The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Drought is stalking as many as 320 districts of 11 states in India. The only silver lining is that this time round we are not witnessing a food crisis or high inflation because of the close to 65 million tonnes of foodgrains in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India. But the consequences of drought in rural India and the acute scarcity of freshwater are not hard to comprehend. The question is whether we have adequate water resources and if we are using them efficiently.

The water situation in India presents a baffling picture. While Jaisalmer, situated in the midst of the desert in Rajasthan, normally faces no shortage of water in spite of an annual rainfall of a mere 100 millimetre, Cherrapunji, one of the wettest regions of the world with an annual rainfall of 15,000 mm, has acute water shortage.

India has more irrigated lands than any other country in the world but its agriculture continues to be heavily dependent on the monsoon. India gets adequate rainfall and its utilizable fresh water resources are around 1,150 cubic kilometre — 700 cu km of surface water and 450 cu km of ground water — which is more than the estimated annual requirement of 1,050 cu km in 2025. But it is feared that this demand cannot be met because of the imbalance of water resources across the country.

Waste not, want not

According to the ministry of rural development, around 70,000 habitations, each comprising 50 families, do not have any sources of potable water within a radius of 1.6 km. It is therefore imperative that we harvest as much water as possible, otherwise our per capita availability of water will decrease from the present “marginally” vulnerable to a situation of severe scarcity.

Drought in India occurs more due to the lack of water management than the lack of water. India has a rich tradition of sustainable water harvesting systems. The methods involved are situ harvesting, storage of water in aquifers, soil conservation methods to facilitate ground water recharging, enhancement of surface run-off collection and even evaporation control by the use of chemical films, hydropholic chemicals and so on. It is estimated that given the technology and methods available today, water consumption for agriculture could be curtailed by 10 to 15 per cent, for industries by 40 to 90 per cent and for cities by a third, without compromising economic output or the quality of life.

Agriculture accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the total water consumption in the country. Drip irrigation is one of the measures that has great potential. In countries like Israel, Jordan, Spain and the United States of America, studies have shown that drip irrigation not only cuts water use by almost 30 to 70 per cent, but it also increases yields by 20 to 90 per cent.

Dripping glory

In Jalgaon in Maharashtra, the method has dramatically increased the per hectare yield of banana and proportionately increased the per capita income of farmers. Another way to increase water productivity is by re-using it. Advanced water-recycling systems are used by some leading five-star hotels in the country.

One hectare of ground water irrigated land is on an average 100 per cent more productive than one hectare of canal irrigated land. Over-exploitation of ground wa-ter has resulted in the depletion of ground water levels. The International Water Management Institute has warned that a quarter of India’s grain harvest could be in jeopardy if the trend continues.

There are several systems of rain water harvesting and ground water recharging: rooftop rainwater harvesting and recharging through existing wells, boring of new wells, shafts or spreading basins; recharging treated urban and industrial effluents underground by using them for direct irrigation or through recharge ponds.

Water security is indispensable for addressing regional as well as inter-household inequalities in growth and in preserving the ecological balance. This can be ensured only if the management of water resources and its on-farm conservation are vested with the community. But the national water policy, 2002 is silent on the issue and advocates an old, disastrous model of bureaucratic control and management.

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