From Plate to Plough: Connecting the drops

An enduring solution to India’s water woes lies in buffer stocking during monsoon months and release during lean seasons.

Written by Ashok Gulati , Bharat Sharma | Published:September 12, 2016 2:30 am
india droughts, india floods, bihar floods, flood damage, crop damage in floods, india floods, india news The key question is: How best can the problem of floods and droughts be addressed so that the losses are minimal and the system becomes more resilient? (C R Sasikumar)

Till June end this year, the government was worried about how to cope with back-to-back drought. But by the second half of August, the scene changed dramatically and several states were in the spate of floods. In Bihar, more than five million people have been affected and 6,50,000 displaced from their homes; in Assam 1.8 million people were affected with 2,40,000 displaced, and in UP 8,70,000 were affected. Floods also occurred in areas that were earlier not considered flood prone, such as the cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and the southern districts of arid Rajasthan. Even in Madhya Pradesh, 300,000 people were affected.

There is a growing concern that floods cause large-scale damage to crops, cattle, property and even human lives, and this trend is increasing over time. As per the estimates of the Central Water Commission (CWC), the cumulative damage from floods during the period 2000-2013, converted at 2014-15 constant prices, stood at a whopping Rs 2,63,848 crore. While in 2003 alone the damage was Rs 23,045 crore, the same escalated to Rs 46,802 crore in the 2009 floods (both at 2014-15 prices).

Most of the floods in India occur in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak basin as the distance between the world’s highest peaks in the Himalayas and the outlet at the Bay of Bengal is short and the contributing tributaries like Kosi, Gandak, Ghaghara and others disgorge large volumes and devastate the fertile plains of eastern Uttar Pradesh, northern Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. For these states, flood control is a developmental as well as humanitarian issue. The options are limited but need to be given a fair trial with adequate resources.

The key question, therefore, is: How best can the problem of floods and droughts be addressed so that the losses are minimal and the system becomes more resilient? In this context, one important point that needs to be noted is that India gets “too much” water (about 75 per cent of annual precipitation) during 120 days of the monsoon season (June to September) and “too little” for the remaining 245 days. This skewed water availability has to be managed and regulated for its consumption throughout the year. No wonder, leaders of independent India quickly embarked upon a number of large multi-purpose river valley projects such as Bhakra-Nangal, Hirakud, Nagarjuna Sagar, Rihand etc to store water for smoothening its supplies throughout the year. But, unfortunately, they lost interest in further developing such river valley projects very soon, partly due to changed priorities towards heavy industrialisation since 1956 and partly due to widespread inefficiencies and corruption in large irrigation projects. Later on, the issue of resettlement of displaced people became a rallying point for many NGOs to oppose these projects, leading to drying up of funds from the World Bank.

As a result, in 2015, India’s per capita water storage capacity through dams was abysmally low at 194 cubic metre (m3). In contrast, China’s per capita water storage capacity was three times that of India at 590 m3 (2013). Amongst other BRICS countries, Brazil was at 3,370 m3, Russia at 5,587 m3 , and South Africa at 569 m3, all in 2015 (FAO). Further, USA was at 2,254 m3 and Australia at 3,395 m3 (see chart). So, it is amply clear that India is way below in storing water when it falls in abundance, resulting in floods during monsoons and deficiency of water later. This also lowers cropping intensity (less than 140), meaning less than 40 per cent of India’s farm land is double cropped.

So, what are the policy options now? Nitish Kumar, in his meeting with the prime minister on the flood situation in Bihar, asked for de-silting of the Ganga and removal of the Farakka barrage, as it was causing accumulation of silt flowing from the Himalayan rivers and making the flood situation in Bihar grim. He had a point, but this seems to be only a partial and temporary solution.

The more lasting solution lies in a “buffer stocking of water” during the monsoon months and releasing it during lean seasons. This “buffer stocking of water” can be done over ground through dams, or underground, by recharging aquifers. Recent studies by the World Bank indicate that about 18 per cent of the peak flood volumes can be safely stored in the existing and planned dams along the Indo-Nepal border. A holistic approach at basin level, encompassing credible resettlement policy for displaced people, and supported by pro-active hydro-diplomacy amongst riparian countries can render rich dividends.

The time is also ripe to crank up the Ganges Water Machine through Underground Taming of Floods for Irrigation (UTFI), where surplus flood water is directed to aquifers through well-designed structures placed in ponds and other depression areas and evacuated through large-scale pump irrigation during the dry season. Flood control strategies also need to include the use of smart geo-spatial techniques for flood forecasting and construction and strengthening of embankments at critical locations. The Modi government is also talking of inter-linking of rivers. A beginning can be made at intra-state level, particularly within Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

Further, on the demand side, there is a need to promote flood-tolerant “scuba rice”, sugarcane, jute and high-value aquatic crops in this region; access to affordable crop, livestock and asset insurance products; and education and preparedness to live with the floods. Finally, with increasing urbanisation, agriculture will have to shed its current share of 78 per cent in water to, say, 70 per cent by 2030. This calls for focus on “more crop per drop”. Research indicates that rainfed areas covering pulses, oilseeds and nutri-cereals can give high productivity if they get even two irrigations.

Cascading check dams, drips and sprinkler irrigation can help. PM’s Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) talks of all this, but with paltry resources (Rs 5,767 crore), one wonders how many years one will have to wait to see the objectives of “har khet ko paani” being met.