Six sins that make drought invincible

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

droughtIt’s drought time again. Nothing new in this announcement. Each year, first we have crippling droughts between December and June, and then devastating floods in the next few months. It’s a cycle of despair, which is more or less predictable. But this is not an inevitable cycle of nature we must live with. These droughts and floods are man-made, caused by deliberate neglect and designed failure of the way we manage water and land. What we must note with concern is that these “natural” disasters are growing in intensity and ferocity. That is why we must ask why we are still so badly hit when for years we have been doing everything to drought-proof our agriculture and economy.

This year, large parts of Maharashtra are hit by a severe drought. People are thirsty, crops are lost and livestock abandoned. Remember, it is the loss of this asset, which turns seasonal devastation into long-term destitution. The chief minister wants money for relief; the opposition wants to score points. But in spite of programmes, plans and money, we are not moving towards any real solution to this scarcity. Why?

Why when Maharashtra has had the longest programme for drought relief in the country? It was in the 1970s, when the state was similarly afflicted, that it devised the employment guarantee Act. It guaranteed work close to where people lived so that they are not forced to migrate. As the scheme was to check migration, city dwellers and professionals paid for it. Over time, the state government improvised and put the drought relief money in works that provided relief against drought such as building check dams and percolation ponds and conserving soil. The scheme was abandoned once its successor—Centrally sponsored National Employment Guarantee Programme—was launched in mid-2000s. But the work continues.

Maharashtra has also had a furiously spending programme for building irrigation projects. Since 2007—the time farmer suicides in Vidarbha hit headlines—the state has been given Central grants for water projects. According to the state economic survey, till February 2012, Maharashtra spent Rs 12,000 crore under this scheme alone. Then last year, the state received rainfall 102 per cent over the normal. So there was rain, schemes and money.

Let’s understand how we are going wrong in our strategies. First, rainfall is even more variable—scientists link this with climate change. In Maharashtra last year, rains were normal, but were either late or erratic. Farmers lost time waiting to plant the summer crop and then suffered due to intense or unseasonal rains. Increasingly capricious monsoon makes water management more urgent.

Secondly, irrigation projects have been built but not utilised. In this thirsty state, according to its own data, some 40 per cent of the potential created is not being used. Reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India speak about scandalous ways in which dams are built but canals are not and about cost escalations so high that projects become unviable and are never completed.

Thirdly, Maharashtra is the only Indian state to give industry priority over agriculture in allocation of water. So even when an irrigation project is built, water is diverted for urban and industrial needs. In Amravati, a drought-hit district, the Upper Wardha irrigation project was taken up for implementation under the prime minister’s relief package. But when water started to flow in the canals, the state decided to divert it to the Sophia thermal power project. Farmers protested vehemently. This resulted in the overturning of the policy that gave industry priority, but not in the cases where water was already allocated. Fights go on.

Today, the state’s Economic Survey accepts that only 50 per cent of the utilised water in its reservoirs is being used for agriculture. With rapid urbanisation demand for water will only go up. This will add to stress unless cities and industries become water prudent now—use less water and return clean water to farmers, not sewage.

Fourthly, water use is grossly inefficient. Maharashtra has a propensity for sugarcane-type, water-guzzling crops. This dry and water-stressed state produces 66 per cent of the crushed sugar in the country—way over what Uttar Pradesh, located in the Ganga basin, manages. So water available for agriculture is also not used wisely.

Fifthly, we forget underground aquifers meet a considerable part of water demand. So we do not factor in the need for recharge of groundwater. Instead we extract more and more water, leading to scarcity.

The sixth sin is our inability to link investment in watershed and soil conservation to groundwater recharge. In the past few years, attention has been paid to building ponds and tanks and to protecting watersheds. But investment in these assets—coming largely through employment guarantee schemes—is hardly ever productive. The schemes provide jobs and do not care about the quality of the work. Watersheds are planted with trees but protection of trees is not ensured. The tank is desilted, but the channels or the catchment that bring water to the tank are not.

In this way, we have made droughts perpetual—rain or no rain, money or no money.

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  • Nice article, but what is the

    Nice article, but what is the answer specially when author understands that this drought/flood is man made? Well one thing is clear that the present ruling class(including opposition parties)is not interested in permanent solution. We need a mass revolution throwing this ruling class and the solution not only for this problem but also many like unemployment/corruption will be forth coming.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Jee , I congratulate

    Sunita Jee , I congratulate you on " identfying the real problems of countries ,like India, Pakistan . The adverse impacts of climate change are going to be more severe than what we have experienced in the past. In Pakistan we are also exoeriencing drought followed by intense rains and resultantly flooding i, e in 2010, and in 2011 and now it has been perdicted that there is going to be severe flooding in 2012 as well and 29 million people are going to be affected. I always , think about solutions and according to my experience and understandings,Integrated
    Water Resources Management ( IWRM) is one of the best solution which advocates / allocates balanced water for irrigation/food, environment/ ecosystem , industry and for human consumptions. secondly, our countries, south east east asia, are not prepared for climate change adaptation, as we can not mitigate adverse impacts of climate change . water sacrcity in the rural areas is forcing mass Migration / urbanization , as lively oppertunities are diminshing due to water scarcity in our rural areas. Water is the primary medium through which climate change impacts the ecosystem and the people. Climate change is the fundamental driver of change in the world's water resources, adding addtional stresses through ( climate change ) its effects on the other externalities. Therefore, practices of IWRM will minimise the six impacts sins, Sunita Jee has very rightly brought.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The solution lies in aligning

    The solution lies in aligning our water resource management priorities and policies in line with emerging drought & flood scenario; we need to adapt to demand of changes before the demand irrevocably impacts the socio-economics of life. We have to manage our water resources for sustainable development and for this interlinking of rivers need to be adopted before it is to late. thanks

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • One way to challenge this

    One way to challenge this wastage in using resources is to form a panel of volunteers having expertise in this field to do detailed research in each such projects undertaken by the state governments. All ill conceived plans and corruptions should be widely publicized and exposed. If possible court case should be filed and pressure put on the central government to monitor expenditure of all money disbursed to the states for such development work.

    The Central government should also have the spine to pull up those states misusing the money and let the people of that state how corrupt their state government is and at the same time it should also commend those state governments which are doing their job in a proper manner.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita, Thanks for this

    Dear Sunita,

    Thanks for this summary, even if depressing, but clearly pointing out the limitations, not to say the utter stupidity of the current system.

    We are currently creating a Trust in Uttarakhand, where 95% of villages suffer from heavy water shortages,p to promote and organize rain water harvesting on a large scale, and we face the same kind of situation here.

    So, please, let us go one more step ahead, and let us see what can be done concretely, NOW, to make this thing happen, and progress in an intelligent way. That is in a way that takes into consideration all aspects of the situation, and will provide adequate results, on a long term basis.

    Thanks for your attention, you, and all who read this.


    Pierre, from Kausani.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita: Your points on

    Dear Sunita:

    Your points on the self inflicted water shortage problem is well taken.

    Many an industry are permitted to use water and pollute it, throw it way each day. This kind of water useage is called once through use. Many water guzzling industries pulp mills, textile dyeing units and host of others are allowed to do this. Most power plants by law are required to install cooling tower to conserve water where as major polluters are allowed to go scott free after dmaging the agriculture. Tamilnadu and Gujerat being examples.

    We need to treat municipal waste and recycle the reclaimed water to potable water standards and use it for agriculture and use it to recharging the aquifiers.

    Globally we have plenty of water but we lack the foresight and wisdom to use it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The ruling class and the

    The ruling class and the babus will never allow the problem of drought and floods to be permanently solved as these are convenient excuses to siphon out tax payers money.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • A well written article

    A well written article identifying certain aspects of water management. However in a simple language, following need to be done.
    1. Identify the areas with water availability both ground water and surface water and their present utilization. Utilization should include all the stakeholders-drinking, agricultural and industrial.
    2. These areas should be classified as water surplus, water sufficient and water deficient.
    3. Identify the type of crop based on soil type, climate and water availability, type of industry based on water availability and waste water disposal system and whether this water can be utilized after treatment for which purpose-thus integrating the whole development in the area.
    4. Creating storage for rain water through artificial recharge and surface storage.
    5. Pricing of water should be based on the usage -higher the use higher the price. Even the drinking water price should be based on quantity used by the household unit so that people do not misuse water as it is available almost free. People will bother for their leaking tapes if they have to pay. I did not see a single leaking tape in my 4 years stay in Botswana a water deficient country and every household had a meter for the water usage, as the payment was to be made for different slabs at different rates, as is being done for electricity in certain parts of India like Delhi.
    6. Pricing of surface water and ground water should be at par especially in case irrigation and farmers may be encouraged to use sprinkler irrigation.
    In a nut shell water needs a country wide management irrespective of region and state-taking this resource as national asset.
    Kudos to M/s Sunita Narayan for raising such issues which are the forerunner of tomorrow and future fights will be for water as it happens even today in villages.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Why blame politicians alone.

    Why blame politicians alone. Our technocrats are equally responsible for this mess. their nexus with politician is well known. Most Chief Engineers and Ex Ens are no more interested in technical works.

    On the one hand we need all types of storages, including large dams, in view of climate change; however our policy makers/ Engineers are busy in minting money. It is unforunate for the country and we will have to pay a very heavy price.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Right to an extent

    Right to an extent

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Friends, Just wrote a

    Dear Friends,

    Just wrote a request to Municipal Commissioner's office to allow me install an online water suction motor, pray it gets answered and paves a way forward for all law abiding citizen who continue suffering, because laws will never get enforced and they shall have to continue bearing the brunt of others lawlessness through continued deprivation.

    Being a private colony the coloniser is ever happy that everyone sucks water as it helps save the need and cost of pumping to fill overhead supply tanks. It will save me the cost of suffering and also paying to get water from tankers and aqua sellers.

    Call it win win for all if permission is granted except for nature and future generations.

    Will keep you posted

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is very true. If we

    It is very true. If we examine carefully, it is lack of political will and widespread corruption that have led to frequent occurrence of man-made drought. The key people associated with various projects are interested in filling their own pockets, no matter what happens to poor farmers. It seems India has fallen in corruption trap that takes everything away from poor and tax payers.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • First accept congrats for

    First accept congrats for bringing such news to the stakeholders. Yes, we have made droughts perpetualÔÇörain or no rain, money or no money. The surprise is that knowing this fact of "six sins that make drought invincible", no one is ready to shoulder the responsibility and the probelm continues with wastage of lot money and energy.

    The system has been habituated to address the issue when people raise theiri voice when it comes to alarming stage. When the challenge is known and occurs on annual basis, why the planners or elected representatives should wait to till the last for solving the problem by wasting money & energy with out sustanblty & quality. It reflects the lack of concern and commitment in looking for sustainable solutions with quality.

    Then knowing everything about the drought like challenges and solutions, who should come forward is the main concern? Certainly it the people or the community to get it done by the concerned authorities. The community strategies and interventions alone can bring the sustainable solutions with quality not only for water but also for other challenges of the people.

    Let us hope that the people will be empowered to address their socio & economical challenges for living with enhaned quality of life with better sustainability. This certainly helps to move forward from developing to developed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Draught in

    Draught in Maharashtra
    Extremely well written and honest analysis of the draught in State of Maharashtra
    When I happened to travel in Haryana and Punjab I was delighted to see vast tracts of irrigated land and an intricate canal system which raised lush green crops. When we travel in interior Maharashtra barring a few districts the picture is pathetic. We have dams but very few canals .Water storage in Maharashtra is likely to be for purpose of electricity generation than irrigation. An analysis of percentage will be worthwhile.
    There are huge surface water reservoirs held for consumption of city dwellers of Mumbai. This prevents from recharging of ground water due to runoff into the sea after use affecting ground water and wellsÔÇÖ running dry in Western Ghats of Sahyadri in Karjat and Mokhada .It is but natural that locals have threatened to disrupt water supply to Mumbai as they have to walk miles to fetch water. Some women have succumbed to this severe exertion and heat stroke.
    Lack of superior and technical ground water survey of large water bodies across districts and state boundaries is another reason for adequate utilization .Here administrative straight jacket comes in way as ground water transgresses such boundaries. Red tape is encouraged and opportunities galore for inaction.
    Climate change and fluctuations in rains is now permanent and to cite it as an excuse for mismanagement is unacceptable.
    With huge forests becoming privatized it is possible that ground water resources will be available to those who can pay for the water. Draught in poorer communities then is sure and unavoidable.
    Sensitizing farming communities about rain water harvesting, recharging ground water through controlled usage and liaison with labor ministry to execute meaningful projects at local Panchayat may be some of the thrusts .

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Land and water management

    Land and water management cannot be left to a bureaucracy, members of whom may not be posted in a place long enough to understand the seasons and the changes it brings to the land. I fear that by the time the rural communities are empowered enough, both educationally and politically, to make rational land and water management decisions in a world that is now far removed from their traditional lifestyles and farming practices, they would have sold off most of their land assets in a hope that they can make a "better life" in a world that changes in ways they cannot know.
    Land and water management has to be approached from a fairly local level, unless of course one is completely restructuring the landscape with large irrigation projects...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The points are well put lucid

    The points are well put lucid and clear. We all talk about the drought and effects in the part of our country but what is gonna be the remedy for all these, who is gonna come forward and act for it.
    Speaking for the cause doesn't gonna do anything regard to the problem, just come down and act for it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent analysis, Ms.

    Excellent analysis, Ms. Sunita. All big projects are designed and executed poorly due to corruption and lack of supervision, creating permanent problems for maintenance and upkeep. The govt. will boast of how much money was spent on drought or agriculture, but nobody except the CAG points out what is the outcome of such projects. Unless projects are outcome oriented, but not on how much money is spent on them, nothing will improve.

    Tree planting is notorious scheme. Public, private, and NGO organizations boast of how many trees they have planted each time, but nobody cares about to know what happened to the trees planted, how many survived and how many died, etc. They go on planting trees mostly for a photo-op and publicity. It is funny that trees are planted in the same place year after year.

    Unless we adopt a total package of solutions for any problem, we will reach nowhere in solving it.

    Thanks. Bala.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • An eye opener

    An eye opener

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply