More precious than gold


It is said that future wars will be fought over water or rather, over its scarcity. This year, same as last two years, saw a shocking series of farmer suicides in states like Maharashtra, Telangana and Jharkhand over crop failure, owing to insufficient rains and inadequate irrigation. Unless we act fast and start saving rain water and recharging our groundwater, we are in for very tough times, warns Dr. M.A. Haque.

“Water is not free, as we usually think. It will be a huge problem that could lead us to another war.”
–Pope Francis

For the last many years, Indian farmers have been facing an array of problems including uncertain monsoon and deficient rains. Certain regions in Maharashtra, UP (Uttar Pradesh), MP (Madhya Pradesh), Rajasthan etc., have faced regular rain deficiencies, while others have faced intermittent deficiencies leading to crop failures. Small farmers have been the worst affected. Many of them migrated to urban centres in search of some income or to become daily wage earners. But the worst consequence was that many of them committed suicide. Maharashtra has been the worst affected. Over 10,000 farmers committed suicide between 2011 and 2013. During the first three months of 2015, the Marathwada region alone had reported over 200 suicides. In April 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledged that farmer suicides during the past three years stood at 3,313. An NGO (Non-Government Organisation) estimated that from May 2014 to May 2015, 1,306 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra alone. In addition, there were substantial numbers of suicides in other states including Telangana, Jharkhand etc., triggered by crop damage and failures. One important reason was non-availability of water for irrigation.

Indian monsoon prevails for about four months from June to September. On an average, about 75% of precipitation falls during those few weeks. Much before that, farmers start looking towards the sky and the Meteorology Department starts releasing bulletins. In recent years, the Indian Meteorology Department’s predictions have improved through use of advanced techniques and equipments. That helps but in only a limited manner. With a weak monsoon, prior information does not really help. For irrigation, farmers need water. With insufficient or late monsoon, the surface water bodies become empty due to overutilisation. Even the underground reservoir, which is considered immense, starts depleting. Under the circumstances, crop failure becomes inevitable, especially for smaller farmers.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop of use?
In schools it is taught that about 70% of the earth’s surface is water. There are oceans and seas full of water. That is why earth is also called the Blue Planet. But the quantity is not unlimited. It has been almost the same since very long. Water we consume today is probably the same which was on earth when the dinosaurs roamed. It only changes its form. At times it is liquid and at other times it may become snow, ice or vapour. While talking about water on earth, we generally ignore a very important point. Out of the total water on earth, about 97.5% is saline. Only about 2.5% is “fresh water” (not saline), which can be directly consumed by us and most of the land organisms. Fresh water does contain some salts. Their presence is essential for the health of the organisms consuming it. If we drink pure water, we may suffer from deficiency of certain elements which we get with water. That explains why good quality drinking water is commonly labeled as “Mineral Water”. Important issue is that most land organisms cannot utilise the sea water. Only marine organisms can live with saline water.

Even more important is that around 68.9% of fresh water is in glaciers and about 30.8% is groundwater. Only about 0.3% is in rivers, lakes, ponds, streams and a few other sources on which we generally depend for our requirements. These water bodies receive fresh water in the form of rain, mist, hail or snow, and they are replenished. Thus the water which can be readily utilised by us and other land organisms is very small. Even industrial activities need fresh water for certain operations. That is the reason that globally, fresh water sources are stressed. Almost 1/3rd of the earth’s population is not getting sufficient drinking water. By 2050, about 2/3rd of humanity will face water scarcity. Climate change will further aggravate the situation with uncertain rains, faster evaporation. People living in the developing nations are and will remain the worst sufferers. The Indian situation is quite alarming.

Indian agriculture and its water needs
Agriculture accounts for only about 17% of GDP. But the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD) says that about 83% of available water in the country is used for irrigation. Rest 17% meets the demand for domestic, industrial and other sectors. In Asia, India has the largest arable land, about 39% of Asia’s total. Only USA has more arable land than India. This is a boon, but also a matter of concern. Water consumption is immense. Important reason is that large quantities of precious water are wasted. Over-irrigation is commonly practiced by the farmers. Also, there are seepages and leakages. But agriculture cannot be ignored. For over 58% of the rural households, agriculture is the principal means of livelihood. In the coming years, India will have to boost agricultural production for the growing population. Consequently, the demand for water will also increase.

Indian irrigation system includes networks of canals from rivers; groundwater based systems; tanks and other water bodies. Groundwater is most important, about 39 million ha (hectares) of cultivated land is irrigated by groundwater and about 22 million ha by canals. Thus, about 2/3rd area remains monsoon-dependent and monsoon is quite uncertain. In the recent past, the uncertainty has increased. In the late 1990s India faced crippling drought, large areas suffered rain failure regularly. Several state governments took initiatives. AP (Andhra Pradesh) launched the Neeru Meeru; MP had the Ek Panch Ek Talaab; in Gujarat thousands of check dams were planned; Tamil Nadu started rainwater harvesting to ensure water availability. But the infrastructure created were either not completed or were poorly designed. Also, maintenance was lacking. Such initiatives could have drought-proofed the country. Under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) too, similar activities were planned. Also, the National Rainfed Area Authority was set up and the Watershed Management Programme was revamped. But inefficient implementation resulted in little achievement.

Precipitation and its utilisation
In our country, most of the rain (about 75%) occur in the few weeks during the monsoon (June through September). During the rest of the year, there is little precipitation. Average rainfall in the country is about 1170mm with wide variations, certain areas getting only 100mm, while at other places it is as high as 10,000mm. Total precipitation is about 4000 billion m³. Unfortunately, only 48% of rainfall ends up in the rivers. Due to lack of storage and crumbling infrastructure, only 18% remains utilisable. This is too little. With such uneven rainfall we should have concentrated towards better capture and storage infrastructure. But the reality is opposite. We are constantly destroying historical ponds, lakes, other wetlands, even rivers and streams. In the lust to obtain more land, water bodies are encroached upon and often completely filled. This is much more obvious in cities and metros. The reason is the high land cost. Land mafia, builders etc., are constantly searching for areas to encroach. Local officials collude for money. The modus operandi is to dump garbage, waste etc., to kill the water bodies. Then construction is undertaken. Recently, the Allahabad High Court has ordered demolition of three buildings in NOIDA built on encroached areas, including one pond. In Delhi, large numbers of historical ponds and lakes have vanished or are on the verge. Sometime back, 60 people died in a building collapse in Chennai. Later it was discovered that the building was built on Porur lake land. The area where the author lives, had several ponds till recently. Most of them are now gone. Similar examples are there in almost all urban areas. This apathy for water bodies adds to water scarcity. Water bodies provide water readily. Also, they recharge underground reservoirs and help in controlling floods.

The reality of groundwater
Groundwater is the major source of drinking water, also for agriculture and industries. It is estimated that the total static groundwater in India is about 10,812 bcm. The average groundwater recharge rate of India’s river basins is about 260m³/day. India has about 432 bcm groundwater which is replenished annually through rain and river drainage. Out of that, about 395 bcm is utilisable. About 82% is used for agricultural activities, and 18% remains for industries and household supply. With growing demand, groundwater is increasingly being pumped from lower levels and at a much faster pace than its replenishment. There are approximately 20 million wells in India whose owners do not have to pay for water. It is estimated that we pump out about 190 km³ groundwater each year. Refilling is only 120 km³. Shortfall is of 70 km³. In most places, the water tables are depleting. In Delhi it is going down by about 0.4m a year. In Gurgaon, the level sank by 14.16m during 2005 to 2014. Then the High Court passed an order disallowing large scale construction except using treated waste water. Ground water depletion results in drying of wells and pumps. Worst affected are the small farmers who cannot afford powerful pumps. Water even at a competitive cost is not available.

The way forward
There is a strong case for rethinking on this front. If the situation is not rectified, we will have serious deficiency and conflicts for water. Water bodies must be protected and improved, new ones should be created, especially in drought affected areas. Then there has to be economisation of water use. Drip irrigation, sprinklers etc., need to be popularised. Industries and urban areas should reuse and recycle waste water efficiently. Rain water harvesting should be very seriously and fully implemented. Forests and green areas play a very important role in conserving rain water and in recharging groundwater. Deforestation and destruction of green areas must stop. One factor which is hardly considered is the wastage of agricultural produce and food. Such wastages mean wastages of various resources, including water. In 2013 alone, post harvest loss of fruits and vegetables was to the order of ` 2 lakh crore. Precious water is also lost that way. We need to remember that one banana means 16 litres of water have been utilised; similarly, five tomatoes means 200 litres of water; 20g of leftover food in the plate means 60 litres of water and so on. Help yourself by becoming responsible, and help India’s farmers too.


Dr. M.A. Haque

The writer is a Director (retired), Government of India. He regularly writes on subjects related to Environment, Science and Tourism in English, Urdu and Hindi.