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The Hindu on : The haunting spectre of water famine

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, February 27, 2001

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The haunting spectre of water famine

INDIA IS at the threshold of a water scarcity situation. Six of the country's 20 major river basins are already classified as scarce with less than 1,000 cubic metres (cu.m.) water available per head per year. The availability of both surface and groundwater is further being reduced by pollution and inappropriate waste disposal, driving people to a hydrocide situation where the available water becomes unfit for any use.

At the time of independence, when the population of India stood at around 350 millions, the per capita annual water availability was more than 5,000 cu.m. at national level. Today, with the population at more than one billion, it stands at 1,950 cu.m. and is likely to fall further to less than 1,000 cu.m. in the next decade. The shortages will be more at local levels and are bound to spread to regional levels as the population grows. The situation of plentiful water resources in the past is rapidly becoming one of water scarcity. The problems of pollution from municipal sewage, industrial effluents, agro-chemicals, and pesticides have further threatened the availability of good quality water. In short, the country's fragile resources are stressed and depleting fast both in quality and in quantity. The harrowing accounts of sufferings in parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and elsewhere in the country are the symptoms of the cancerous growth that is spreading its tentacles all over the country.

Years of mismanagement

The situation has not developed overnight - every one is aware of that. The signs of distress had long been evident. Why then pre- emptive efforts were not made by those concerned to avert the development of such crises?

The reasons are not far to seek. It is the culmination of years of mismanagement of this precious resource on the mistaken belief that India is a water-rich country and hence we can afford to overlook the susceptibility to water scarcity conditions. It is the result of missed and missing opportunities in harnessing the highly skewed seasonal and spatial distribution of monsoon flows which occur in a four months period. It is also the consequence of petty hydro-politics clouding long-term vision, thereby necessitating ad hocism to solve the resultant problems.

There are extreme variations in the availability of water over space and time and this has caused large parts in the Northwestern, Central and Southern regions to remain water stressed. The shortages in these parts are aggravating environmental degradation and human distress as well. Still we remain least concerned watching millions of cubic metres of this precious resource being wasted to the sea year after year.

According to estimates, India has abundant water resources. With an annual precipitation of 4,000 billion cubic metres (BCM), the country's average annual flow is assessed as 1,953 BCM, the balance being lost to immediate evaporation and soil moisture. The data also indicate that out of this only about 1,100 BCM of water is utilisable from surface and groundwaters together. Thus, about a quarter of the total annual precipitation only is available to provide for our irrigation, drinking water, sanitation and many other uses.

More than 90 per cent of the annual flows in the peninsular rivers and 80 per cent of such flows in the Himalayan rivers occur during the four months from June to September. Such a phenomenon explains the harmful abundance in the monsoon months and acute scarcity conditions in the summer months affecting the various parts of the country. With such a wayward and changing nature, we have to adapt or compensate for these changes to survive. Since a few months account for most of the year's rainfall, and consequent water availability, the ability to hold water in reservoirs and spread out its release over the year can mean the difference between devastating floods and droughts, adequate aquifer replenishment or depleted groundwater resources.

Shocking truths

The assessments made on the requirements for water to meet the various needs reveal shocking truths. Water requirement is closely related to population, demand for food, production of non-food agricultural and industrial items, production of energy and improvement in the quality of life and preservation of ecology and environment. Present requirements of about 600 BCM for these purposes are being met from existing storages and to a large extent from groundwater. In localities where storages/canal network are not available, ground water is being exploited to meet the entire requirement so much so that in many places aquifers have been depleted.

By the end of this decade, the country's population is expected to cross 1,200 millions and the demand for water for food production and drinking needs would reach desperate proportions since a marginal increase only can be expected in the creation of additional storage capacities. However, by the year 2025, with an expected population of 1,300 millions, the situation would be alarming with the present rate of progress in augmenting and improving the availability of water. Subsequent decades would add further demand for water and with the estimated population of 1.5 billion by the year 2050, the demand would be 1,200 BCM, double the present requirements. As of now, we have been able to hold back only a little more than 10 per cent of the annually available monsoon flows. By the end of the decade, when the population is expected to rise by more than 20 per cent of the present level, we will not be in a position to increase the existing storage capacity even by 10 per cent. As to the readiness to meet the situation by 2050, the less said the better.

Not insurmountable

True, there have been issues, environmental, socio-economic and others, coming in the way of executing projects, but these are not insurmountable. The utter confusion prevailing among the opinion makers - the planners, academicians, intellectuals and the stake holders - about the approach to be adopted in dealing with water has been the root cause impeding the progress in harnessing this resource.

On the one hand, we have experts from the World Bank urging everyone to shift the focus from resource development to resource management. We have also eminent persons advocating the revival of the traditional systems as the panacea on all the ills being experienced in the sector. `Catch the rain as it falls and do not allow even a drop to be lost', is another suggestion being floated by many intellectuals. According to the World Commission on Dams the answer to the future needs of a growing population lies in the widespread replication of these small scale storages in thousands of locations across the length and breadth of the country and there is no need to invest in large dams or long distance water transfers with all their adverse impacts, environmental, ecological, social and human. Can either of these suggestions meet the future water requirements in full?

Making a paradigm shift from resource development to management would call for improving the maintenance of the existing systems, removing structural deficiencies and other system inadequacies and tiding over a host of institutional and financial constraints. By improving the overall irrigation efficiency from the present 40 per cent to the optimal 60 per cent, to some extent additional augmentation of water above the present level can be achieved but the balance needs have to come from elsewhere.


Revival of traditional systems and rainwater harvesting are desirable and can be of help to some extent, but they have their limitations. Of course, there are a few success stories like those of Relagaon Siddhi (Maharashtra), Alwar (Rajasthan) etc. mainly due to the dedication of those involved with these works. But failure stories of such attempts across the country can fill volumes. In the monsoonic climate of India, to store the projected requirements of more than 300 BCM, in small reservoirs will be a gigantic task. Roughly millions of tanks would have to be constructed for the purpose; by the year 2050 i.e., one such tank for a population of 250. These tanks will submerge millions of hectares of land, most of them cultivated, taking away livelihood of millions of families having small landholdings. Apart from the problems of getting the requisite lands acquired, the resettlement and rehabilitation of these families within this time-frame would be a stupendous job. Even if the work is completed within the scheduled time, in the summer months, with the failure of monsoons, these tanks would all get dried up negating all the efforts put in.

The options are, therefore, clear. What is required is to double the storage capacity now available at least within the next two decades so as to balance the seasonal supplies in an average year. Hence the thrust should continue to be primarily in creating major and medium storages till such time the capacity created will be able to absorb a major part of the utilisable flows at present getting discharged into the sea. The waters thus stored will facilitate subsequent releases as per requirements during summer and even when some monsoon failures occur. Any shift in the focus from creation of storages will cause irretrievable damage to the very purpose since:

- Suitable sites for large and medium storages are limited.

- Due to the increasing population and the consequent pressure on land, the future reservoir areas are bound to be encroached upon and it would then be difficult to construct the projects due to the human problems involved. A case in point is the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river in Gujarat. At the time of Tribunal Award in 1978, the number of project affected families was estimated as around 8,000 and it is more than 40,000 now, a five fold increase in two decades.

- As the years roll on, the costs of construction would rise manifold, but the fund availability through budgetary support would not be comparable resulting in further delays in the implementation of projects.

The country is facing an increasingly urgent situation. Its finite and fragile water resources are stressed and depleting while its development is tardy and its management continues to be inefficient. It is necessary to take action on priority as under.

(1) The existing storage capacities in each basin be increased through a combination of large, medium and minor reservoirs for maximum utilisation of the surface run-off so that the precious monsoon flows are not wasted to the sea.

(2) A major drive should be launched to increase water use efficiency so as to improve productivity of end use.

(3) Water conservation methods and technologies have to be more rigorously employed to meet the emerging shortages.

(4) For further improvements in water use productivity, R&D efforts in areas such as water recycling and re-use have to be augmented.

(5) Institutional mechanisms need to be created or strengthened at State, grassroots and basin levels, particularly enhancing non-governmental stake holder participation as a core to all institutional initiatives.

It is time our policy makers, water managers, intellectuals and stake holders shed their obsessions and pet ideas. Let them sit together and identify projects - large, medium and small - for each of the river basins so as to take care of equity, poverty and sustainable issues. The clouded vision has to be replaced by a vision for action.


Rtd. Chief Engineer, Central Water Commission

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