The myth of drought

For every administrator, there is a lesson to be learnt from Gujarat's drought. Specially since this dry spell has been brought about more due to water mismanagement than an erratic monsoon

Published: Monday 15 May 2000

 Scrambling for water in Gujar even as this story goes to the press, Gujarat may be witnessing many more clashes over water. From as early as December 1999, when three farmers lost their lives in the riots over water in Jamnagar district, the dread of the dry summer months ahead was felt across the state. "Water availability should have been checked in winter and the municipal corporation should have started economising on water supply then. Nobody would have complained in winter and we would have been better off now," conceded a senior municipal corporation official S Jagdishen, who has been given charge of water supply in Rajkot district.

But the state had missed out on those early opportunities to regulate and control water supply. So much so, that even the industries in the state were given a free hand to extract groundwater for their production purposes. For instance, before the water crisis had escalated to the present levels, the Tata Chemicals factory in Mithapur of Jamnagar district was extracting 14 million litre of water every day from the ground and two other lakes in the area.

Worse, the state government, seemingly unaware of the water related woes of the local people, allowed the Tata Chemicals cement plant to increase production from 1,000 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes per day. Amazed by the government's move, D S Ker, president of the Gram Vikar Trust, a non-government organisation ( ngo ) in Dwarka, was shocked: "How can the government allow expansion of such a water-intensive plant, which will deplete whatever groundwater resources are left in the region?"

This and several such desperate measures to cater to commercial and political interests seems to have taken a heavy toll on the state's groundwater resources. The government has already conceded that all major towns of Saurashtra, Kachchh and north Gujarat and more than one-third of the state's 18,000 villages are struggling for a daily supply of drinking water. Officialssay, that with more than 100 ofthe state's 140 dams having gone dry and the remaining containing water that will last for not more than a coupleof weeks, running trains carrying water tankers to these regions -- as was done in the 1980s -- seems to be the only solution.

Meanwhile, the administration struggles to control tempers frayed by shortage of water while local people rue the government's apathy for bringing matters to such a stage. "Those responsible for water supply overdrew water, distributed it like nobody's business and we are paying the price now," says Arvind Acharya, a social worker. He goes on to add: "We are sitting on a volcano that may erupt at any time." It has, in fact, erupted.

Sharing water A case in point is Rajkot. The government is transporting groundwater collected from Wankaner to quench the thirst of Rajkot. The subsequent fallout of such a measure could spell more trouble as an unrest of sort has begun to brew in Wankaner, where residents may not have enough water to see them throughthe scorching summer months. When the monsoons failed, a 100-kilometre (km)-long pipeline was laid to supply water to Rajkot from Wankaner at a cost of about Rs 75 crore. The project was implemented in an amazingly short period of three-four months.

It was decided that 45 million litres of water would be extracted daily from 125 borewells dug in the Jamboodia Reserve Forest in the Halbar-Wankaner area. "In the four months that groundwater is being extracted from the reserve, the water table in Wankaner has gone down by eight metres," says Digvijay Singh, former Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly ( mla ) from Wankaner. Singh has been severely protesting the transport of water from Wankaner for Rajkot.

Jagdishen, however, maintains that "there has been no significant drop in groundwater levels (in Wankaner)." Water levels in Wankaner are being monitored by the state groundwater board, he says. Throughout Saurashtra, the Halbar-Wankaner area is the only region with a water reserve. Authorities claim that this water will last for two to three years, but there is no way of verifying this claim.

Shortsighted measures
In Rajkot, and in all other cities of Gujarat, water tankers are doing a flourishing business. The Municipal Corporation supplies 2.5 million litre of water by tankers daily. Areas not receiving tap water are given priority by the tankers. "The tap water is erratic. Sometimes we get water after a week to 10 days," says Savitaben, resident of Dhebar Colony in Rajkot.

But the question that remains is from where is Gujarat getting all those filled-to-the-brim water tankers? And how much water is being extracted from which areas? Jagdishen says that tankers fill water from borewells around Rajkot. But no estimates are available for private tankers supplying water to the relatively well-off, but they seem to be doing good business in Rajkot. Shallow borewells have also been dug in the Aji and Nyari river basins. Deep tubewells of about 450-600 metres are dug within a radius of 10 km from Rajkot. These borewells are daily supplying about10-16.5 million litre of water, mainly transported with the help of tankers.

It is also alleged that the supply is obstructed by interference from local political leaders. Households which can afford a tubewell are sharing drinking water with their neighbours. In many localities as many as 300 households depend on a single tubewell. Often one has to dig as deep as 90 metres in order to find water. Appeals to the municipal corporation to dig more tubewells in areas where residents believe water could be found have fallen on deaf ears. "They (the municipal corporation) dig tubewells near the houses of those who are politically well-connected and often enough in such cases water is not struck in those areas," says Bapabhai Jadav of Dhebar colony in Rajkot. "Many of us are coming together to financially support a tubewell for the community. But we have run out of luck as groundwater was not found. We are all waiting for the rains," says Nandkuvarba Rathode, a teacher in Rajkot.

As for meeting future water demands in the state, there seems to be only one recourse left for most districts. "For Saurashtra, water will have to be brought in from outside in the long run since the remaining groundwater will also not last," feels Jagdishen. He adds that before water recharge is taken up on a large scale, geological conditions of the districts need to be taken into account.

At present, however, the hardships of the people in the water-scarce regions of the state have given rise to spectres of largescale migration in the near future.

With inputs from Manish Tiwari.

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