Water shortage is an issue even in the capital New Delhi. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

Water shortage is an issue even in the capital New Delhi. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

India is facing what many believe is the country’s worst water crisis in decades.

Water levels in about 90 percent of the reservoirs across the country have dropped to alarming levels, while rivers are quickly drying up.

As Bismillah Geelani reports, many blame flawed government policies for the precarious situation. 


In the western state of Mahrashtra, dozens of men, women and children have surrounded a water tanker on the main road.

They are holding pitchers, buckets and other containers and are trying to fill as many as they can.

35-year old Renuka pushes her way to the top of the tanker and manages to fill her 5 pitchers.

“I’ve waited 15 days to get this much water. But how long will it last? We haven’t seen tap water for the last two years, our ponds and wells have dried up, there’s no water at all,” Renuka said.

But Manohar managed just one bucket. Another one he had filled spilled on the ground as someone tried to snatch it from him.

The water crisis, says Manohar, has turned ‘brothers into enemies’.

The region is reeling from severe drought for the third consecutive year.

In the past, failed crops have been a major worry for the largely farming community, resulting in a spate of farm suicides.

But today the farmers appear less concerned about their withering crops and more about themselves, says agricultural journalist Harveesh Singh.

“It’s a scary situation. So far, the concern has been the crops, the increasing input costs for the farmers and their diminishing returns, but what we are witnessing now is a catastrophe, our water reservoirs have almost emptied, the level has reached as low as 5 percent in Maharashtra.”

According to Singh, “It’s no longer about farming, they don’t even have enough water to drink, it is now the question of their life and the life of their livestock

While every drop of water is a struggle, one local minister had no qualms about wasting ten thousand liters of water just to settle the dust blown away by his helicopter as he arrived to assess the situation.

Anger is also brewing against the government for allowing 7 matches of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament to be played in the state. It’s estimated that 7 million liters of water are needed to maintain the grounds.

Rakesh Singh is spokesperson for Loksatta, an NGO working among farmers, he commented,

“If you see the water policy for the state of Maharashtra there is a guideline that has to be followed and the guideline is very clear: water has to be utilized in order of priority. The priority is for drinking, cooking and agriculture.”

Singh continued, “Maharashtra cannot afford IPL at this juncture when most of the districts in the state are facing an acute drought. This is a moral as well as a legal issue.”

But it is not about the state of Maharshtra alone, at least 12 others states have also been declared drought hit, almost half of them severely.

In the southern states of Karnataka and Telangana, people walk several kilometers in the scorching heat to fetch a bucket of drinking water.

In the northern states of Punjab, farmers cannot irrigate their crops, while in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, armed soldiers have been deployed around water bodies to prevent so-called ‘water theft’.

Agricultural Minister Radhamohan Singh blames weather conditions for the crisis.

“This is a natural calamity and we can’t story nature. There has been a continuous shortfall in rain but we are doing everything possible to minimize its impact. We are working closely with all state government and providing them every help,” the Minister stated.

Environmentalists claim government policies are responsible for the worsening situation.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People, explains.

“I think in the Post-Independence era this is going to be the worst summer that India has faced. Of course the back-to-back rainfall deficit in the last two years has played a role but I think a much bigger role has been played by lack of prior action, complete mismanagement and real lack of any clearly defined policy and mechanism to allocate water according to the priorities.”

Thakkar says the government’s obsession with building dams and interlinking rivers has led to serious neglect of what he calls India’s water lifeline.

India’s water lifeline is not rivers; it’s not canals and big dams either. It’s ground water. More than 2/3 of irrigation comes from ground water, more than 85% of rural water supply is met by ground water, so whether we like or not ground water is going to be our water lifeline for years to come. Our whole water policy, planning, practices and projects have to be focused on how to sustain that water lifeline.”

Experts say that ground water recharge systems like rivers, forests, wetlands and local water bodies have either dried up, or are extremely polluted.

According to the Central Ground Water Board, 40 percent of the country’s population will no longer have access to drinking water by 2030 if the current situation continues. 

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