This drought is man made

In another 15 years, the food bowl of the country — Punjab and Haryana — will go dry. There will be no underground water to be pumped for irrigation. A 2007 report of the Central Ground Water Board had projected that groundwater availability for irrigation in 2025 would be negative. Punjab, for instance, is over-exploiting underground water at the rate of 45 per cent more withdrawals annually than the natural recharge.

Another report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), based on data supplied by twin satellites GRACE, has pointed to the alarming depletion of groundwater in the Indo-Gangetic plain extending from eastern Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh to Bangladesh. Groundwater withdrawal in this densely populated region is 70 per cent more this decade than in the 1990s.

Accordingly, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are consuming 109 cubic kms of water. With paddy being cultivated in 38,061 sq km, the north-western part of the country is losing groundwater at the rate of a foot each year. But don’t blame agriculture alone for the impending water crisis; growing cities and rapid industrialisation are becoming major water-guzzlers.

Capital to go dry

Delhi’s water requirement is 4,275 million litres against the availability of 3,375 litres. To meet its ever-growing need, water is being drawn from Ganga, Yamuna, Uttarakhand, Bhakra Nangal Dam and Renuka Sagar dam in Himachal Pradesh. And yet the projections are that the capital would run out of groundwater by 2015.
Punjab is now sketching a master plan for 44 new townships. These towns will obviously need water, which will be met from drawing on water resources from neighbouring regions. Such process of urbanisation is happening across the country and the pressure for water therefore is going to deepen. Agriculture will be the biggest casualty.

So don’t blame the rain gods alone. Most of the reasons for the prevailing drought are man-made. The rate at which we are mining underground water reserves, a small delay in monsoon rains wreaks havoc. With or without drought, groundwater has sunk so low that it adds to human miseries with the situation worsening with every year.
The fact is we have not learnt any lessons. In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, it has been repeatedly said that of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones. The level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh, the Central Ground Water board has identified 22 overexploited and critical blocks, of which 19 are located in western UP. With the water table plummeting, the impact of any dry spell magnifies and turns into a drought.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to redesign agriculture, to ensure that the cropping pattern is based on the availability of water. It makes no sense to grow water-guzzling crops in dry lands. Such crops would only turn land barren. I see no justification in growing water-intensive sugarcane in the semi-arid tracts of Rajasthan. Or, for that matter, cultivate mentha, which requires 1.25 lakh litres of water for every kilo of oil, in the dry lands of Bundelkhand.

Worse, the government is now busy pushing GM crops. First it promoted BT cotton, whose water requirement is 10-20 per cent more than even the hybrids.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is making the right statements, but acting otherwise. In his Independence Day speech the prime minister said that control over the natural resources should be with the people. But surprisingly, the government is actually pushing for private control over natural resources, including land.

Water is being brought under private control. But what is more worrying is the way industry (including real estate) is being allowed to over-exploit groundwater. What is the use of saving water in the parched and arid lands of Rajasthan if we allow the marble industry, producing almost 91 per cent of the total marble in India, to guzzle every hour around 2.75 million litres of water.

Recurring dry spells have turned into sever droughts because of the economic policies the country has invested in. Unless we redesign the economic policies in tune with three essential parameters of sustainable growth — soil health, water availability and the resulting climate change — the spectre of drought will continue to haunt the nation more frequently and more severely. I do not think the Union government, or for that matter the state governments, are even remotely concerned. We will, therefore, have to live with recurring droughts.

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