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Illegal wells deepen central India’s drought crisis

As thousands of villages in central India face crippling water shortages, sugar plantations, vineyards and factories continue to tap illegal wells.

144 india droughtAs thousands of villages in central India face crippling water shortages, sugar plantations, vineyards and factories continue to tap illegal wells. 

There is no water in 7,075 villages in the middle of India. In March, just the start of the Indian summer of 2013, millions of people are being supplied water by over 2,400 tankers. Officials say come April, and they will have to charter trains and fetch water from other parts of the country. But in the same belt, there is no crippling water shortage for sugar plantations and mills, vineyards, orange orchards or factories.

South Asia is crucially dependent on the June to September monsoon, which provides over 80% of its annual rainfall. In the last monsoon, the total rainfall for all of India was 92% of its long period average. The villages and towns now facing water shortage are in the country’s western state of Maharashtra, whose capital is also India’s financial capital Mumbai. Of the 34 districts in the state, 15 are facing water shortage. The worst affected districts are Solapur, Ahmednagar, Sangli, Pune, Satara, Beed and Nashik, while the situation is also serious in Buldhana, Latur, Osmanabad, Nanded, Aurangabad, Jalna, Jalgaon and Dhule districts.


The India Meteorological Department (IMD) says last monsoon, rainfall in the affected area was 25 to 36% below average.


That is definitely a drought serious enough to lead to crop failure, especially for the majority of farmers who are smallholders and have no irrigation facilities. But a drought has three stages – crop failure, water shortage and famine. No drought in India has reached the third stage since the 1960s, and officials are confident that this drought will not reach it – the country had 66 million tonnes of foodgrains in reserve at the end of last year, and continues to export wheat and rice. But did this drought have to reach the second stage?

In a region largely dependent on groundwater in non-monsoon months, the aquifer atlas published by India’s Central Groundwater Board shows that groundwater has only been over-exploited in a few areas (see page 40 of the atlas). And anyway in this region – in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs parallel to India’s Arabian Sea coastline – people are perforce used to living with little water in the non-monsoon months.

Illegal groundwater extraction intensifies drought

So why are millions of people facing such water scarcity this year, with thousands of them dependent on the tankers even for drinking water? Local reports say the main reason is widespread disregard of any rule to regulate groundwater use. The most important of these rules is the ban on digging a well and pumping water out within a 500-metre radius of any such well dug by the government for public consumption. Observers who have been touring the affected villages in recent weeks are unanimous – this rule is being flouted almost universally by the richest residents of the villages, by managers of sugar plantations and mills, vineyards, orange orchards and factories.

This is not a new rule either. The Maharashtra Groundwater Act, regulating water for drinking purposes,  was passed in 1993. But the rule has been flouted ever since. Of the thousands of illegal wells in the region, only one has been sealed by the authorities. An updated and more stringent law that was passed by the state legislature in 2009 is awaiting the governor’s assent. Meanwhile, the result of this sustained overuse of aquifers is that public wells have run dry. The situation is especially bad in and around Solapur and Osmanabad towns – both with high concentrations of sugar mills.

The underground water table has also suffered due to widespread sand mining in the region, especially since much of the underlying rock is basalt, which is not very porous anyway.

Politicians are blaming one another for the situation. Officials are telling journalists that groundwater extraction regulations must be enforced, but so far there is no report of any attempt to do so. In fact, it would be quite possible to drive from plantations to vineyards to factories in the region and remain unaware of any serious water crisis.

It is not as if the officials do not know that a drought will lead to groundwater scarcity and therefore it is even more important to enforce the rules. After all, India has had 42 severe droughts in the last two centuries and three serious droughts in the last decade alone. So there is plenty of experience on what needs to be done. India’s ministry of agriculture said in its 2012 crisis management plan: “Drought is not a disaster, but a management issue.”

But all reports from the ground say groundwater extraction has become a mismanagement issue. The result is that there are already reports of fights over water between neighbours and between villages, and police officers have been told by their chief to watch out for “water wars”. Some district administrators have declared that they are taking over private wells for public use during the crisis period, but they express helplessness when asked if their declarations are being implemented.

Smallholder farmers hardest hit

The water scarcity has come on top of crop failure for smallholder farmers, which was expected ever since the poor monsoon rainfall last June and July. The drought, in fact, has affected 11,801 villages, according to the state government, far higher than the number affected by acute water scarcity.

2012 monsoon rainfall by month

Without irrigation facilities, smallholder farmers – who own less than two hectares – are totally dependent on not only the amount it rains, but also the distribution of rainfall over time. For generations, they have gone by the knowledge that it will start raining in mid-June, so they plough their land, get their seeds and fertiliser ready for that. Then they sow as soon as it starts to rain. If it then stops raining after a day or two – as it did in this part of India in 2012 and as it did over much of India thrice in the last decade – the shoots die. The monsoon may well revive, it did so last year.

But it is too late for smallholder farmers, who rarely have the money to invest in seeds all over again. This is the situation for over 350 million Indians who live below the US$1.25 a day poverty line and depend primarily on rainfed agriculture to earn a livelihood. They form over 80% of India’s agricultural workforce. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in 2007 that one effect of climate change would be a more erratic monsoon in South Asia. The World Bank said recently that India’s 2012-13 gross domestic product would have been half a percentage point higher without the drought.

Global push for more effective drought policy

While authorities in Maharashtra try to avert water wars, drought experts from around the globe have been holding a meeting organised by the World Meteorological Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The meeting – the first high-level meet during the United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification – was held in a scenario where “droughts cause the death and displacement of more people than cyclones, floods and earthquakes put together, making them the world’s most destructive natural hazard,” according to a UNCCD spokesperson. “Yet, while droughts are expected to increase in frequency, area and intensity due to climate change, effective drought management policies are missing in most parts of the world.”

It has been estimated that globally, droughts account for losses of US$6-8 billion annually. Since 1900, over 11 million people have died as a result of droughts, and two billion people have been affected. Since the 1970s, the area affected by drought has doubled, undermining livelihoods, reversing development gains and entrenching poverty among millions of people who depend directly on the land. Women, children and the aged often pay the heaviest price.

“Building resilience to drought is not only a mitigation measure, but a smart investment with guaranteed high return. Post-disaster relief is way costlier than drought preparedness and risk management. Therefore, we call on governments and all stakeholders in drought-prone countries to engage in developing their national drought policies and we are ready to support them”, said UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja.

The meeting issued a declaration encouraging governments to develop and implement national drought management policies consistent with their development objectives. It also provided detailed scientific and policy guidance on how to achieve this. Better drought management is one of the priorities of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) now being implemented by governments with support from the United Nations. But none of these policies will work without good governance at the ground level.

Photo by jackol.