Make India drought-proof

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageMETEOROLOGISTS ARE still not sure of the timing and intensity of El Niño. But it is clear that this monsoon will not be normal and there is a serious possibility that some parts of the country will be hit by drought and crop failure. The question is why we remain so unprepared to deal with crippling water shortages year after year. Why have all our efforts to drought-proof India failed?
What should we do now?

We have been gravely remiss about water management. I say this because we had no excuse not to act. The past 10 years have been good rainfall years. This is the bounty that governments had no right to squander away. It was in these 10 years that everything could have been done to harvest rain, to recharge groundwater, to build rural ponds and tanks and to improve the efficiency of water use. There is no excuse because the problems are known and the solutions have been tested, just not applied and worked upon.

Why do I say this? It was in the late 1990s that India saw its last crippling drought—rain failures for long years and over vast stretches. It was also in this period that innovations were made by different state governments to drought proof their regions. Andhra Pradesh launched the Neeru Meeru water conservation programme, Madhya Pradesh had the Ek Panch Ek Talab (one panchayat, one tank) programme and Gujarat the Sardar Patel Participatory Water Conservation programme to build thousands of check dams to harness rainwater. Tamil Nadu took the rainwater harvesting campaign to practically every house in Chennai.

In all these states, the key learning was that governments could no longer rely solely on surface water irrigation systems for drought management. It was clear by then that not only was groundwater the major source of irrigation, but also the bulk of cropped area remained rainfed. Rain provided relief and rescue for most of India’s agricultural area. Either because it was the only source of irrigation or because it was the source of groundwater recharge. So, instead of fighting this fact, governments learnt to build a new water future based on harvesting rain. Catch water was the slogan of that period.

In the subsequent decade of relative rainfall sufficiency, the opportunity was to build the water security network— not drought relief but relief from drought. Till mid-2000, water conservation was an agenda for the government. It was in this period that the National Rainfed Area Authority was set up; the watershed management programme was revamped; a new programme for repair, renovation and restoration of water bodies was launched and groundwater recharge was prioritised. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) had the stated aim to conserve soil and water by building of tanks, ponds and check dams across the country.

Even as mission water conservation was launched, there was no drive to implement the programmes. Water conservation structures built under these programmes were either not completed or not designed to work. Today half-made, poorly designed and even more poorly maintained water assets litter the countryside. This expenditure should have drought-proofed the country. Then, the rainfed area and watershed projects got embroiled in bureaucratic tangles and turf wars. These programmes could not even fix the basic responsibility of who would regenerate and protect the watershed. In most cases this land is under the control of the forest department. It is time we got this right. MGNREGA needs to be drastically reworked so that it focuses on development first. The stress should be on finishing the village water security and development plan. Panchayat functionaries must be responsible for the quality of work and payment must be made accordingly. Other programmes that augment, conserve and efficiently use and reuse water should be energised.

We will not get many more chances to get the art of water management right. It is time to do or die. It is time we understood this.

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  • A very timely Editorial as

    A very timely Editorial as country faces possibility of deficient rainfall and may be even drought in some parts. Editorial rightly highlights the need of having water conservation implemented for making the country drought proof as deficient rainfall is not happening for the first time or nor it will be the last. Deficient rainfall/Droughts are part of natural variablity. In fact even in last ten years there had been three 2002, 2004 and 2009 pretty bad monsoon years. But all of us have very short menories and we become complacent after couple of good monsoon years.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, I agree we have failed

    Yes, I agree we have failed in our water management programming. It does not address recurring draughts-floods have not created capacity on ground to efficiently manage water resources.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Whenever Government takes

    Whenever Government takes decision on land allotment, conversion of land for industrial use etc is ID involved? Does IMD have any mathematical simulation model to predict change in climate- if say 100 acres of some forest are cleared, or if some lakes (in Bangalore 200 lakes have vanished and houses / plots formed) etc. I keep writing that having lots of tall multi-storied concrete buildings (which is at 1000 meter above sea level in the center of peninsula- far away for river or sea)- leads to reduction of rain. North west of south east monsoon is only for text books now- as most of the wind flow is from North of Bangalore from the land and not from sea side- hence temperatures go up and no rains. Instead of just raising alarm on post facto basis, IMD must start modelling and predicting adverse effects due to Government policies and warn them ahead. But IMD msut have tonnes of self confidence in its math simulation models.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Good timely editorial. IMD is

    Good timely editorial. IMD is predicting deficit rainfall, but, it has happened in the last decade in most regions of the country that total amount of rainfall touched the average rainfall, it remained unevenly distribution during the season, which is important for crop production.
    As pointed out that in watershed programmes, in few states watershed activities were carried out but the quality, design and technical aspects were not considered. In most places, the work was done for sake of doing and spending the allocated fund from government. Agricultural Engineers with specialization in Soil and Water Conservation Engineering could be of great help in this regard, as they are educated on both water conservation and efficient use. Since last 50 yrs, highly trained man power of this field are underutilized and are serving either in academics or in other diverse fields but not water conservation and management. Only few states are utilizing their services for these activities, however, inefficiency and corruption deep rooted in Indian DNA prevents from doing corruption free work which reflects the quality of work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Every year some part or the

    Every year some part or the other faces with drought or floods. With natural rhythm in precipitation ÔÇô 60 year cycle in the All-India Southwest Monsoon Precipitation ÔÇô these are covered in more areas. This resulted ÔÇ£politicalÔÇØ drought or ÔÇ£politicalÔÇØ flood to get funds that rarely reaches the really affected people. Now, everybody is now using El Nino as a culprit.

    Of the 126 years (1880 to 2006) 84 years fall under normal ÔÇô no El Nino or La Nina --; in 18 years El Nino appeared and in 24 years La Nina appeared. Of the 18 El Nino years, 6 years fall under normal or excess rainfall condition; 5 years fall under below normal and 7 years under deficit conditions. In the 30-year below the average cycle parts [1897-1926 & 1957-1986] around 50% of the deficit [< 90% of the average] years coincided with El Nino condition and also the in this period El Nino years also seen with normal rainfall. So, the El Nino impact on Indian rainfall is only a coincidence but not a condition.

    This yearÔÇÖs media hype on El Nino and drought in India is only a game by Western MNCs to dump GM food in to India under the pretext of drought ÔÇô Russia turned it down, China did the same, Africa long back said no to GM food imports and so with around 120 crores population India is the target --. Nobody bothered to look at the real temperature anomaly and advise the government and media, because there are no symptoms of El Nino. So, they say it may develop in July or August or September or December????. Why we should give importance to such observations. CanÔÇÖt we educate our Indian media and politicians/bureaucrats on this vital misleading issue?

    Same is the case with climate change. Media and people in important positions use climate change synonymous to global warming. We attribute all ills to global warming. Though when we study the IPCCÔÇÖs AR5 in conjunction with the recent report of US Academy of Sciences & British Royal Society, the global warming component associated with the so-called increase of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in to atmosphere is < 0.25 oC [1951 to 2010] and < 0.5 oC by 2100. Even this is high because of urban-heat-island effect is over emphasized with dense met network covering this zone and rural-cold-island effect is under emphasized with sparse met network in this zone ÔÇô recent studies showed irrigated agriculture bring down the temperature levels. This is reflected clearly in satellite data sets. So, this is not an important issue in agriculture ÔÇô even IPCC in itÔÇÖs AR5 report emphasized the importance of natural variations in coming decades.

    So, like our forefathers we must adopt crops & cropping systems based on rainfall. This is not possible high input mono crop system. The second issue is water. We misuse water when it is available and cry when it is not available. We donÔÇÖt plan. For example under lift irrigation [wells/bore-wells] we suggested to go for less water intensive crops/cropping system but they refuse to adopt this but attribute motives/politics. When we tell them use drip and sprinkler irrigation, they refuse to follow. We must stop them growing throughout the year and ask them to limit to crops and so that the ground water can recharge. So government must develop a strategy that must be implemented and tell them if they donÔÇÖt follow they will not get subsidy. Like this so many things could be done but it all depends upon the political will and farmersÔÇÖ interest. We must not forget to bring in the animal husbandry in to this system and thus fodder producing agriculture system.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji, During the

    Dear Sunita ji,

    During the previous government ruling many, many Mother trees were uprooted to widen the roads or the said wood was used for homes. Due to lopsided urban development policies capital city centric development models more development was concentrated in and around capital cities.

    By mindless migration from villages to metros or cities what we neglected in our country is inability to study the "Nature Technologies" being used in the countries like Japan. Our children should be taught how to maintain cordial relations with nature and how to protect nature and how to improve greenery.

    The only way to counter drought like situation is encouraging the people living in villages to implement the nature technologies and asking them to follow the methods based on them. Small farmers must be trained to study, practice and implement the nature technologies.

    In another angle, Hindu scriptures mentioned various methods to counter the imbalances in nature. Because spiritually speaking each and every human being is composition of five elements i.e. Akash, vayu, tejas, apus (water) and pridvi (earth). If these five are contaminated outside, the five elements within the human beings will also be contaminated. All A and B grade temples must conduct homas or yagnas or have to do japas for appeasing rain God. It must be a continuous practice, adequate changes have to be made in Endowments Acts of each State.

    Not only that even the common people have to meditate for rains and have to recite the mantras relating to Varuna or rain God etc. Those who believe secularism may not accept this method.

    This is the time to study the inner essence of Vedic Scriptures like Atharva Veda and related branches to understand the foresight of ancient Seers or Rishis, how they protected the environment and what steps they have taken to counter drought like situation.

    Instead of depending on western environmental protection models we have to depend on indigenous models and nature technologies.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • We need 10000 Rajendra Singh

    We need 10000 Rajendra Singh to sort out this issue.It is my wishful thinking

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Wonder why there is no proper

    Wonder why there is no proper action/ plan for the River Network In India ( Ref: Dr. Abdul Kalam and his Vision)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • While the concern of Ms

    While the concern of Ms Narain is genuine, such platitudes that - "rainfed area and watershed projects got embroiled in bureaucratic tangles and turf wars. These programmes could not even fix the basic responsibility of who would regenerate and protect the watershed. In most cases this land is under the control of the forest department. It is time we got this right."- is not going to get us anywhere. The custodian of forests should be made accountable for conserving the water resource. This is done elsewhere and India should not be made an exception to that logic. Recently, I had been to US and was surprised that the US Forest Department in many places are is even responsible for supplying potable water in the neighborhood. Could we take a cue from that.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
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    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • All over India, we also need

    All over India, we also need to ban the practice of submerging the statues, made of Plaster of Paris, in our water-bodies. Today our drinking water is mixed with these toxic chemicals, a result of ground water pollution.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply