When all flows out

The recent dispute over the Indus' waters stems from its faulty allocation

By Ravinder Singh
Published: Tuesday 31 August 2004

When all flows out

-- On July 12 this year, Punjab's legislators passed an act which annulled all previous water sharing agreements with neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan. It sparked off a dispute whose roots actually go back to the 1960 Indo-Pak Indus Water Agreement. In its haste to exact much more than India's due share, the then Union government included non-riparian areas in our side of the Indus basin. India eventually got only 20 per cent of Indus waters -- that barely meet the needs of present day Punjab. But the government's foible meant that 70 per cent of it was transferred outside the Indus basin, much to the chagrin of people in Punjab.

As per last ten years data, the annual water release from the three rivers of the Indus basin -- Satluj, Ravi and Beas -- is about 28 million acre feet (maf). But water losses and fluctuating flows mean that only 21 maf water is actually available. However, our planners had not reckoned this in 1981. That year, a water sharing agreement was signed between Punjab and its neighbouring states and 17.17 maf water was allocated to all the parties from the Ravi-Beas -- in addition to 15.6 maf Satluj waters allocated by an earlier agreement. Punjab was initially allocated 3.5 maf (20 per cent) Ravi-Beas waters; that was increased to 5 maf (30 per cent) as per the Rajiv-Longowal accord. Today, the Ravi-Beas system releases about 14.1 maf but 12.1 maf of that flows down to non-riparian states.
The good neighbour's ire So Punjab's grouse is quite legitimate. Since it is a lower riparian state, Punjab's residents are entitled to all the water the state receives from the Ravi-Beas and the Satluj river systems. But Punjab's Doaba area, which produces 5 million tonnes of foodgrains annually and has 6 million people, gets water only from the 1408 cusecs capacity Bisht Doab Canal. In contrast, the Rajasthan Canal takes away 18,500 cusecs water to 2 million people in Bikaner and Jaisalmer districts, where food productivity is negligible. And this is not all: the Satluj Yamuna link canal -- when ready -- will take away 15,000 cusecs to Rohtak district, Haryana.

Deprived of canal waters, Punjab's farmers now depend on increasingly scarce groundwater for irrigation; extracting it through tubewells means precious electricity or diesel consumed -- the former costs Rs 4 per unit, while the latter comes at Rs 25 per litre. It is estimated that Punjab loses more than Rs 6,000 crore every year because Indus' waters are diverted away from the state. Some might argue that this is a sacrifice that Punjab's people have been enjoined to, for a greater national good. Such people would have been on solid turf if canal networks had worked well. They haven't: recent figures show about 40 per cent of the Ravi Beas and Satluj waters are wasted in transmission.
Bad utilisation The recent dispute is therefore a chance to re-examine our wasteful water allocation system. India utilises just about 12 per cent of the usable potential of its river waters. In comparison, neighbouring Pakistan utilises 104.7 maf of canal waters out of the 144.9 maf available to it -- a usage rate of more than 70 per cent. Pakistan has managed this by keeping the length of its canals small. The average length of its 9 main canals is only 68 km and they transfer eight times more water than the 660-kilometre long Rajasthan canal. But we have not learnt from our neighbours. The last government's much-flaunted river-linking system is based on long canal systems. Even if we assume, that the new canals will be more efficient, substantial wastage cannot be ruled out. We should also remember that our 71 major dams store only 1.5 per cent river waters during peak flow seasons. The rest goes waste.

Moreover, does damming rivers and channeling their water through canals actually increase agricultural productivity? Consider this: Maharashtra has 1651 dams and its per hectare (ha) agricultural productivity is 757 kg while Madhya Pradesh with 803 dams produces 907 kg per ha. Gujarat with even less dams -- 576 -- produces 1169 kg per ha. In comparison, Punjab has 12 large dams and shares water in three dams with two neighbouring states, but its production is 4032 kg per ha. Clearly, India's water allocation system requires a thorough overhaul.

Ravinder Singh is a scientist and inventor

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