How Can We Manage Drought Without Water-Use Data?

Measures to mitigate drought only seek to address its effects, rather than finding ways to prevent it. 

According to a Reserve Bank of India report in 2013, 16% of India’s geographic area is drought prone. Over the last few years, India has been witnessing an agrarian crisis that has been growing worse every year, accentuated by drought and accompanied by farmer suicides. 

Recently, the Guardian reported that “Hundreds of Indian villages have been evacuated as a historic drought forces families to abandon their homes in search of water.” According to the report, 43% of India faces drought as of May 2019. Maharashtra has been one of the worst drought-hit states since 2015, and this year, the water-crisis in Tamil Nadu has also reached alarming levels, as four lakes that supply water to Chennai has dried up almost entirely. 

While the origins of drought may lie in natural climatic conditions, such as a lack of rain, several man-made factors can, and do, aggravate drought. 

In this reading list, we assess how India has managed drought in the last few years. 

How Severe is the Situation? 

A recent article by Neha Bhadbhade, Sarita Bhagat, K J Joy, Abraham Samuel, Kiran Lohakare and Raju Adagale shows that in 2015-16, 138 talukas in Maharashtra were declared drought-affected. The Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan was supposed to have mitigated this by creating over 24,000 million cubic feet of water storage. Yet, in 2018-19, 151 talukas in Maharashtra were declared drought-hit and many villages had to rely solely on tankers for water. The situation has been growing worse every year, despite water and soil conservation efforts. This, they argue, is because the schemes only focus on supply-side solutions, which can only deal with drought in an ad-hoc reactionary manner. Without a holistic understanding of the problem, measures to counter drought can only be inadequate.

Water scarcity is rising alarmingly in the state, especially in Marathwada. The government’s own data, as reported in the media, shows, to date, that about 4,920 villages and 10,506 hamlets are now completely dependent on water tankers for drinking water. Just within a week’s time, from 20 May to 27 May, the count of the number of parched villages went up from 4,615 to 4,920. Currently, there are 6,209 tankers deployed crossing the record of 6,000 tankers in 2016 (Ashar 2019). Chinchondi village in Pathardi taluka of Ahmednagar district is one such example where the JSA has been intensively implemented and it also won the second prize under the Water Cup competition in 2016. Yet this year the people of this village are spending ₹ 6,600 per day for a supply of 30,000 litres of water. Why is it that even after creating 24,000 million cubic feet of storage, drinking water for the people cannot be assured?

Who Does Drought Affect the Most? 

In 2016, a quarter of India’s population was affected by drought. According to a study by Pranab Ranjan Choudhury and Sumita Sindhi, Maharashtra has been facing man-made droughts since 2012, which has gotten increasingly worse for a variety of reasons, such as the poor selection of crops, delays with irrigation projects, etc. They found that drought management practices mostly focus on crisis management, rather than prevention. Even then, the research conducted to deal with drought often excludes small and marginal farmers, who are incidentally the section of farmers who are the most affected by drought.  

Out of 138.35 million operational holdings in India with an average size of 1.15 hectares, 85% are marginal and small farms of less than 2 hectares. According to the agriculture minister, “These small farms, though operating only on 44% of land under cultivation, are the main providers of food and nutritional security to the nation, but have limited access to technology, inputs, credit, capital[,] and markets.”8 Most small and marginal farmers are concealed sharecroppers and tenants with unrecorded rights. Their access to formal credit, insurance, and compensation continues to be denied, which increases their vulnerabilities. 

Since drought is also closely related to food security, there is also a need for policies that are framed to cope with drought to take into the gendered consequences of such a prolonged disaster. Basanta Sahu writes that the recent spate of drought in India has pushed a number of women to manage farming alongside their usual household activities, while the men usually migrate. 

Shortfalls in food consumption during droughts led to various health problems, particularly among women and elderly people. About 45% of tribal households in the study areas reported having a health problem. Health problems, especially among women, do not gain much attention in poor households during periods of scarcity, as the household’s priority for food becomes more significant than health. Women were the hardest hit during droughts due to lack of adequate clean water and changes in diet, causing health problems such as fever and weakness, which are exacerbated by reproductive health issues.

What is Causing Drought?

Since agriculture in India is largely dependent on the monsoon, a number of scholars have argued that climate change will further contribute to agricultural deterioration in India. Among them, Atul Deulgaonkar and Anjali Joshi have pointed out that the most chronic drought that India has faced has been in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, yet the government doesn’t seem to have a plan for agriculture that takes into account the changes that are being precipitated by climate change. 

Marathwada is a textbook representation of environmental disaster in the wake of climate change. The other region in the state, Vidarbha, also seems to be increasingly facing conditions like those in Marathwada. Death and devastation in this area are frightening and demand immediate action on a war footing. Climate change adaptation offers an opportunity for innovative and creative approaches that can boost the stagnant rural economy and offer jobs in newer areas for the despairing youth. In the absence of sincere and planned action on our part, Marathwada is most likely to be ravaged by droughts even more frequently and face socio-economic devastation on a gigantic scale.

Responding to Deulgaonkar and Joshi, Sachin Tiwale and Dipti Hingmire have argued that it is insufficient to blame climate change alone for the crisis in Marathwada. In order to formulate viable policies, human factors that contribute to drought need to take into account alongside the effects of climate change. 

A causal analysis of Marathwada drought is incomplete without taking into account the water management practices adopted and promoted. It would be unfair to neglect these dimensions of water management. Before hastily describing Marathwada as an environmental disaster in the wake of climate change, without any scientific evidence, and accordingly, promoting solutions, we need to be extremely careful, as factors such as change in land-use pattern, growing population affecting per capita water availability and practices of (mis)managing water would aggravate drought in Marathwada.

Furthermore, a year after the onset of drought in Marathwada, Pradeep Purandare wrote that, “Water politics based on regionalism has taken its toll.” His analysis of the situation found that abysmal water governance was to blame.  

Marathwada can be described as a water-deficit region based on per capita (438 cubic metres as against normal criteria of 1,000 cubic metres) and per ha (1,383 cubic metres as against general criteria of 3,000 cubic metres) availability of water. These natural constraints have been overlooked in the process of so called development and sugarcane – the water guzzler crop – has been allowed to dominate the cropping pattern. 

How Do We Improve Water Governance?

Despite the growing water crisis, the government seems to be ill-equipped to handle water resources. Himanshu Thakkar points out that the major challenge to proper water governance in India today is the lack of data about water storage, ground water, water flows and sometimes even rainfall and snowfall levels. Without basic data, how can we expect effective policy to be formulated? 

Access to accurate water information could help one understand the risks and urgency of the situation and steer towards informed decisions. As the Mihir Shah Committee report (2016) and the NITI Aayog report (2018) admitted, India is farthest from this goal. The NITI Aayog report, for example, says: Data systems related to water in the country are limited in their coverage, robustness, and efficiency. First, data is often not available at the adequate level of detail. For example, water use data for domestic and industrial sectors is available at only the aggregate level, and thus provides very little information to relevant policy makers and suppliers. Second, where data is available, it is often unreliable due to the use of outdated collection techniques and methodologies. 



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