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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : Waiting for the rains

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Sunday, May 14, 2000


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Waiting for the rains

The drought-affected regions might be able to hold out till the onset of the monsoon. But the coming weeks are going to be difficult. GARGI PARSAI on the efforts to cope with water scarcity.

WATER SCARCITY in parts of the country this year, along with the (belated) media projection of water-harvesting success stories, seems to have brought about a paradigm shift in the Government's stand. There is more focus now on watershed harvesting, water conservation and water management with people's participation.

This is not to say, of course, that the Ministry of Water Resources or the Planning Commission have abandoned their penchant for mega projects, but only to say that the need of the hour has been recognised as area-specific water conservation with community participation. Although one cannot help but note the irony here of the zero participation of people in the development of mega projects, be it Bhakra Nangal or the Sardar Sarovar Project, which involve massive displacement of people - one set of people sacrificing for another.

The drought situation in parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa have also been shown up as the result of the late awakening of the State Governments and local mismanagement. Incidentally, the drought-affected areas in these States traditionally become water scarce in the event of deficient rainfall, as has happened now. Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat regions are even normally difficult regions, but the hundreds of dried ponds, lakes, `bawris', wells, streams and of course the silted minor and major dams tell a story of neglect over the years. Even when the Sardar Sarovar Project was embroiled in litigation, the Government did not plan for alternatives. Now NGOs and panchayats in this very region have shown how area-specific projects can hold out during scarcity periods.

Rajasthan did not act even when an erratic monsoon sent specific signals. This State is replete with traditional water storage structures that have been allowed to fall into ruin. The State also has a strong NGO movement and the need of the hour is to replicate success stories in watershed management.

Orissa has not declared any of its regions drought-hit, but Andhra Pradesh has declared 18 of its 23 districts drought- affected. Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh have been given advance instalments from the Central Calamities Relief Fund to undertake relief operations. Incidentally, the allocation for the five-year Calamities Relief Fund got exhausted on March 31.

Now the 11th Finance Commission, which is yet to submit its report, has made an interim allocation of Rs. 2,000 crore during 2000-2001. Of this, Rs. 1,500 crore is the Central share. In addition to three instalments from the CRF, Gujarat has recently been given an additional Rs. 200 crore Central relief.

The opinion on how bad the drought situation is in Gujarat and Rajasthan is divided. The States have one view and the Centre another. There have been 12 good monsoons in the country.

But again, while the average rainfall may be `adequate', the spread may not be as adequate. Areas which have received scanty rainfall are the ones which now face water scarcity. Yet, in their proximity are areas which are not so dry because of better management of available water resources. The water scarcity, therefore, is not spread out evenly.

There is still time before the India Meteorological Department's (IMD) forecast for this year's southwest monsoon is made. Not all of the 16 parameters have been worked out yet. The forecast will be made at the end of the month, although the Bangalore Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation has hinted - based on statistical analysis - at a slightly lower than normal monsoon. Experts would rather wait for the IMD forecast before working out strategies.

Even so, all the affected States are ready with Contingency Plans which include storing foodgrains, stocking fodder and going in for short-duration, late sowing or drought-resistant variety of crops, depending upon the onset of monsoon. And whatever the precipitation, States have been asked to plan for large-scale rainwater harvesting so that groundwater recharge takes place.

However, water resources experts say that even if the monsoon were to be deficient in the drought-affected regions, there would not be much impact on foodgrain production - sitting as the country is on surplus foodgrains - as the concentration of the major staple food cultivation is in the command areas of big projects such as Bhakra Nangal in Punjab and Haryana and the delta regions of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The major sugarcane growing regions of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh are also comfortably placed. If at all, there could be some shortfall in the production of groundnut and pulses sown in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

In the case of drinking water also, experts feel there are pockets of scarcity whether in Andhra Pradesh or Rajasthan or Gujarat which can be supplied from water surplus regions. The Water Resources Secretary, Mr. Z. Hasan, feels that the nation is in such a stage of development that there is no reason to panic. Only, water resources should be conserved wherever available.

There have been no real official scientific studies on the actual use of water for different purposes. However, the projected demand for the various uses in the country, as per the assessment made by the Central Water Commission (CWC), for 2000 is 750 billion cubic metres (bcm). Of this, 630 bcm is for irrigation, 33 bcm for domestic use, 30 bcm for industrial purposes, 27 bcm for energy and 30 bcm for `other' uses.

The Water Resources Ministry puts the usable surface water availability by conventional methods at 690 bcm. A total live storage capacity of 177 bcm had been provided till 1995 through 3,600 large dams and reservoirs and 250 barrages. An additional storage capacity of 75 bcm will be created on completion of the various dams under construction.

The Ministry proposes to construct additional dams to create storage capacity to the tune of 132 bcm. In fact, one of the criticisms against the Ministry if that it goes about pushing mega projects without taking into consideration the socio- economic and environmental impact. The aspect of rehabilitation and resettlement of the project- affected people also does not exactly fall under its purview, resulting in lopsided priorities.

A recently-released World Bank report on Water Sector Reforms points this out more blatantly. The `talking down' report says, ``The current approach emphasises development of water resources and construction of new infrastructure under a top-down, supply- oriented and fragmentary framework''.

The report, done in collaboration with the Government, observes the lack of efficient water use and conservation and says Government policies have yet to be translated into action. While emphasising the role of NGOs, the report asks the Government to reorient its role to one of facilitator and enabler.

However, recently, under the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme of the Ministry of Rural Development, there has been a move to promote rainwater harvesting through watershed, artificial recharge of groundwater and roof-top rainwater harvesting. It is possible that the drought-affected regions might be able to hold out till the onset of monsoon. But the coming weeks are going to be difficult. The local administrations must prepare themselves to manage the situation well in advance. It is still four weeks before the pendulum swings one way or the other.

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