Looming water scarcity

| Updated on April 07, 2019 Published on April 07, 2019

Drought conditions in peninsular India highlight familiar policy failures

Recent BusinessLine reports have highlighted the harrowing conditions of water scarcity in peninsular India, with the monsoon still about three months away. Scientists and specialists have observed that 40 per cent of the country’s area is reeling under drought, of which 16-17 per cent is severe. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and Gujarat are in a particularly bad way, with northern Karnataka and Maharashtra not receiving adequate rainfall for three or four consecutive years. Major reservoir levels in Gujarat and Maharashtra, at 22 per cent of their capacity, are well below 30 per cent levels in April 2018 and the trend level of 33 per cent at this time of the year. While almost the entire country is vulnerable to ‘vegetation drought’, regions with low soil moisture such as the river basins of Mahi, Sabarmati, Krishna, Tapi and Cauvery are particularly susceptible due to low levels of soil moisture. It is extraordinary that Kerala should be in the grip of a water crisis in precisely the regions that were devastated by last year’s floods. A combination of high temperatures and water scarcity has put crops such as cardamom, rubber and tea under stress, with pest attack risks on the rise. An immediate as well as medium-term policy response is called for. The first priority is to stave of a drinking water crisis by rationing the use of water for irrigation purposes, as Karnataka has done in recent years. Some curbs on construction with the onset of summer might be called for.

With regions like Latur in Maharashtra nearly back to the crisis they witnessed in 2016, it is clear that very little has changed on the ground. There is no evidence of a shift away from sugarcane. Meanwhile, micro-irrigation practices, such as the use of drips and sprinklers, are not picking up at the desired pace. Economic Survey 2015-16 observes: “The key bottlenecks in the adoption of this technology are the high initial cost of purchase and the skill required for maintenance.” However, this is offset by reduced consumption of fertiliser and power, besides higher yields. With the political economy focus on rural distress, it is crucial that the right incentives are given. Rather than merely providing short-term relief to farmers, they should be persuaded to grow appropriate crops, to safeguard economic and environmental security. Therefore, power subsidies can be gradually withdrawn and instead drip and sprinkler irrigation subsidised. This should be accompanied by a shift away from paddy and sugarcane in rainfed regions, with subsidies and incentives being linked to such choices.

Telangana has shown the way in furthering micro-irrigation through Mission Kakatiya, which entails the revival of over 40,000 tanks in the State. This has led to an improvement in groundwater levels. However, catchment area rejuvenation needs equal attention, as the Kerala floods experience informs us. Policymakers should take a holistic view of water, agriculture and the environment.

Published on April 07, 2019
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