Price of neglect

Price of neglect

Karnataka is no stranger to drought with 80% of its geographical area prone to it. As the noose of this ‘worst drought in 40 years’ tightens its vice-like grip on 137 taluks in 20 districts, the State anxiously waits for the monsoon of 2016 to arrive, which is predicted to be above normal. Meanwhile, there is distress migration from many taluks. A refinery is gradually shutting its operations near Mangaluru as River Nethravathi runs out of water.

The Almatti Dam has reached dead storage levels and the generation of power has been significantly affected in the Raichur Thermal Power Station. The oldest hydropower station in India at Shivanasamudram has stopped generation of electricity since the river no longer flows with adequate water.

Foreseeing the problems in the water world of the State, the State government has been implementing many pro-water schemes. But while these programmes started off in a big way, somewhere along the line, they fizzled out and are now doing nothing for the cause.

Water management
As early as in 1988, Karnataka was the first state to establish a Drought Monitoring Cell. This institution was renamed as the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC) in 2007. The KSNDMC has established telemetric rain gauge or weather stations in over 5,000 gram panchayats and hoblis in Karnataka, providing real-time data. This is the widest and best network for any state in India and has therefore enabled high ability to define a meteorological drought. This model of rain gauges and weather stations is worthy of replication in all other states. But the question — did Karnataka do enough with this data and information — remains.

The State has 36,672 tanks or had them. A massive programme was launched with the assistance of the World Bank called Jal Samvardhan Yojana Sangha. The programme looked to desilt, strengthen, rehabilitate and then hand over the tanks to local tank users groups to maintain and use. While a total of 5,000 tanks were to be rehabilitated, it is unclear as to how many were and finally the programme seems to have fizzled out.

This scheme should be looked at again and cover all the tanks in the State. This will be a permanent drought proofing measure for the villages. Also, tanks once rehabilitated must be monitored regularly. Also, proper assistance must be rendered to keep the functionality of the tanks going.

Karnataka was one of the first states to pick up the watershed approach after the legendary work at Sukhomajri in Haryana. Mittemari and Kabbalnala are the first villages where the watershed approach was tried. Again, the State seems to have neglected this area and hasn’t taken up any new areas under this particular approach.

With over 90% of the population dependent on groundwater for drinking purposes and over 65% of the area dependent on groundwater for irrigation, Karnataka is an aquifer-dependent State. Sub-aquifer mapping, drawing up a water balance and reducing demand within recharge limits are yet to happen at any level in the State. The State reports that 26,631 borewell recharge structures were put up in the year 2015-16. There is no mention on their performance and how much they helped recharge.

It is time that sub-aquifer mapping is taken up at a scale involving communities and based on the sustainability of the aquifer and the rainfall in a particular year, crop planting is taken up. Unless each sub-aquifer is managed in a sustainable fashion, no amount of rainfall will be enough to fill it.

River rejuvenation
In Andhra Pradesh, an innovative groundwater pooling system is being tried. Here farmers share borewell water with those who do not have borewells in a pooled fashion. Depending on the rainfall in the year and the recharge that has occurred, the crop plan is made. Producer groups are created and the benefits of wholesale purchase of seeds, fertilisers and marketing utilised. The State could benefit a lot from this experiment.

Mulbagal taluk in Kolar district was one of the 12 taluks selected at an all India level and a water security plan was developed and implemented with the assistance of the central government. The overall objective was to ensure that water and sanitation is taken up in a sustainable fashion. The lessons from the implementation should have been transferred to all the drought-prone taluks. But this does not appear to have happened at all.

Sporadic efforts on river rejuvenation have happened in the State. The Cauvery Neeravari Nigam took up some works in the Arkavathy river basin by desilting tanks, opening up feeder channels and making sure some water reached the tanks. It is not clear whether the works were followed up to correct errors if any and make sure that systems were functioning well.

The State reports that 1,932 river rejuvenation works as having been taken up. It is not clear what kind of works these are but in the absence of a river basin institution and the requisite expertise, it is unlikely that these efforts will bear fruit. For example, if groundwater is overexploited in a catchment, it is unlikely that the rivers will flow. Natural forests, especially in the Sahyadris, are crucial to most of our rivers and there is no effort to protect and make sure that these natural forests are maintained.

Farm works
Structures such as farm ponds can harvest rainwater and provide one or two protective irrigation to crops. Yet their numbers are very few. 64,000 farm ponds were constructed in 2015-16 while the area under drought (and suffering a crop loss) is 22.33 lakh hectares. Normally, a farm pond of dimension 10m x 10m x 3m is recommended for every hectare. Even the farm ponds constructed do not seem to be performing well. Most of them aren’t correctly connected to their catchments, the silt traps are not functioning, pond lining material is not correctly placed and so on. Most soils in Karnataka lack organic carbon. Building up humus and mulching are keys to ensure soil moisture retention and prevent soil erosion.

Rainwater harvesting too can provide drinking water for many households as is being shown in the programme called Sachetana being implemented by the BAIF Institute for Rural Development, Karnataka (BIRD-K) in the district of Tumakuru. Here a rainwater harvesting tank of 5,000 to 8,000 litres captures filtered rainwater from rooftops and provides fluoride-free drinking and cooking water for the family throughout the year. This programme can easily be implemented, especially in the villages that totally depend on tankers for water supply during summer.

The preparation for overcoming drought should start before the onset of the monsoon and should be a peoples’ movement. The bounties of the rain have to be held within the soil, the tanks, rivers and groundwater. Water then has to be used wisely and within sustainable limits. It is time this became a mission and the responsibility of an institution to implement drought proofing on the ground.

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