Warning notes from Marathwada: how water wars can consume India
- Marathwada is facing an acute water crisis. Its wells are running dry even 400 feet deep
- The per capita surface water available is just 438 cubic metres. The ideal is 1,700 cubic meters
- Deep aquifers in the ground take a 1,000 years to fill. Panicked villagers are emptying them out
- The government has had to deploy 1,400 tankers to supply drinking water to the area
- Farmer Ejaz Khan’s 400-foot well is useful for only half an hour a day in the monsoon. Rest of the year, it’s a dry pit
- Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000
- They have yielded little: it takes him two hours to fill one 250 litre drum from it
- Most rivers originate from the drought-hit region itself
- The Godavari is the only lifeline, but it has been dammed upstream
- Jayakwadi dam is drained by steel and beer industries
- Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries: each guzzles 1 lakh litres of water every day
- Aurangabad, the beer capital of India, devours 6 crore litres of water daily
- Urbanisation, sugarcane factories are hampering ground water recharge
- A water-sharing pact to release more water to Jayakwadi dam
- Not allowing any more dams on the Godavari upstream
- Limiting the water usage of factories and digging of deep borewells
The intense water crisis in parts of Maharashtra is not someone else’s problem. It is a warning note for India. The apocalyptic idea of water wars is barely one turn away.
As the monsoon beats down on the country, it seems hard to heed warnings about water crises, droughts, desertification and emergency water trains being despatched to despairing citizens.
But water management in many parts of India is so poor, the monsoon is only an illusion: it is not effectively recharging groundwater.
Vidharbha has become a short code for despair in India. This story from Marathwada is a reminder why this is not an isolated story.
One man’s story: parable for the country
Farmer Ejaz Khan’s borewell dried up eight months ago. In mid-June, when pre-monsoon rain showered his Nagzari village in Jalna district, he hastened out of his tin-roofed house to bail out the collected water from his 400-foot-deep borewell before it was soaked up. He managed just a bucketful.
It wasn’t much for his family of five, but it brought hope: the monsoon was on its way to fill up his well. It would be in use for the next four months, if only for half an hour a day, and Khan would be able to irrigate his 3-acre farmland, the sole means of subsistence.
“This is the way it has been for the last few years,” says Khan, “useful for half an hour a day during the monsoon and absolutely useless for the remaining eight months.”
Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. “I did not know how else to overcome the paucity of water,” he explains.
The investment hasn’t yielded much.
Khan has dug four borewells in the past few years, each costing around Rs 35,000. He still does not have access to water
Even the little water the borewells have isn’t fit for consumption, Khan says, as he flings a pail into the well that he shares with fellow villagers. He lifts out a bucketful of brownish water with an odd worm squirming in it.
“This is what we have been consuming,” he says, emptying the bucket into a 250-litre drum. It takes him nearly two hours to fill one drum up. He has two.
“This is my family’s quota for the next week,” says Khan, who has a wife and three sons. “Whether we are bathing, cleaning or cooking, we have have one eye on the backyard where the drums are.”
To tide over the crisis, the state has deployed over over 1,400 tankers to supply drinking water to the region, which comprises the four districts of Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed and Parabhani.
This is only a short-term bandaid though, and it solves only the problem of drinking water. Not irrigation.
Even the monsoons only bring a brief respite, not a solution. The land will go back to being parched.
Disaster in the making
So much so, in fact, that experts warn the region could be headed towards desertification. “Marathwada’s water management and governance is so poor, it appears an environmental disaster is in the making,” says Pradeep Purandare, a former expert member of the Marathwada Statutory Development Board.
The per capita availability of surface water in Marathwada is 438 cubic metres, as against 1,700 cubic metres deemed ideal by hydrologists, and, with the population increasing, it’s only going down.
Most of Marathwada’s rivers originate in the drought-prone region itself, so the riverbeds are dried up almost all the time. Its only lifeline, thus, is the Godavari, which fills up the Jayakwadi dam, on which are dependent most of region’s 305 villages, industries and irrigation projects.
But even this lifeline has been choked with dams coming up in Jayakwadi’s catchment area in Nasik and Nagar.
As a result, almost all the water in Jayakwadi in the past few years has been consumed by industries and for drinking, leaving virtually nothing for irrigation. Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery, each guzzling one lakh litres of water every day.
Given its poor water management and governance, experts say Marathwada could be headed towards desertification
Aurangabad, the beer capital of India, devours six crore litres of water daily to keep the beer flowing. The district had long ago caught the eye of the global brewer Fosters, which realised the region’s silted water was conducive for making beer and erected a factory; others soon followed.
Ill-conceived rescue plan
In the past few years, the state has come up with several projects to mitigate Marathwada’s crisis, but they are either languishing or, like Jayakwadi, being choking by upstream dams.
Governments across the board are loath to mandate comprehensive assessment impacts for development projects. The situation in Marathwada is a textbook example of what happens when this is not done.
The Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project was envisioned to divert excess water from Kolhapur to Ujjani and Marathwada. But it has been derailed, to the harm of Osmanabad and Beed.
The Pentakali project, similarly, has diminished the Upper Painganga Project, severely affecting Nanded and Parbhani.
Apart from worsening the water crisis, these ill-conceived plans have triggered regional feuds as well.
In February this year, 11 villages from Jalna’s Mantha taluka went on a hunger strike to protest Vidarbha’s appropriation of water from the Purna river. And Marathwada has long been at loggerheads with western Maharashtra over Godavari.
Marathwada has struggled to win these battles because its politicians “do not have the same clout” as those from Western Maharashtra, says Purandare. “Politics in Maharashtra flows through the canals.”
Purandare insists the drought is “man-made”, brought on by urbanisation and a mushrooming of sugarcane factories, which require substantial amount of water.
“Urbanisation ensures the use of concrete,” he explains. “It kills tiny water bodies, adversely affecting the ground water recharge.”
If this continues, Purandare warns, there will be “no water left for farming”.
Nowhere to go, but down
The signs are already visible, and glaringly. Of Marathwada’s 76 talukas, 61 have seen a critical drop in ground water levels, the trend coinciding with a spree of digging wells and borewells in the farmland.
“In a state of unawareness and panic, farmers go on digging deep,” says Sanjeev Unhale, a senior journalist from Aurangabad. “But they do not realise that the deep aquifer takes a thousand years to be refilled. It can’t be disturbed. To dig up to 20-25 meters is understandable, but farmers are going a thousand feet down.”
Yet, in non-monsoon months, even the deepest wells come up dry, forcing Marathwada’s residents to forage elsewhere. It’s a torturous quest.
Jalna alone houses over 30 steel industries on its periphery: each guzzles one lakh litres of water every day
“We dig up the parched riverbed or the bottom of a well until a muddy puddle of water comes to the fore,” says Pralhad Magar, 65, from Jalna’s Kharpudi village. “We scoop it up into our pots and then physically strain the mire and stones out.”
It obviously takes hours to collect enough water this way, so everone in the family, men, women, young and old, pitch in. “I can’t carry on doing it for hours. My body doesn’t allow me now,” says Magar.
It’s only when monsoon arrives that they get some relief. Afterwards, it’s back to square one, until the next monsoon and the next.
It’s a cruel cycle Marathwada’s farmers are stuck in. To free them, the state needs to come up with a long-term solution.
Purandare has one. There was a dispute in the past between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over water from Babhali Bandhara, he explains, “and it was resolved after the Supreme Court intervened and said Maharashtra can’t use more than 2.74 TMC of water from the Bandhara.”
“It’s necessary to arrive at a similar solution for the release of water for Jayakwadi from dams upstream,” says Purandare, adding the upper Godavari basin should be “spared of any new construction”.
Until that happens, thousands of Marathwada’s farmers are at nature’s mercy. “The only time we spend less time storing water is during the monsoons,” says Khan, and abruptly ends the conversation.
He has noticed dark clouds gathering over Nagzari. He hysterically collects his empty pots and utensils and arranges them outside his dimly-lit room to catch the flow from the roof.
Soon, it’s pouring down. And as his pots start filing up, a grin appears on Khan’s face. When the solution is missing, dangerously, the respite seems enough.