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India's drought: A natural calamity or a man-made one?

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 May 2013 09:07 GMT

Labourers walk through a dried lakebed in India's northeastern state of Tripura, on April 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jayanta Dey

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

South Asia’s population is swelling, but the available water per person has taken a dive because of poor water management and conservation, as well as diversion to industries

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's that "Will they? Won't they?" time of year in India. The annual monsoon season is due and - given that the country's mostly rain-fed agriculture makes up 15 percent of gross domestic product, with hundreds of millions of Indians dependent on it - these rains are a serious business.

Before its onset in June, right through the end of the season in September, we track the monsoon's trajectory, pore over data, question forecasters, speak to pundits - all in hope of getting an accurate analysis on whether India will receive timely and adequate rainfall.

This year, initial forecasts predict an average amount of rainfall.

However, for some states like India's drought-hit western region of Maharashtra, even if the rains are plentiful, it won't solve its water crisis.

In these parched farmlands, where thousands of villages have little drinking water or fodder for cattle, it is not the lack of rain that is to blame, say activists and commentators, but the poor management of scarce water, resulting in what they are calling a man-made drought.


South Asia is one of the world's most water-stressed, yet while the population is adding an extra 25 million people a year, the region’s per capita water availability has dropped by 70 percent since 1950, says the Asian Development Bank.

In India, the dry months before the onset of the monsoons result in frequent blackouts due to empty hydropower dams, water shortages in posh colonies in cities, and even riots over water when back-up water tankers are called in to residential areas.

While erratic weather patterns due to climate change may be partly to blame, experts say a poor approach to conserving and managing water resources is the crux of the problem.

Our rivers, streams and lakes are polluted beyond belief, and illegal, unregulated over-extraction of groundwater has left us with a serious water crisis in many parts of the country.

One of the worst examples of poor water management and its impact on local populations is in Maharashtra.

Basic water conservation through projects such as rainwater harvesting been lacking, say experts, but even more worrying are reports of allegations of corruption in irrigation tenders and the diversion of water meant for farmers to industries.

An analysis by the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) disputes rainfall in Maharashtra in 2012 is lower than in 1972, when the region faced it worst ever drought.

"From a meteorological and agricultural point of view, this year’s drought cannot be called worse than that in 1972. It is possible that hydrologically, this year’s drought may prove to be worse than 1972 for some districts," said the March report.

"The blame for this lies entirely on wrong decisions about building unviable and undesirable large dams, wrong cropping patterns, diversion of water for non priority uses, neglect of local water systems and unaccountable water management."


Maharashtra has the largest number of dams in the country - more than 3,000 - built to not only generate power, but also to provide water for millions of farmers and service the state's burgeoning industries.

However, reports suggest that despite billions of dollars invested, irrigation coverage has only increased by 0.1 percent over the last decade to 17.8 percent in 2011/12.

"The so-called Maharashtra’s worst drought since 1972 is an example of India’s water management failure and a scam of huge magnitude," environment writer Chetan Chauhan wrote in the Hindustan Times recently.

"If the water management data is analysed, only two inferences can be drawn from Maharashtra experience. First, the dams have failed to deliver and second, the government had diverted the water meant for irrigation to big industrial projects."

There have been widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism in a 2009 irrigation scam in which the then irrigation minister cleared almost 40 projects without going through proper procedures.

Even more concerning are reports that water meant for farmers is being diverted to power plants as well as sugar industries, which make up the backbone of the agrarian economy but are extremely water intensive.

Prayas, an Indian charity, says it has evidence that more than 60 percent of water meant for farmers has, with the approval of government, been diverted to service industries, such as the power sector, in the state from 2003 to 2011.

Another charity Sajak Nagrik Manch says government policy mandates no more than 5 percent of irrigated land can be used to grow sugarcane, yet nearly 40 percent of the total irrigated land in Pune, a district in Maharashtra, is under cane cultivation.

Activists allege the skewed water distribution is due to close connections that politicians in Maharashtra have with sugar factories and cooperatives, some of which are controlled by the government ministers.

India's agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who is from Maharashtra, has dismissed the allegations, saying that only 7 percent of water meant for farmers was diverted to industry.

Few believe that, and experts warn of dire consequences in the region, if water management isn't improved.

"If non-sustainable land and water use continue, the drought will spread even when rainfall is normal. The most vulnerable immediately are the poor who will be forced to migrate as environmental refugees. Agrarian distress and farmers` suicides will increase because farmers have spent huge amounts on costly seeds and chemicals, and crop failure will make the debt trap a death trap," says prominent environmental activist Vandana Shiva.

"In a drought-prone area, water harvesting is the answer not water mining. Maharashtra needs to harvest its rain, not mine its groundwater and reroute its rivers to rich sugar barons."

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