[Commentary] India needs to look at its heritage and replicable local efforts for water conservation

  • India is seriously water-stressed, and is poised on the brink of an acute water crisis.
  • One needs only to look to our traditions to draw on the viable and sustainable water conservation practices that had evolved in those times, writes Sarosh Bana in a commentary.
  • Innovative localised efforts across the country have transformed societies by fulfilling their requirements and can be replicated.

Aapo janayathaa ça naha
[Sanskrit for: O Water, you are the source of our lives]
— from Apah Suktam (Rig Veda 10.9)

Water, the life resource, appears to be draining out of the very being of India.

A crisis of concurrent flood and drought assumes lethal extremities as the country’s capricious weather patterns define an uneven spread of rain. A staggering 15,000 farmers are estimated to take their own lives each year, statistics borne out of agrarian distress that is deepening across the land. Widespread drought has plagued the country every year since 2015, except in 2017 when the rains had been normal, though sporadic.

Thus, even as an overall bountiful monsoon this year had the most belated recorded withdrawal – on October 10, against the usual date of September 1 – the India Meteorological Department (IMD) reported that five of the country’s 36 meteorological subdivisions, accounting for 15 percent of the 3.29 million sq km land area, had received deficient rainfall. This was just short of the IMD’s own recognition that, on an average, 20 percent of the country receives scant rain during the monsoons.

Indeed, data released on October 24 by the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), a drought monitoring platform, indicate that “at least 20.8 percent of India is under different degrees of drought”, of which 6.3 percent is witnessing severe, extreme or exceptionally dry conditions.

Data released on October 24 by the Drought Early Warning System (DEWS), a drought monitoring platform, indicate that at least 20.8 percent of India is under different degrees of drought.

While the situation in the parts that received poor rains may worsen with no more rainfall expected, even many regions that recorded high precipitation may soon run dry, as much of the rainwater runs off into the seas without percolating deep to recharge groundwater aquifers. This is alarming because groundwater, which meets 40 percent of the nation’s overall water requirement and 62 percent of irrigation’s, is depleting at an unsustainable rate. India is the largest groundwater extractor, accounting for 12 percent of global extraction.

Read more: Is the Indian monsoon turning into a string of extreme weather events?

India’s $2.6 trillion economy is primarily agrarian, its farm sector accounting for just over 17 percent of the GDP and employing over 60 percent of the population, apart from contributing about 12 percent of exports. The August 2019 Composite Water Management Index, released by the government’s policy think tank, NITI Aayog, notes that this outbound trade is causing an enormous “virtual water loss” through the export of water-intensive crops. For instance, India exported more than 10 trillion litres of embedded or virtual water through the export of 37 lakh tonnes of Basmati rice in 2014-15 alone, which could have been used to grow much larger quantities of other crops like wheat or millet that require far less water.

Water is the lifeline more in India than anywhere else, because its deficit can ravage agriculture, which strives to feed the burgeoning population, over 15 percent of whom are undernourished. With less than 60 percent of the country’s arable land irrigated and the remainder rain-fed, failed and erratic monsoons can impair both these categories of farming and constrict economic growth.

India is seriously water-stressed, and is poised on the brink of an acute water crisis. It has 17 percent of the world population and has access to only four percent of global freshwater. One in two persons has no access to safe drinking water, with India ranking 120th of 122 countries in a global water quality index, with nearly 70 percent of its water contaminated. Even in its cities, piped water supply caters to a little over 60 percent of the population and sewerage networks to less than 50 percent, when urban local bodies are mandated to provide 100 percent water and sewer coverage.

Read more: Green ministry proposes to regulate agriculture sector in face of water crisis

Little has been done to conserve water for off-season use beyond the building of rigidly centralised capacities by way of 4,525 large and small dams.

India’s water conservation heritage ignored

India’s crisis is as manmade as it is natural. Though Right to Water and Sanitation is considered fundamental to Right to Life as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, governments have threatened our food security by plundering over the years from funding for irrigation, flood control and drought proofing, and by disregarding workable community-level water conservation and watershed management practices.

While NITI Aayog affirms that “water has been recognised as being vital to India’s economic growth, wellbeing of its people, and the sustainability of ecosystems”, localised workable solutions have been devised more by community initiative than by government. One needs only to look to our traditions to draw on the viable and sustainable water conservation practices that had evolved in those times. A system to channel water to various settlements had been developed as far back as in 3300-1700 BC by the Indus Valley Civilisation. Irrigation, or the managed application of water to crops, flourished during the Vedic period (1500-500 BC) and the large numbers of tanks found in the Deccan have endured through the ages, while the Cauvery delta canals date back to the 2nd century and the Yamuna canals to about the fourth.

Disregarding this heritage, India is turning to Israel for solving its water problems, as in the Rs. 16,000 crore Water Supply Master Plan for the parched Marathwada region of Maharashtra. The project was awarded by the Maharashtra government to Israel’s Mekorot Development & Enterprise Ltd in early 2018. Mekorot has been contracted to prepare a nine-phase water grid that entails an integrated piped network that will perennially supply water for drinking, industrial and agricultural purposes to the 20 million people inhabiting this 63,040 sq km region. This scheme is to be executed through “advanced management of the region’s water resources and advanced technology for increased efficiency in water use”.

However, as the major dams moulder under their own excesses, the Indian government envisions a fanciful scheme to interlink rivers across the country. An $80.5 billion plan visualises the linking of Himalayan rivers with the Peninsular rivers for inter-basin transfer of water. The outlay does not include the costs of land submergence and relief and rehabilitation (R&R) packages. Given the lay of the land and the way the links are envisaged, the proposed inter-basin transfers might totally bypass the core drylands of Central and Western India that are located at over 300 metres above mean sea level. Linking rivers may also affect the natural supply of nutrients through curtailed flooding of downstream areas. All major Peninsular rivers along the eastern coast have extensive deltas and damming them for linking will hinder sediment build-up and cause coastal and delta erosion, destroying the fragile coastal ecosystems.

The authorities would do better to draw from India’s age-old community-level methods of water husbandry that combined simple scientific concepts with local knowledge to provide diverse mechanisms to catch, store and use water according to the topography of the region, the climate, and the types of needs.

This approach transcends any “back to nature” precept, even as it establishes sustainable means that likewise benefit people and the environment. Micro-watershed development and in-situ rainwater harvesting are they key, for if the soil is nurtured, it can hold up to 40 percent of the rain that falls. A ‘Sustain India’ mission is imperative to enhance water literacy and encourage the cultivation of grasslands and fruit-bearing trees wherever possible. This requires effective utilisation, rejuvenation and management of degraded lands and wastelands by public and private investments, there being an estimated 47 million hectares of wastelands available in the country. Such reclamation of degraded lands for sustainable intensification of agriculture and horticulture will help enlarge the arable areas in which crop yields can be increased without adverse ecological impact and without reducing forest cover.

Water is the lifeline more in India than anywhere else, because its deficit can ravage agriculture. Photo by TeshTesh/Wikimedia Commons.

Drip irrigation, wherever viable, can conserve more or less half the water for horticulture crops and vegetables. Similar savings of water can be achieved by sprinkler irrigation in groundnut and cotton cultivation. Farmer-friendly ways of delivering micro-irrigation subsidy and changing subsidy norms can foster more competition among suppliers. Solar-powered irrigation is besides more affordable, with solar pumps leading to increased yields and cropping intensity, and allowing paddy to be sown even in drought years. Greater public policy focus on innovative financing mechanisms, rather than high subsidies, has been seen to help promote adoption of solar technology in agriculture.

Replicate success stories like Hiware Bazar

There are any number of replicable examples across India. For instance, that of Hiware Bazar village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district that started scripting its destiny since the ‘90s when Popatrao Pawar took over as the village sarpanch. Pawar realised he could solve both the problems of water scarcity and joblessness that his village faced by having the gram sabha start out with a van kshetra (local plantation) initiative that reimbursed farmers through the state’s employment guarantee scheme for planting saplings of lemon, custard apple and tamarind. Spurred by the success, the gram sabha then marshalled the villagers in building trenches and earthern bunds, which transformed over 1,000 hectares into a watershed of sorts. All initiatives were funded through various government schemes.

In 1994, the village banned private borewells, thereby helping conserve the groundwater table and, three years later, stopped cultivating water-intensive crops like sugarcane and bananas. This enabled the transition from rain-fed crops such as bajra and jowar to cash crops like onions and potatoes. When other villages are stricken by drought, Hiware Bazar boasts of prodigious yields of onions, potatoes and milk alongside percolation tanks brimming with water.

Such innovative localised efforts have transformed societies by fulfilling their requirements for what the Rig Veda says is the Source of our Lives.


[Sarosh Bana is an environmental journalist and founder of the NGO Forum for People-Oriented Water Utilisation. He is currently the Executive Editor of the Business India fortnightly.]


Banner image: Representative image of woman heading to fill water. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

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