Drying reservoirs, low winter crop yield, and a simmering water crisis

About 300 districts have already been declared drought-hit by states 

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 21 January 2019
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

In a replay of the water scarcity of 2017, considered to be the worst drought in 140 years, authorities in Chennai are scrambling for every possible source of water to meet the city’s demand. By the end of last week, the city reported a rainfall deficit of 54 per cent (it was 57 per cent in 2017). Four lakes that supply water to the city—Poondi, Cholavaram, Redhills and Chembarambakkam—have water levels ranging from one-third to just above 3 per cent of their full capacity.

In 2017, the city authorities for the first time scavenged abandoned quarries in Kanchipuram district for accumulated rainwater to meet the demand. They will do so this time too but they need to look for new sources. Pipelines are being laid out from such a quarry in the same district to take water to a treatment plant and then to supply Chennai. Two desalination plants have already being pressed into full capacity operation to face the summer crisis.

In Maharashtra’s drought-hit Marathwada region, the state government has already deployed 1,500 tankers for transporting water to villages and small town as dams have dried up. This is an unusually high number, given that last year during this period hardly a tenth of such tankers were deployed.  The state reported a 23 per cent deficit monsoon last year.

Across India, according to the Central Water Commission, water storage levels in 91 major dams dipped by 2 per cent in just a week ending January 10. Similarly, in 12 major river basins like Ganga and Godavari, the total live capacity dipped by 2 per cent in the same period indicating a worsening water scarce situation.

Out of the 91 reservoirs monitored by the Central Water Commission, except for 27, all have reported a dip in water levels in January 1-10. While 60 reservoirs have 20 per cent less water than the average level, 15 have 50-80 per cent water storage. Most of the drought-stricken states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Karnataka have reservoirs with water levels around 30 per cent.

The most worrisome factor is that 76 of the monitored 91 reservoirs also provide irrigation services. This raises concerns over the winter crop that is dependent on such facilities.  Such reservoirs have just 48 per cent of water storage.

Of the five regions—reservoirs are monitored by the Central Water Commission in Northern, Eastern, Western, Central, and Southern regions—only the reservoirs in the Northern region that includes Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan have positive water levels when compared to the last 10 years’ average.

The Eastern, Western and the Southern regions’ reservoirs have the worst water levels. These regions also include the states that have declared more than 120 districts drought-affected way back in October-November last year.

What adds to the worsening situation is the lack of rain in January that helps farmers in the winter crops by ensuring right moisture level. Of the 681 districts in the country, in January (1-16) 515 districts had no rainfall at all. In states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Bihar almost no district got any rain.

According to the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, area coverage under the Rabi crops has come down by 4.75 per cent (2.9 million hectares) as of January 11, compared with 2017-18.

Of the five categories of winter crops—wheat, rice, pulses, coarse cereals, oilseeds—all have reported a drop in acreage compared with last year. Areas under rice have reported the sharpest dip: a decline of 20.66 per cent. While pulses have reported 5.73 per cent dip.

Among the states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have reported a higher loss in acreage for the winter crops reflecting the water scarcity. For example, Maharashtra has reported the highest dip in areas under wheat, pulses and coarse cereals.  

According to the latest Water Security Indicator Model, severe-to-exceptional surplus water is predicted for regions including Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and Mizoram. Moderate-to-severe deficits were forecast for Bihar.

Down To Earth reported, from February through April, that deficits in India are expected to moderate overall and some regions in the country’s eastern will normalise.

“However, intense deficits will persist throughout Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and along the Tungabhadra River through Karnataka. The forecast for the final months—May through July (2019)— indicates primarily moderate deficits in India and pockets throughout the region. Some surpluses are expected in Jammu and Kashmir, northern Pakistan, along the Gandaki River in central Nepal, and pockets of Tamil Nadu,” said the report.

According to latest reports from states, there are some 300 districts have been officially declared drought-hit. 

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