Millennium Post

Precious drops

Water scarcity has rocked the nation and sprung the government machinery into action. Vivid discussions across political and administrative domains are echoing as statistics paint a dismal picture. In a discussion on water crisis in Rajya Sabha, CPM's T K Rangarajan pronounced that "gold is cheaper than water" in Chennai. While Chennai strives to recharge its water reservoirs anticipating the already delayed monsoon, other metropolises are not too far from meeting a similar fate. NITI Aayogy's report last year titled Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) cites how as many as 21 major Indian cities are edging towards zero groundwater levels by 2020. This will have a direct impact on water accessibility for more than 100 million people. As Chennai reels under the unprecedented water crisis, the onus of systematic changes rests on the Central dispensation. Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Shekhawat asserted the provision of piped drinking water to every household by 2024. As ambitious as this objective remains, especially these times of impending crisis, drinking water is not sole issue, it comprises hardly five per cent of the total availability with 15 per cent used for industrial purposes and the remaining 80 per cent for agricultural use. Groundwater has been stressed to alarming levels more for satisfying agricultural demand rather than drinking purposes. That definitely gives the dispensation a headway as to where exactly innovation is required—agricultural sector. But while the government is comprehensively discussing water crisis to derive measures, it must pay heed to recharge the ecology—aquifers. Switching to water conservation policies is definitely a step in the right direction but that alone will not suffice. Water reuse, efficient irrigation as well as a shift from water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and rice will help in maintaining desired groundwater levels while ameliorating the overexploited ones. Many sources indicate that water requirement will be double the current supply by 2030 and at the current pace, India will not be able to sustain the leap. In 2014-15, Indian farms consumed 10 trillion litres of water to produce 3.7 million tonnes of basmati rice for export which brings attention to how India utilises a tremendous amount of groundwater to produce water-intensive crops such as wheat and rice in Punjab and Haryana which boast of drought-resilient farmlands largely due to extensive investments in irrigation and electricity infrastructure as well as government subsidies on water and power consumption. How can we afford to export groundwater when the water crisis is more real than Climate Change, considering how the latter is widely underacknowledged despite being real. A likely suggestion based on the joint study conducted by the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) urges a shift in crop pattern for maximising crop productivity per unit of irrigation in addition to land productivity. For instance, shifting rice cultivation towards central and eastern states where economical use of groundwater in the absence of government subsidies is favourable for crop productivity. So the north-western state of Punjab and Haryana could go for water-efficient crops such as maize and pulses. Farmers in the north-western region are aware of depleting groundwater levels but a shift to water-efficient crops would require state-assured procurement policy similar to that for rice and wheat in order to cover the market risk. Incentivising water-efficient crop production is another state-initiated method to promote crop shift pattern. Amidst policy-level changes and revising commitments in agricultural use of water comes the traditional water-conservation method of rainwater harvesting. Chennai had initiated a drive to generalise rainwater harvesting during Jayalalithaa's era in the early 2000s but that did not work out well with implementation and today we have a haphazardly put together rainwater harvesting network. Learning from the rainwater harvesting failure that Chennai faced, the pan-India initiative to implement rainwater harvesting network must ensure sustainability otherwise it would become a debacle.

As the Jan Shakti Abhiyan kicks in from July 1 for areas receiving rainfall due to the south-west monsoon, paying attention to peculiarities regarding water conservation and rainwater harvesting would ensure minimal gaps in the ministry's bid to ameliorate the situation of the 255 identified water-starved districts. The pan-Indian team of concerned officials will have to combat excessive groundwater pumping, inefficient as well as wasteful water management and rain-deficit situation. There are hefty policy changes which need to be implemented alongside increased awareness in order to reach to people with the crisis update and ensure compliance in government initiated remedial measures. Water is the most essential resource and with the crisis, it is best to make a concerted effort in stabilising groundwater levels besides adopting sustainable practices.

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