Standing the test of drought

  • 14/01/2000

Standing the test of drought The story echoes the fable of the industrious ant that stocks foodstuff for winter and the lazy grasshopper that is left without food. Women and children dig the dry bed of the Sukhi river near Dahod town of Gujarat. Sitting aside one-metre-deep holes, they wait for life to seep into the holes in the form of water - all other sources of drinking water have dried up completely. "It takes at least one hour for us to get one pot of water. But we are forced to do this as there is no alternative," says Lasan Bhilwad, a tribal woman from the nearby Rentia village.

Barely 25-30 km from Rentia, all the wells and handpumps of Thunthi Kankasiya and Mahudi villages have plenty of water. The seasonal river Machhan, which flows past these villages, has enough water even for irrigation. The N M Sadguru Water and Development Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (ngo) functioning in Dahod district that is known simply as Sadguru, and the residents here have constructed a series of concrete check dams to collect rainwater for irrigation. Moreover, watershed management (wm) measures have been adapted for recharging wells and handpumps. Their past efforts are bearing fruit today.

As Lasan Bhilwad stands on the riverbed with her four children, one can understand why it is difficult to find a family in this region that is willing to marry its daughter to someone from a water-scarce village, no matter how agreeable the prospective groom may be. They do not want their daughters to undergo the agony of seeing water trickle into a hole, even as people trickle out of the village to look for greener pastures. Water means prosperity - its scarcity means poverty, regardless of material wealth. And these are particularly 'poor' times for hundreds of villages in Gujarat. The reason is summarised in one word: drought.

"This is the worst drought I have ever seen in my life," says the 48-year-old Bhilwad. The rainy season has just ended, yet there is little water. Nobody knows how the residents will survive till the next monsoon. The portents are all there to see in the deserted Piyaka village of Mandvi taluka in Kachchh district of Gujarat. All the 550 people from 21 houses have left Piyaka for good. "We were forced to leave because we could no longer face the water crisis," says Argi Badra, 44, who was on a one-day visit from Mumbai when he spoke to Down To Earth .

Most reservoirs in the Saurashtra region in southwestern Gujarat have only 9 per cent of their capacity of water, which will last for only two months, according to the Gujarat Water Supply & Sewerage Board (gwssb), Rajkot. The board says the region received a mere 356 millimetre (mm) of rainfall this year till October 30, as against an annual average of 530 mm. People in Rajkot city are getting drinking water supply for half-an-hour every day. "We really do not know how we will meet the drinking water demand in our district in April-May 2000. Already, we are supplying drinking water through tankers in several areas where there are no pipelines," says Ashwini Kumar, sub-divisional magistrate (sdm) of Rajkot district. In the Kachchh district, rainfall this year has been around 133 mm, much less than half the annual average of 266-417 mm. Already, riots are taking place in the state due to water scarcity (see Riots over water ).

Drought is nothing new here, but this year's water scarcity has been particularly devastating. Apart from Saurashtra and Kachchh, the districts of Dahod and Panchmahals in Gujarat as well as Jhabua and Dhar in the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh are facing a serious drinking water crisis. With little water for irrigation, the first casualty has been agriculture. After the kharif crop (harvested in autumn) failed to a large extent in these areas, there are already signs that the rabi crop (harvested in spring) will suffer a similar fate. "Rainfall was low this year and distributed in such a way that there was no run-off. So, harvesting of water did not take place. Yet many watershed areas, where rainwater harvesting and soil-water conservation measures have been implemented, are better off in terms of water availability," says Harnath Jagawat, director of Sadguru.

Water scarcity: the region's history
Water was easily available in the region 10-15 years ago. But overexploitation has depleted underground aquifers. The groundwater table in these areas has fallen below 300 metres, says G F Joshi, executive engineer with the public health works division in Rajkot. Seawater has ingressed into the underground aquifers in a major part of Kachchh region, according to a recent report of the Gujarat Ecology Commission.

"The presence of 700,000 dugwells in Saurashtra region indicates the presence of extensive groundwater aquifers throughout the region. This means there is one well for less than 20 people, or one well for every 9 hectare (ha) of land or one every 1,000 feet (304 metres)," according to Ashvin A Shah, a us -based engineering consultant who conducted a survey in 1998 on water availability in the region. However, the use of pumpsets for water-intensive agriculture over the past 30 years has lowered the groundwater table from about 9 metres to about 46 metres, he says, indicating that the capacity of the same aquifers is still available to store water.

In the area underlain by Bhuj sandstone in Kachchh, the depth of dugwells was 9-30 metres and water level was 2-21 metres in the 1960s, according to a paper prepared by K C B Raju, adviser, Shri Vivekanand Research and Training Institute in Mandvi, Kachchh district. Today, the depth of dugwells is 30 metres or more and the depth of the bore in them is between 30 metres and 100 metres.

There are about 30,000 dugwells/borewells and about 350 tubewells tapping the underground aquifers in Bhuj and Manchar. The utilisable groundwater resources of the district estimated in 1991 are about 517.07 million cubic metres (mcum). However, more than 55 per cent of the water has already been extracted, and 57 per cent of the land area of Kachchh has been occupied by the saline mudlands of the Rann of Kachchh, which will not contribute to groundwater recharge, notes Raju. He quotes data from the agriculture department of Gujarat to say that the cropped area in Saurashtra and Kachchh has declined by 35 per cent in parts affected by seawater intrusion.

Shamjibhai Antala of Saurashtra Lok Manch, an ngo based in Dhoraji village of Rajkot, says the number of wells and borewells in Saurashtra and Kachchh has increased 16 times over from 25,854 in 1961 to 425,000 in 1998. The groundwater table was about 12-15 metres below the surface in most areas of Saurashtra and Kachchh, while today it has dropped to 215-305 metres, he says. The story from Dahod in Gujarat and Dhar in Madhya Pradesh is much the same.

Impact of this year's drought
The water problem became a political issue in Gandhinagar during the September-October general elections. The candidate from the state capital was home minister L K Advani, and the slogan doing the rounds was " Pahele Pani, Phir Advani " (Water first, then Advani). According to gwssb , 73 per cent of the villages in Saurashtra and Kachchh (3,774 out of 5,181) are expected to face drinking water scarcity this year, apart from 60 cities. About 4,730 villages of these areas are included in the "no-source" category, meaning that drinking water has to be supplied from outside to these villages.

"There is a limit to which the government can provide water through tankers. Had it not rained in the first week of October 1999, as we had feared, we might have faced serious consequences. Now, at least we have been able to catch some rainwater, which is adequate to meet the drinking water needs of the district for another four months," says P B Trivedi, district magistrate of Rajkot. "It would have been very costly for us to provide water for four months to water-scarce areas in the district through tankers," says Ashwini Kumar.

In Jhabua district, the total kharif crop yield of 1999 is estimated to be 60 per cent lower than in 1998 (106,735 metric tonnes as against 265,036 metric tonnes), according to Wasim Akhtar, collector of Jhabua district. Moreover, the rabi crop yield this year is expected to be 93 per cent lower than in 1998 (9,966 metric tonnes as against 141,099 metric tonnes). Jhabua recorded a rainfall of 536 mm this year, the second lowest in the past 25 years, according to the district administration. The average annual rainfall in Jhabua in the last 25 years has been 886 mm.

In Dhar district, the rainfall recorded this year was about 665 mm, as against the average annual rainfall of 840 mm. "Of the total 227,000 ha of the rabi area, we expect to harvest only about 150,000 ha. This is less than 35 per cent of the rabi crop last year," says Rajesh Rajora, Dhar's district magistrate. The district has 244 irrigation tanks, out of which only 12 tanks have water up to 90 per cent of their capacity, while 155 tanks have either half their capacity or less.

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