pitter-patter of monsoon showers, the sound of July-August that usually brings us copious amounts of rain, but the cries of farmers in distress and demands for potable water in towns and cities. Withering crops, suicides by debt-ridden farmers, dried-up village tanks, rural exodus to urban areas in search of livelihood, power cuts, steep price rise in essential commodities are some of the scenarios — and nightmares – that are too familiar to ignore.

One can argue that all is not lost as the south-west monsoon lasts until September-end and still hopes are lingering that we can expect fair amounts of rainfall in the coming days. If we get it, we should thank God for saving us; if not, we are doomed. Even in the upper reaches of Krishna and Godavari, the two lifelines of Telugu states, there is no indication of heavy rainfall to bring water to the plains. In other words, the overall situation is gloomy. And, the preparations needed to meet a crisis that is likely to hit more than 50 per cent of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana geographical areas are few. While the two state governments are unable to reach agreements on a host of water-related issues, the BJP government at the centre and the opposition Congress party that created Telangana when it was in power are more interested in settling political scores in Delhi than resolving the Telugu states’ water problems.

India’s water crisis – floods in some parts and drought in other areas – is not new. It is perennial and our planners have done little to address the root causes of shortage and plenty of water. Though dams have been built and tribunals have been set up to resolve inter-state water disputes, a comprehensive pan-India water management plan keeping national, rather than regional, interests in mind is lacking. Its absence, for whatever reasons, has led to mismanagement of precious water resources and wastage.

It is a sad commentary on our water management that even after over six decades of independence, governments are unable to provide clean drinking water, one of the three essentials for survival, to all the people in the country. It’s a classic case of how a precious natural resource is being squandered in a country where annual rainfall and water distribution is uneven. But in one way or the other, the natural disadvantages are offset by two monsoons that cover the entire country, a number of rivers and their tributaries and an excellent canal network that very few other nations can boast of. Still, a poor or delayed monsoon can spell doom for agriculture and economy.

It is easy to blame poor monsoon for depleting water table and growing population and overall industrial and household use for the annual crisis. But what matters is the long-term plans to conserve water in rivers and reservoirs and amicable settlement of disputes to minimize the quantity of water flowing into seas.

Providing water to the citizens is the responsibility of the respective government in states and at the centre. If it is not done, it is governments’ failure at every level – from planning to execution. Look at the Jalayagnam, launched with fanfare by the erstwhile YSR government of united Andhra Pradesh, which was supposed to have “wiped every tear from the eyes of rural women for water.” After spending thousands of crores, the picture of rural women trekking miles to fetch a pail of potable water has not changed.

The reason is there are gaping holes in the schemes: Most of them seek short term measures and quick-fix solutions, not permanent answers to a persistent problem that is getting worse year after year not only in our state but everywhere else.

In the coming years, water crisis will assume alarming proportions if remedial measures are not taken now. In fact, the crisis looms large not only in India but all over the world, thanks to climate changes and diminishing water availability. It is not a farfetched view that future wars will be fought over water.

For India, conservation is the key since we are dependent on the monsoons. Efforts should be made to store as much rain water as possible in villages through scientific water harvesting methods to increase the local water table levels to recharge wells and bore wells for use in the dry season.

Rural water supply schemes should include ways to exploit indigenously available sources of water than bringing it by pipes from far off places. As UN experts once pointed out, India’s water problems, that include states’ as well, are caused not by truant monsoons but by mismanagement of available underground water and the annual rainfall the country receives.

To set things right, what we need is political will and determination. As long as they are missing, the country and the people continue to suffer.

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