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Stress test: the need for water management reforms

 On the cusp of the southwest monsoon, several arid States are hoping to revive their rivers and reservoirs with bountiful rain. One of them is Gujarat, which is roiled by the long-tail effect of a deficit monsoon between August and November last year. The State government has embarked on a labour-intensive programme to desilt rivers and waterbodies ahead of the rains. Its predicament reflects the larger reality of drought in India, aggravated by heat waves and significant rain deficits in different regions. This year’s fall in reservoir storage levels to below-average levels has affected farmers who depend on the Sardar Sarovar dam, and 27 other reservoirs including those in Madhya Pradesh. A reinvigorated Congress in the opposition has turned the heat on the BJP government in Gujarat, which is hard put to defend itself against the charge that dam waters were depleted merely to fill the Sabarmati river for a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December, when he undertook a seaplane journey on the river. Its response has been to roll out a campaign to deepen waterbodies on the one hand, and arrange religious events to propitiate the gods on the other. But it has had to prioritise drinking water needs over farming, and suspend irrigation supply from the dam on March 15. This year, Delhi has been at loggerheads with Haryana over reduction of water released in the Yamuna, highlighting growing stresses over a vital resource. Urgent water management reforms must be undertaken to help citizens and avoid losses to the economy.

In a normal year, the pre-monsoon phase from March 1 brings some respite and India gets about 130 mm of precipitation before the rainy season begins. This year began with a sharp 50% deficit, but touched near-normal levels, though not in the northwestern region. The monsoon itself is highly variable. This underscores the need for comprehensive reforms at the level of States, with the Centre helping to conserve hydrological resources. If Gujarat improves rural water storage structures and creates many small wetlands beyond the compulsions of politics, it can ensure long-term prosperity for thousands of villages in Saurashtra, Kutch and the northern region where pumps run dry with unfailing regularity. Farmers will get relief from the monsoon vagaries that affect the Narmada, whose waters are apportioned among four States. There is also the challenge of reducing demand for farming, given that the Mihir Shah Committee estimated public irrigation efficiency to be a low 35%. Farmers need to be helped with the latest technologies to cut water use. The State government is thinking of going in for desalination. Decentralised water storage too will help cities like Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodara when water supply from large dams and other sources dwindles. If climate change is going to influence monsoon vigour and availability in coming years, the time to take action is now.

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