Why do floods & droughts simultaneously ravage India? Expert offers explanation, solutions

The primary reason for the floods is the insufficient number of waterbodies

By K Damodaran
Published: Monday 22 April 2024
Photo: iStock

India’s Drought Early Warning System found that 21.06 per cent of the country faced a drought in 2022. This was 7.86 per cent in 2021. 

At the same time, India was highly vulnerable to floods during monsoons. Of the 329 million hectares of land in the country, 46 million were prone to flooding. 

Floods devastated 5.04 million hectares of crop area in this monsoon till November 25, 2021. In the last three years, 6,811 people died due to meteorological disasters. India is continuously affected by floods and its average annual loss is estimated at Rs 5,649 crore.

The primary reason for the flood is the insufficient number of waterbodies. Around 350,000 million gallons of water flow to the Yamuna daily during the monsoon. Preserving this would provide drinking water for Delhi residents for a year.

In November 2022, the amount of floodwater released to the sea in three weeks in Chennai could cater to the needs for half a year. The empirical evidence confirmed that we need to manage rainfall productively. Floodwater can be conserved and used to overcome drought and water scarcity during summer. 

An estimate indicated that the national interlinking of rivers can manage floods by channelling water from flood-prone to drought-prone areas, irrigating 34 million hectares. The idea was first suggested in 1919 by Arthur Cotton, chief engineer of Madras Presidency. After independence, it was again proposed by KL Rao in 1960. In 2020, the government announced that it plans to interlink Krishna, Godavari, Cauvery and Pennar rivers with a project estimate of Rs 60,000 crore. 

The government has implemented four national water policies since independence. The first National Water Policy (NWP) was implemented in September 1987 and reportedly achieved water management development. In 2002, NWP was reviewed and updated with new approaches in water management but failed to fulfil the demands of the 21st century. As a result, in 2012, an NWP was drafted to fill the gap between the 1987 and 2002 policies. This policy was put forth under the public domain to get their suggestions for drawing a holistic procedure addressing water management issues. However, the problems still persist.

From 2012 to 2023, the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti (water resources) spent Rs 2.76 lakh crore. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is almost devoted to managing water bodies in rural areas and funds allocated for the project were Rs 6.14 lakh crore for the same period. 

In the past decade, the central government spent Rs 8.91 lakh crore on water management and funds allocated for related projects have increased over the period by considering water crisis. 

However, the question is whether the fund allocation aligns with the growing population’s demand. The per capita water availability (cubic metres / year) has declined sharply from 1951 to 2022. According to the Centre, the anunal per capita water availability was 5,177 cubic metres in 1951 and 1,486 cubic metres in 2022. Water availability per capita is projected to decline to 1,367 cubic metres per capita in 2031. Therefore, the government expenditure still needs to meet the growing demand for water in India. 

According to the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, per capita water consumption in urban areas is 135 litres and in rural areas is 55 litres. However, two-thirds of India’s 718 districts are highly affected by water scarcity. 

A growing awareness of safe drinking water has led to higher spending on bottled / packed water. As a result, 12.2 per cent of urban households depend on packed water, compared to only 2.7 per cent a decade back. Even in rural regions, the consumption of packed water increased from 0.5 in 2008 to 4 per cent in 2018. 

Preserving waterbodies

America and Australia have built water storage per capita of 5,000 cubic metres, whereas India has only 200 cubic metres. To ensure safe, portable water by 2030, the government must spend around 3.2 per cent of its GDP, according to the World Resources Institute. 

It is evident from the above discussion that we need to manage water in every way possible. The country is severely affected due to floods, drought, water scarcity, encroachment and economic burden, among other things. Of this, the encroachment of water bodies is the primary reason for the severity of water crisis. 

A survey of the Bangalore Urban District Administration in 2021 found that 20 per cent of the 22,810 acres covered by 837 lakes studied was encroached upon. The Government of Assam found that out of the 55,811 hectares wetlands, barring rivers, creeks and springs, 7,322 hectares of land have encroached. 

In Bihar, 70 per cent of the water bodies have vanished. That is, out of the 250,000 ponds, only 100,000 currently exist. In Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court received a petition from the state government that 47,707 acres of water bodies are under encroachment. 

The Comproller and Auditor General found that 49 per cent of all the encroachments in India were on waterbodies. Shockingly, around 1,311 acres of water bodies were encroached upon to construct government buildings.

The Standing Committee on Water Resources suggested repairing and removing encroachment of water bodies. The Central Pollution Control Board prepared ‘Indicative Guidelines for Restoration of Water Bodies’ and suggested removing the encroachment and blockades of waterbodies. However, there is no such removal at a broader range, and the authorities’ suggestions could not have had any considerable impact. 

Indigenous knowledge of India for managing water resources is community participation, which was adequate. NWP 2002 suggested a rain water harvesting structure (RWHS) programme for managing ground and surface water. Tamil Nadu was the pioneering state that introduced RWHS in residential areas, offices, companies and industries. After that, other states in India also implemented this programme.

Residents above the poverty line were directed to create RWHS. An estimate found that 1,000 litres of water can be preserved annually through RWHS for each square metre of area. A house of a 200 square metre area can maintain 200,000 litres of water annually, which translates to more than the World Health Organization norm of 750 litres per day for a household. However, few Panchayats, municipalities and corporations have implemented forsake. 

Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to bring policy changes to ensure water management on a war footing. At first, the Centre must bring out the state-wise actual statistics of waterbodies from its documents since independence. The number and area (acre / hectares) of waterbodies in the country must be verified. As per the government documents, the encroached water bodies must be removed. 

Second, the government must desilt and strengthen the bunds of the waterbodies. For this, the financial burden to the government is only in the first phase of clearing the encroachment and assuring the water bodies’ number / area / depth. After that, the government can give management responsibility to local administrations such as the Panchayat, municipalities and corporations. 

Third, the local authorities must revamp the small channels and link them with the ponds / rivers. They must plant saplings in the bunds of the ponds and rivers, which may restrict encroachment and strengthen the bunds of water bodies. 

Finally, the district collector must visit the local administration to verify the management of waterbodies, under the condition that if their work is satisfactory, the government may allocate funds for other development projects such as overhead tanks, roads, drinking water and ditches, among others. 

K Damodaran is associate professor, department of economics, Central University of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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