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Gujarat is running out of groundwater

GANDHINAGAR, APRIL 24: Gujarat is not facing a water crisis for the first time but what makes this drought worse is that it has struck when there is very little groundwater left. Even more frightening is the fact that there is no option but to tap this water and, in the process, set the stage for more droughts.

Driven to the wall by the severe water crisis, the state government is drilling hundreds of borewells in the affected areas. It is using satellite imagery to identify every small aquifer that can be tapped. In the process, it is pushing down the already depleted groundwater table.

The state government has often admitted that tapping groundwater should be the last resort for it is like a fixed deposit for future exigencies and necessary for retaining the humidity of the land. But now the argument is that there is little choice. But then no government in Gujarat, irrespective of the party in power, can escape responsibility by blaming this entirely on nature.

Though scarcity of water is quite common in the state, permanent solutions like the often-talked-about Saurashtra pipeline scheme and sustained water harvesting and watershed management are yet to become a reality. Of course, Water Supply Secretary and Chairman of Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board R K Tripathi says the first phase of the Saurashtra Pipeline Scheme to take water from the Mahi Canal in central and south Gujarat to Saurashtra would be completed by June 15 while hundreds of checkdams are being made in the state to tackle future needs. But till now, no permanent solutions have been worked out except the much-touted Sardar Sarovar Project whose future hangs in balance.

The extent of increase in tapping of groundwater can be measured by the fact that as many as 11 districts (out of 19 before they were bifurcated into 25) extracted between 65 per cent and 100 per cent groundwater in 1997.

In 1991, there were only five such districts. The state government has clubbed under `Dark Zone' those districts which extract 85 per cent to 100 per cent groundwater; under `Grey Zone' those which use 65 per cent to 85 per cent; and under `White Zone' those which extract less than 65 per cent and are considered safe.

The number of districts in the `White Zone' (using less than 65 per cent groundwater) came down to eight in 1997 from 15 in 1991. The Narmada and Water Resources Department, which made this assessment, stated that in 1984 only one district, Mehsana, was in the `Grey Zone' while there was none in `Dark Zone'. And now, admit government sources, with groundwater being tapped on a massive scale, there is a possibility of many more districts coming under the `Dark' category.

``Against the massive exploitation of groundwater, there is very little recharging because successive governments have failed to create water harvesting structures. The reduction in forests at the rate of about 10 per cent has affected even natural recharging,'' explains Darshini Mahadevia of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology.

The main reason for the increase in the exploitation of groundwater, she says, is the government's policy of encouraging water-intensive industries like chemicals and sugar. ``Not much thought seems to have gone into locating such industries,'' says Mahadevia. Agriculture policies have also encouraged water-dependent cash crops.

Senior government officials add that heavy power subsidies to farmers have resulted in an increased tapping of groundwater. ``What you need is just a pump and you can draw water from the ground. This is what North Gujarat is all about; it falls almost entirely under the `Dark Zone','' says a bureaucrat.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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