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Rats, skulls and drought: Is India facing an impending war over water?

Representative image. Photograph: (Others)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Mar 17, 2017, 01.15 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

 

Rats and exhumed skulls have become the new motif of protest for starving farmers. With drought ravaging South India, the farmers of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, are facing a life-threatening situation in their homeland. So much so that, 170 Tamil farmers have travelled all the way from the Cauvery delta to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to stage a protest. They hope to awaken the central government to the desperate situation and the need for immediate drought relief. 

 

The skulls, they are carrying, are of their colleagues who have committed suicide being unable to pay the debt accrued from farming. The rotten rats in their mouth are intended to shock the world to the realisation that people are starving. 

 

Beyond the drama that such an act entails, there is a complicated reality facing the Indian farmers. Dwindling water supply in the region have turned their life and profession into a struggle. South Indian states and, generally, the Indian subcontinent is fast outrunning its water supply. The National Commission on Water has already pointed out in their report that the overall water balances are precarious. Crisis situations already exist in a number of basins, and that by 2050 national demand will exceed all available sources of supply. 

 

Unfortunately, neither the government nor the protesters are keen to place their focus on where the problem is. They are not looking into the drought situation as indicative of a bigger crisis, one that can’t be solved through temporary relief measure - irrespective of the amount- or, through allotting lands to the families of the departed or, more controversially, through linking of the major rivers of South India.  

 

It will be futile to blame the erratic monsoon for the challenges the Indian farmers are facing. There is nothing we can do to control monsoon, and with the world warming up more than ever before, rainfall will be increasingly scanty. But scarce rainfall should not translate into a drought-like situation or, more importantly, people should not starve because of it.

 

Many parts of the world, even in the developed countries, are naturally arid. California has sparse rainfall as does Israel. But farmers don’t commit suicide owing to natural calamities there. The Dust bowl, which displaced tens of thousands of families, happened to the US in the 1930s. Since then, the US has taken serious measures in land management and soil erosion to prevent an environmental catastrophe of that measure. But India, which has a long history of drought, is yet to develop a comparable infrastructure on water reserve and usage.

 

India has to come up with a much-improved water infrastructure; one that is better managed, well-maintained, transparent and, above all, comes with clearly defined rules of entitlement. Otherwise, as the World Bank has recently pointed out, the country “will have neither the cash to maintain and build new infrastructure, nor the water required for the economy and for people.”

 

India needs to start its war against drought by ensuring better storage. The country has a highly seasonal pattern of rainfall, with 50 per cent of precipitation falling in just 15 days. The fickle rainfall jeopardises farming because India has the capacity to store only relatively small amount of rainwater. Whereas rich arid countries, such as the United States and Australia have built over 5000 cubic meters of water storage per capita, and middle-income countries like South Africa, Mexico, Morocco, and China can store about 1000 cubic meters per capita, India’s dams can store only 200 cubic meters per person. Whereas the developed countries, which are located in the major river basins can store rainwater collected over 900 days, India can store only about 30 days of rainfall.  

 

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the country dubbed its dams as “temples” of modern India. In the first 40 years of independence, 90 per cent of public investments allotted to agriculture was spent on the construction of dams and canals. Dams became crucial for augmenting agricultural production and bringing electricity to Indian homes. However, the “soft” welfare state failed to impose "systemic discipline" on direct users of these irrigation systems. 

 

Vote-bank politics took its own toll. Irrigation charges stagnated and, worse still, dues remained uncollected. By the late 1960s, a general decline marked public irrigation and with the Green Revolution package making its way into India, the farmers increasingly shifted to groundwater irrigation. 

 

Millions of tube wells were bored into the Indian countryside. It became the symbol of farmers attaining self-sufficiency in water usage. But in the process, the development regime and its proponents forgot that water is not an inexhaustible resource. The situation has turned so grave that building adequate storage facilities is not enough, India has no option but to cut down on water consumption to match sustainable supply. However, this difficult goal is not attainable without a partnership between government and users. 

 

The crisis needs to be tackled from multiple angles. In the first place, a legal and regulatory framework needs to be put into action, with clear specifications about entitlement and pricing. This step will encourage user participation and provide incentives for efficient, sustainable, and flexible use of water. Secondly, agricultural research needs to give serious attention to irrigation challenges faced by Indian farmers. 

 

Presently, the paddy varieties grown in India are water-intensive in nature. Sugarcane needs a huge amount water to grow too. But just taking out the high yielding rice varieties presently in circulation will not be enough. There needs to be more research on dry land farming, which would help farmers to use rainwater more judiciously. The pre-Green Revolution seed varieties that were grown in the past has to be improved upon too. At the end, these so-called traditional varieties, with limited irrigation needs, could be a viable way out of the tremendous pressure that farming is placing on India’s water resources.

 

If the Indian government and agriculturalists do not start adopting some of these measures immediately, the subcontinent may soon witness the beginning of a war over water. In this war, water will not be the lifeline but a weapon to starve the “others” into submission.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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