Maharashtra drought: a story of India’s failed water management

The so-called Maharashtra’s worst drought since 1972 is an example of India’s water management failure and a scam of huge magnitude.

The government had spent Rs 3,51,000 crore on building dams and reservoirs over major rivers since 1950s but it had not resulted in any significant addition of land to the irrigation network.

So, where has the money gone?

Some of it has been used for building new dams and for maintaining the existing reservoirs and irrigation channels. But, a huge chunk might have been siphoned off in the name of providing irrigation facilities to farmers as has happened in Maharashtra.

The government’s strategy of building big dams to improve agriculture production has not worked.

The Planning Commission in its 12th plan document says that there was definite limits to the role big dams can play in providing economically viable irrigation potential.

A recent World Bank study has pointed out that ‘there is little value to additional storage in most of the peninsular river basins (the Kaveri, Krishna and Godavari) and in the Narmada and Tapti.

Similarly, a study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) shows that Krishna and Kaveri have reached full or partial closure, says the plan document.

Another IWMI study quoted by the planning commission shows that in the Krishna river basin, the storage capacity of major and medium reservoirs has reached total water yield, with virtually no water reaching the sea in low rainfall years.

Studies have also shown that building of dams on rivers has its adverse impact on local hydrological and climate conditions.

Huge water reservoirs cause increase in humidity resulting in change in local temperature regimes, aggravating saline ground water intrusion and putting at risk delicate wetlands.

A data from the 12th plan document could summarise impact of dams on country’s water need. An additional 364 billion cubic meter of water is lost every year because of evaporation from these massive water storage sites.

The panel now believes that building large-scale irrigation development in India is not an answer to country’s rising water woes. Maharashtra is an epitome of the failure.

It is a state with highest number of large dams in the country and most of them were built after 1972 drought. Despite these dams coming up in 17 drought prone districts, the government has described 2012-13 as worse drought than 1972. That is when half of these drought hit districts have received more rainfall than what they did in 1972.

If the water management data is analysed, only two inferences can be drawn from Maharashtra experience. First, the dams have failed to deliver and second, the government had diverted the water meant for irrigation to big industrial projects.

The first inference is valid for most parts of India and second partially. This does not mean that politicians would be held accountable for the grave lapse.

However, poor farmers would continue to suffer. That is the modern India for you and me.

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