Climate change, coupled with the El Nino weather event, has resulted in an unusually harsh summer with many parts of the country reeling under heat wave conditions. Vast tracts of Maharashtra, Telangana and Bundelkhand (UP) are facing drought. Many of the minor water tanks have dried up and storage in the 91 nationally monitored reservoirs has gone down from 158 billion cubic metres (BCM) to about 36 BCM.
Water scarcity is so acute in places like Latur, which is facing a second successive drought, that trains have been deployed to carry water from the Krishna river to that district to provide drinking water. Apprehending that people could riot over water, Maharashtra has even issued prohibitory orders in some villages.
The extremely hot weather has led to a rise in the demand for water. It has revived disputes between water-endowed states and their neighbouring deficit ones. The Punjab assembly even passed a resolution invalidating earlier agreements regarding the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, stating that it has no water to spare. The matter is now in the Supreme Court.
Water has become a political issue for want of proper development and management of the resource. While millions suffer from droughts and floods, waters in the country’s many rivers flow unutilised, and are discharged into the sea every year.
The authorities have attributed the present water crisis to climate change. This is a cover-up for their past failures in taking steps for storing and equitably distributing water. Though the signs of distress were evident for long, the authorities did not take necessary action to pre-empt the situation.
Many opportunities to harness the highly skewed, seasonal and spatial distribution of monsoon flows, which occur in a four-month period from June to September annually, have been lost. Since these few months account for most of the rainfall and consequent fresh water availability, the need for holding rain water in reservoirs, for subsequently releasing it for use over the year, is a necessity nobody can afford to overlook. However, petty hydro-politics clouding long-term vision and opposition from self-appointed environmentalists and activists have led to adhocism in policies thereby creating the present water crisis.
Weather experts have predicted a good monsoon this year. But we are not prepared for that. As of now, only a little more than 10 per cent of the annually available monsoon flows can be stored. People will have to face the ravages of climate change unless authorities take immediate steps to arrest the deteriorating conditions in the development and management of water resources.
As climate change will continue to affect weather conditions and create water shortages and excesses, the solution lies in expediting the Indian River Linking (IRL) project that was proposed three decades ago. The proposals envisaged linking the rivers to enable inter-basin water transfer from surplus to deficit basins, so as to even out the variations of water availability and for optimum utilisation of the resource. However, in spite of many expert committees recommending the project and a taskforce preparing a timeframe for its execution, not a single link has been constructed so far due to opposition from water-endowed states. Since water has become an emotive issue, none of the water-rich states would like to accept that they have surplus water to spare. By offering to compensate the economic cost of the water surplused, these states could be persuaded to share the surplus. This would pave the way for early implementation of the project.
The IRL project is a great challenge and an opportunity to address the water issues arising out of climate change. The transfer of water by trains is an immediate solution — the first water train was deployed in the 1980s to feed the parched city of Rajkot (Saurashtra). However, with the canals from the Sardar Sarovar dam bringing the Narmada waters there, Rajkot did not have to look for a water train this season.
The long-term solution to water scarcity lies in making the IRL project work by building a network of dams and canals across the length and breadth of the country.