Crying For Water


The dispatch of water trains to Latur while well meant, does little to address the long term problem of water management and storage. Politics and legal battles have prevented the formulation of a comprehensive water policy. BY GAURAV VIVEK BHATNAGAR

The announcements of a normal monsoon this year will do much to revive farmers morale. But there is a need to address the long term problem of water management and storage. Politics and legal battles have prevented the formulation of a comprehensive water policy

For far too long, successive Central and state governments ignored the need to develop long term water solutions to meet the requirement for the precious resource especially in years of scanty rain or drought. River inter-linking project did not take off even after decades of deliberation and planning. As a consequence despite being endowed with sufficient water to meet the needs of its nearly 1.3 billion population, parts of India still face acute shortage of water.

This year, with the temperatures being highest in a decade for all the months, the situation has been further aggravated. What has compounded the problem is that two successive bad monsoons prevented the reservoirs from filling up adequately. According to the reservoir data of the Central Water Commission, the average water level in the 91 reservoirs around the country on April 13 stood at just 23% of their capacity and this was nearly a third less than last year’s levels. Also about half a dozen reservoirs have already dried up completely. With the temperatures running in the 40s in most parts of north, south and west India the situation is only expected to get worse. The special relief commissioner of Odisha recently said the state had not witnessed such high temperatures in these months in the last 100 years!

Though in mid-April these reservoirs collectively held 35.839 billion cubic metres of water, it means little for those farmers whose fields have been left parched or for those millions who are struggling to find even adequate water to drink and survive. The absence of a proper piped network prevents this water from being taken where it is needed the most.

While the courts have been pulling up the Central and state governments on the issue, the fact of the matter is various canal, dam and piped water projects have only been delayed due to long legal battles. And what one is now seeing from the courts in terms of response to the crisis, is only a feeble attempt to retain their relevance in the general public by at least being seen to be talking tough and doing the right things.

Shortage of water has strained relations between many states. Be it Delhi and Haryana or Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, only long term solutions, increase in storage and a change in approach towards sharing of critical resources like water would help

So be it the shifting of IPL matches out of drought-stricken Maharashtra or pulling up the government for not being serious about the drought situation, the courts have taken tough stands. But what has gone unanswered is whether due to shifting of the matches the watering of grass fields of the stadiums would be stopped? Or, how would the treated water used for watering these grounds be used for the drinking needs of the masses, or how would it be transported to the farmers’ fields.


The need of the hour is long term solutions. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar recently said “the government is taking concrete measures to provide permanent solutions to save water and boost water resources via Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana, river linking programme and others.”

He said these solutions will protect people from misery during drought, whose frequency is only expected to increase due to climate change.

As for the immediate measures to tide over the crisis- as 256 districts in 10 states, covering nearly 33 crore people or country’s 25 per cent population, have already declared drought - Javadekar said relief funds were being released to the states. Also, the budgetary allocation for irrigation schemes during the year has been raised.

But such measures mean little to the suffering millions right now. Many are on the verge of death. As a temporary measure, the Centre had sent some special water trains with about 25 lakh litres of water in each, but considering the population of the areas they are meant to serve, the effort, though meaningful, appeared grossly inadequate.

Interestingly, soon after the first train reached Latur, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal announced that the Delhi Government will also send a train to Maharashtra. Clearly, politicians will jump at any opportunity to seek popularity, even though Delhi does not have enough water to meet its own needs.

If India has to really address the issue of water inadequacy, it would also have to adopt strong population control measures for all natural resources are gradually coming under intense pressure due to increase in the number of people. The country has just 4 per cent of the world’s water resources but 17 per cent of the global population.India is also suffering from an acute problem of depleting underground water both in cities as also in the rural landscape. The reason for this are many. Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti recently alluded to some of them when she said most of the blocks in prosperous states like Haryana and Punjab now fall under the “dark zone”, as they have abused groundwater for irrigation. Incidentally, both these states were in the news recently with Punjab refusing to give any water to Haryana via the Satluj Yamuna Link canal, saying it had none to spare, and politicians even dug up portions of the canal to demonstrate their resolve.

Shortage of water has strained relations between many states. Be it Delhi and Haryana or Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, only long term solutions, increase in storage and a change in approach towards sharing of critical resources like water would help.

Bharti recently asked the states to identify long term solutions. She said the budget for increasing groundwater levels has been increased from Rs. 60 crore to Rs. 6,000 crore. Water Resources Secretary ShashiShekhar said the government is also drafting a model bill to guide the states on the efficient management of water. It is expected to be finalized in mid-May.

Admitting that the present water crisis was very serious, he called for evolving a comprehensive strategy on water management over the next 10 years combining the elements of water storage, especially underground reserve, to avoid evaporation of the limited resource.

“Although we have monsoon for a period of 90 days every year, it is only 30-35 days when we receive rainfall actually. So we have to bear this is in mind and focus on storing water,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, a good monsoon has been predicted for the year but before that happens more urgent steps are needed

to ameliorate the sufferings of the people on an immediate basis, by sending more water trains and quickly implementing piped water projects wherever they can help. Also the dependence on monsoons-which are vital because only 46.9% of the country’s 141 million hectares of arable area have irrigation access – should be reduced through widening of the irrigation network. Someone had so ominously predicted that future wars could be over water. India should do its best to ensure this doesn’t happen.


  • The water shortage gripping parts of India is a reminder of how we have failed to evolve a national policy to manage water resources
  • Politicians have made things worse and legal battles have dragged on for decades over rights to water
  • The danger is that as parties take extreme positions, water wars could be the end result
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