Thursday, March 26, 2009

Water-scarce Madhya Pradesh needs a "Water Authority"

The holy and ancient city of Ujjain, situated on the banks of the Kshipra River in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, is thirsting for water. All the water sources, including the once-perennial Kshipra, have dried up. Until recently water was being supplied once in eight days but things are going to get worse. The city may go without water until a 24-kilometre pipeline, connecting a barrage to the nearby Gambhir Dam, is commissioned sometime next April. Nothing, however, can be said for sure; the projects undertaken by the government can be interminably delayed.

Bhopal, the state capital and also known as “the City of Lakes”, is in as miserable a state. The entire city now depends for water on the nearby Kolar Dam and, very marginally, on the practically dried-up Upper Lake that was hitherto the city’s lifeline. Whether Kolar is going to be able to sustain the town during forthcoming summer months is open to question as leakages and wastages – public and private – have remained uncontrolled. One fears that this indifference might lead to the same scenario in Bhopal as was scripted in Ujjain.

Although the acute scarcity of water is being blamed on inadequate rains one suspects that mismanagement of sources of water and its distribution have been equally, if not more, responsible. This appears to be true, at least, in respect of Bhopal. Two statistics would seem to prove the point. The local Met office had put out that Bhopal had only 70% of the average rainfall during the last monsoon. However, the rainfall certainly was not so deficient as to make the Upper Lake shrink by 90% of its spread. Vast areas of the lake-bed now lie exposed. This did not happen even in 2002 when, apart from scanty rainfall and continued normal off-take, large quantities of water leaked through the centuries-old dam into the Lower Lake.

Last year by August it had become clear that despite rains water did not seem to be flowing into the Lake. It now transpires that the streams that feed the Lake were heavily silted, elevating their beds to spread rainwater laterally over the farms instead of allowing it to flow into the Lake. There are also reports of erection of check dams in the Lake’s catchments. The free flow of rainwater to the Lake was thus hindered, apparently, without anybody getting wise about it.

Likewise, the Lake itself had heavy accumulation of silt, so much so that 5000 truckloads of it excavated manually have been removed. And, yet the ongoing two-month long voluntary effort, it is widely felt, wouldn’t add up to much. The Lake needs much more than amateur labour. Not only deployment of heavy machinery is necessary for dredging the beds of the Lake and the streams that feed it, its catchments also need to be taken care of by way reforestation/afforestation to invite greater precipitation as also for rendering natural eco-system services. To do what all is required needs money, which, reportedly, the government is in no mood to cough up.

Evidently, it is not yet alive to the looming threat. Addicted to ad-hoc-ism, it has never had any forward-planning and has hardly ever taken matching steps to conserve and better-manage water supplies to meet the rapidly escalating demands. The resource is depleting faster than it is being replenished. No wonder, a major part of the state – once heavily forested and water-rich – has become water-scarce. As many as 41 out of 50 districts have become deficient in water. While hand-pumps in most of the 55000 villages of the state have either gone dry or spew only noxious fluids, most of the cities and towns, barring those in the northern fringes of the state where last monsoon was bountiful, depend on tankers ferrying water over long diatances. Most pitiable is the condition of villages and towns in the state’s Malwa Plateau which once was so water-rich that it used to grow cotton – a water-intensive crop. It is now acutely short of water as exemplified by the temple town of Ujjain – a major city on the Plateau. Fracases because of water have become common.

John Briscoe, a World Bank expert, had warned in a report in October 2005 that India was facing an “extremely, extremely grave situation” as “rivers dry up, groundwater is depleted and canals are polluted”. Making matters worse, he said, “There is widespread complacency in the government”. Briscoe went on to say, “About 15 percent of the country's aquifers are already in critical condition, a number that could increase to 60 percent by 2030”. Besides, heavily subsidised electricity for farmers also encourages them to switch to groundwater, which can be cheaply siphoned with electric pumps. To head off the grave situation Briscoe had urged India to dramatically change the way it managed water.

Surely, suitable directives must have accordingly been issued by the Centre to various states. There has, however, been no sign of any change in the way water is managed in Madhya Pradesh. It now needs to heed the recent warning of the UN contained in a comprehensive assessment in its World Water Development Report that “while water supplies are under threat, the demand for water is increasing rapidly because of industrialization, rising living standards and changing diets that include … meat, that require larger amounts of water to produce.” Add to these the declining rainfall due to climate change, rapidly rising population and increasing urbanisation and one gets a forbidding picture. Apart from hardships caused to people, the UN is concerned that water-scarcity could inhibit economic growth.

The government of Madhya Pradesh, however, seems to be unmindful of the looming threat and has so far not taken any step to reorganise management of the vitally important subject of water. It is dealt with by several departments and agencies, none of whom can be pinned down for the current predicament the state finds itself in today. Instead of attacking the problem head-on the government continues to adopt the “band-aid” approach which, in the current context, can no longer be effective.

A comprehensive overhaul is necessary. The all-important subject of water needs holistic treatment instead of fragmented attention from mostly diffused and unaccountable multiple governmental/civic agencies. The need of the hour is establishment of a financially, administratively and legally empowered pyramidal “water authority”, with linkages down to the lowest unit, that takes care of the whole gamut of issues relating to water – from management and regulation of water-systems, watersheds and surface and groundwater sources to management of its demand, treatment, distribution and conservation to exploring new sources, recycling of wastewater and so on.

World over, including in India, such authorities have been created for handling at one point this matter of utmost importance for human wellbeing. The state could emulate Kerala which has established such an authority for comprehensive handling of issues related to water. Establishment of such a dedicated authority is unlikely to cause any dent on the resources of the state as financial and manpower resources can easily be found by winding up the ineffectual MP Lakes Conservation Authority and redeployment from departments and other agencies that currently inefficaciously deal with this subject.