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No end to Maharashtra’s water woes

Maharashtra is facing an unprecedented drought with over 27,723 of its total 43,000 villages officially declared drought-hit. More than 50 per cent land area of the state is affected by the drought, informs H M Desarda, former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission.

Women-filling-water-at-Sonwati,-Latur

Scanty rainfall, over-exploitation of groundwater, unsuitable cropping pattern and mismanagement of water have gripped the western state in the worst drought since Independence.

Nidhi Jamwal reports on the deepening crisis which has been building up since 2011

Maharashtra is facing an unprecedented drought with over 27,723 of its total 43,000 villages officially declared drought-hit. More than 50 per cent land area of the state is affected by the drought, informs H M Desarda, former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission.

There is an acute drinking water shortage that is being met through water tankers. A special 50-wagon water train, Jaldoot, is regularly transporting water to the parched city of Latur.

Agricultural activities are down as a large number of irrigation dams in drought-hit areas have no live water storage. Groundwater levels are abysmally low, and farmers have registered a sharp decline in both kharif and rabi crop production.

The severity of drought can be gauged from the fact that in three districts – Latur, Parbhani and Ahmednagar — Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure has been imposed to prevent gathering of more than five people around water supply points, thereby averting conflicts.

With southwest monsoon still a month away, water rationing have been introduced in a number of cities. The situation is expected to worsen in the month of May.

Arjun-Chavan-Pendgaon-Beed

In the semi-arid zone of Marathwada, covering eight districts of Latur, Beed, Parbhani, Osmanabad, Nanded, Hingoli, Jalna and Aurangabad, the villagers claim the present drought is worse than Maharashtra’s infamous drought of 1972. “In 1972, we had acute shortage of foodgrains, but had ample water. If we dug 10 feet, we would get water. Now, there is no water even 1,000 feet below the ground,” laments 70 years old, Arjun Chavan, a farmer who owns two-acre land in Pedgaon village of Beed district.

Due to water scarcity, Chavan did not sow his regular kharif crop of Bt cotton last season (between June 7 and June 10). Instead, he restricted himself to bajra (pearl millet) and makka (maize) crops, which consume less water.

Since January 6 this year, Chavan is living at a cattle camp with his seven cattle, and plans to return to his village only after the arrival of monsoon. “There is no water, no fodder in the village. What will I do there?” says an exasperated Chavan.

Truant monsoon

he official reason for drought in Maharashtra is the lack of rainfall for three consecutive years. (See table 1) “In 2013-14 and 2014-15, we barely received 350-400 mm of monsoon rainfall as against the average annual rainfall is 800 mm. Also, the main rivers of Latur — Manjara and Terna – originate from rain-shadow areas, hence, lack of rains adversely impacts water availability in the district,” says Pandurang Pole, district collector of Latur.

Broad category of rainfall (percentage to normal) Number of taluks*
  2013 2014 2015
Excess (120 & more) 186 17 2
Normal (80-120) 153 112 75
Deficient (40-80) 16 213 254
Scanty (0-40) 0 13 24

*Excluding Mumbai city & Mumbai suburban districts and taluks therein

Source: Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Planning Department, Government of Maharashtra, March 2016.

Naval Kishore Ram, collector of Beed district, echoes Pole’s concerns. “Barring 2012, Marathwada has received less than 50 per cent of average annual monsoon rainfall in the last five years, which has lead to an acute drinking water scarcity. We need two good hydrological cycles [two years of good rainfall] to overcome the impacts of the present drought,” says Ram.

The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16 warns that the deficit of monsoon and decline in agricultural output has adversely affected Maharashtra’s rural economy. But, agriculture economists and water experts allege the present drought in Maharashtra is human-made and a direct result of “erroneous water resource management policies.”

Policy-induced water scarcity

“The present drought was building up since 2011 when we had below average rainfall in Marathwada. The next year, we received excess rainfall of 136 per cent. But, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, we again had deficit monsoon of 36 per cent, 41 per cent and 49 per cent respectively,” says Vijay Diwan, president of Aurangabad-based Nisarga Mitra Mandal and former member of the Marathwada Development Board. “In spite of sufficient warnings, the state government failed to put in place effective policies to ward off drought. Instead, it kept promoting sugarcane in the semi-arid region of Marathwada,” adds Diwan.

Pradeep Purandare, former professor at Aurangabad-based Water and Land Management Institute alleges that since the state government failed to do water management, it is now involved in disaster management. “By September-October last year, the state government should have taken account of the existing water levels in the dams and accordingly reserved water for drinking purposes. It should have restricted water supply to industries, especially sugar factories and liquor factories,” says Purandare. “It is criminal that till February this year, some factories crushed sugarcane in Latur, which is now facing an unprecedented drought and where the government is sending water through trains,” he adds.

Bendsura-Project

Dry Dams

Maharashtra has a total of 1,845 large dams (1,693 completed and 152 under construction), the highest in the country. Madhya Pradesh is second with 906 large dams.[iii] But, that hasn’t translated into providing irrigation facilities to the farmers and meeting the drinking water needs of the cities/towns. The total 3,909 irrigation projects (major, medium and minor state sector) in the state have created irrigation potential of 48.66 lakh hectares by June 2014. But, the total irrigation potential utilised is only 31.37 per cent.[iv]

As per the latest report of Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation, 11 major irrigation projects, 75 medium irrigation projects and 729 minor irrigation projects in Marathwada have only four per cent, five per cent and three per cent of live water storage respectively. Of the 11 major irrigation projects in Marathwada, seven have zero live water storage.

Empty Aquifers

The condition of groundwater is equally dismal in Maharashtra. Lack of regulation has lead to over-exploitation of groundwater and emptying of shallow aquifers. In the last one year, groundwater table in Latur has declined by 3.5-4 metres.

“Latur district has 80,000 agricultural bore wells, of which 50,000 function perennially. In some taluks of Latur there is no water till 800-1,000 feet below ground,” says Mohan Bhise, agriculture officer, Latur. “Eight watersheds in Latur district are overexploited [groundwater extraction is more than 100 per cent of the recharge], whereas six are in semi-critical condition [groundwater extraction is between 90 to 100 per cent of the recharge]. Just three years ago, not even a single watershed was in critical category,” he adds.

Groundwater situation is no better in other districts of Maharashtra. According to the ‘Report On The Dynamic Ground Water Resources of Maharashtra (2011-12),’ out of the total 1,531 watersheds in the state, 76 watersheds are categorized as overexploited. Four watersheds are categorized as critical and 100 watersheds as semi-critical [groundwater extraction is between 70 and 90 per cent of the recharge].[v]

“In 1972, we had one lakh agricultural pumps in the state, which have now gone up to 40 lakh. We have plundered the groundwater and emptied even the deep aquifers. There is no water where so ever,” lashes out Desarda. No wonder, Maharashtra has become graveyard of farmers. In 2015, 3,228 farmers killed themselves in the state —- nine farmer suicides daily! (see graph 1: Farmer suicides in Maharashtra, 2015).

Graph 1: Farmer suicides in Maharashtra, 2015

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Sugarcane on the Rise

A quick look at the government data shows how the highly water-intensive cash-crop of sugarcane has flourished even in the times of less rainfall. Sugarcane needs 2,100-2,500mm average annual rainfall, but Marathwada’s average annual rainfall is about 844mm. As against Marathwada’s traditional crops of jowar (sorghum) and toor (split pigeon peas), which need 35 lakh litres and 55 lakh litres of water per hectare respectively, sugarcane needs more than two crore litre water per hectare.

Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, the sugarcane area in Maharashtra has increased from 755,900 hectares to 1,029,600 hectares. In semi-arid Marathwada, it has increased from 184,900 hectares to 219,400 hectares during the same time period. Latur, worst affected due to drought, too, has registered an increase in sugarcane cultivation. From 39,900 ha in 2009-10, the area under sugarcane plantations has gone up to 46,400 ha in 2014-15.

“Sugarcane cultivation is also responsible for the present water crisis. Of the total water available for irrigation in Latur, almost 90 per cent is consumed by the sugarcane plantations,” informs Pole.

Of the 205 sugar factories in Maharashtra, 70 are in Marathwada. In 2012, the state government sanctioned 20 new private sugar factories in Marathwada, informs Purandare.

As a knee-jerk reaction, the state chief minister recently declared no sanctioning of new sugar factories in Marathwada for a period of five years.

Clearly, the unprecedented drought that Maharashtra is facing right now is the State’s own making.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai based independent environment journalist
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