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Deficit in Rainfall, Depleting Groundwater and Dry Reservoirs: India's Worsening Water Crisis Far From Over

By: Akash Gulankar


Last Updated: July 01, 2019, 17:26 IST

Deficit in Rainfall, Depleting Groundwater and Dry Reservoirs: India's Worsening Water Crisis Far From Over

The dependence on groundwater has increased and the treasured resource is depleting. Droughts and erratic rainfall, and over-extraction of groundwater, has led to a 61 percent fall in groundwater.

New Delhi: A water crisis has taken India by storm, with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu making headlines for what can only be described as an emergency.

Delay in monsoons and bone-dry surface-level resources have left groundwater as the only redeemer. But the exploitation of under-water reserves in the last two decades has resulted in a sharp fall in water table levels.

With nearly 50 per cent of the country grappling with water shortage, the crisis seems far from over. Excessive demand, coupled with mismanaged resources, and erratic weather patterns have only added fuel to the fire. But the question remains, how did we reach here?

Deficit in Rainfall

A weekly report of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) states that as of June 19, the cumulative rainfall for the Long Period Average (LPA) was recorded below 43 per cent between June 1 and 19. This entails that agriculture, domestic and industrial demands, all have taken a massive blow as other resources depend on rainwater for recharging.

LPA is the average rainfall received by the country during monsoon over a 50-year period.

Peninsular India recorded a 38 per cent deficiency, while the situation in Central India is much worse with a 54 per cent rainfall deficit. Until June 20, the situation in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and parts of Madhya Pradesh was not far from being classified as drought-hit.

Maharashtra fell short of rainfall by 60 per cent this season. Marathwada and Vidarbha, notorious for a perpetual drought, recorded 75 and 89 per cent rain deficit respectively.

Central Maharashtra and the Konkan region have received just a third of their average. Tamil Nadu and eastern Madhya Pradesh reported deficits of 34 and 64 per cent, while the western region received just half of the expected rainfall. Karnataka is the only state on peninsular India to have received normal rainfall this year.

In the forecast for June 27 to July 3, IMD suggests that all the coastal states, with the exception of Tamil Nadu, will experience above average rainfall. South-eastern parts of Madhya Pradesh are also expected to get above normal rainfall. The Northeast may also receive normal rainfall.

The remaining states in the country will receive below normal to normal rainfall for this period.

Reservoirs & River Basins

The Central Water Commission, in a weekly report, said of 91 major reservoirs in the country, 11 have zero per cent storage. As many as 59 reservoirs reported having storage lesser than 80 per cent of its average.

Of 29 reservoirs in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, nine have dried up completely, and 20 reel below 10 per cent storage. The total average storage in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu this year stands at 8.96 per cent as against 19.27 per cent last year. The ten-year average lies between 18-20 per cent.

Maharashtra, which has the most number of reservoirs, is worst hit. The overall storage of all the reservoirs in these three states is five per cent.

Three major river basins of peninsular India — Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery — have diminished excessively. Based on a 10-year storage average, Cauvery should ideally store 22 per cent water but is parched at a mere 12.57 per cent. Godavari and Krishna river basins now hold a scanty 8.72 and 5.72 per cent respectively, almost half of the average.

Depleting Groundwater

The dependence on groundwater has naturally increased, but even this treasured resource is on the wane. Successive droughts and erratic rainfall, which have led to over-extraction of groundwater, have led to a 61 per cent decline in the groundwater between 2007 and 2017. The impact of this is most evident in wells in North India.

Delhi ranks among the top three states in terms of excessive groundwater exploitation for drinking, industry and irrigation use. According to a study published in International Journal of Advance and Innovative Research in March 2018, 67 per cent of Delhi’s residents in 1,797 unauthorised colonies draw underground water for their daily usage.

Rajasthan and Punjab have abused the resource even more. As for Gujarat, its groundwater tables have been dropping at a rate close to 20m per decade since 1974.

The West Central Region office of Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) reported fluctuation in groundwater in 34 districts in Maharashtra. In over 9,000 sq km spanning Yavatmal, Chandrapur, Amravati, Akola and Beed the water table fell by more than four metres. Of 353 Talukas in Maharashtra, well over half have recorded depletion of groundwater at different levels.

In Tamil Nadu, the problem of groundwater depletion has become complex, with eight of its meagre 25.5 per cent safe blocks containing saline water. In Pudukottai and Erode districts, the table measures at less than one percent.

According to the Central Groundwater Board, there has been a general decline in groundwater level in 2003 due to the complete desaturation of shallow aquifers, too. With groundwater recharging failing to keep pace with withdrawal, the water crisis has further deepened in these states.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the average annual per capita water availability in India fell by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2011. These levels are predicted to fall another 13 per cent by 2025 and 15 per cent again by 2050.

This means that in another 30 years, each Indian household will have only about 1.1 million litres of water per year, down from 1.8 million litres in 2011. According to global standards a country suffers from water scarcity if availability is below 1 million litres per capita per year.

India’s exponential population boom will overtake China in the coming decades. This is further bound to aggravate the water crisis. A 2018 report from global advocacy group WaterAid has already put India at the top of the list of countries with the worst access to clean water closer to homes.

What also worsens the situation is the fact that India’s topography and infrastructure allow storage of only 30 days of rainfall, while developed nations strategically store 900 days’ worth of water demand in river basins and reservoirs in arid areas.

India also relies excessively on groundwater, which is available in over 50 percent of its irrigated area and has 20 million tube wells. Interestingly, about 15 per cent of India’s food is being produced using rapidly depleting groundwater. To ensure that the resource is not extinguished, other methods of irrigation must also be employed.

(Charts: Fazil Khan)