Drought in South India: As summer kicks in, TN, Karnataka and other states stare at another water crisis
Step into Tamil Nadu and you find the Cauvery has died in the state. Driving through Trichy, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam, the mighty Cauvery today is reduced to tiny puddles of dirty water in the delta region.
The youths check if the rope is strong before a couple of them use it to get into the deep gorge. In Chandragad village, 70 km from Mahbubnagar town in Telangana, wells have run dry and this is the only source of water. As is evident from the accompanying picture, the quest for even this dirty water is making them risk loss of limb or even death every single day.
Step into Tamil Nadu and you find the Cauvery has died in the state. Driving through Trichy, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam, the mighty Cauvery today is reduced to tiny puddles of dirty water in the delta region. Standing on a bridge built over the Cauvery river in Nagapattinam district, farmer Ramdas asks me if I can spot the river below. I do not because there is only sand, garbage and filth. Tamil Nadu is in the midst of the worst drought in 140 years.
Tamil Nadu farmers blame it on Karnataka's refusal to release enough Cauvery water despite orders of the Supreme court. As per the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, Karnataka ought to have released 182 billion cubic feet (bcf) between June and December 2016 but it let out only 67.2 bcf.
What made matters worse was the failure of the north-east monsoon in October-December. Tamil Nadu recorded a 62 percent deficit, with the state receiving only 166 mm of rainfall against the seasonal average of 437 mm. The samba (winter) crop also failed just like the kuruvai (summer) crop had, leading to the death of over 270 farmers.
Not that the situation is any better in Karnataka, the upper riparian state that is accused of denying Tamil Nadu its due share of the Cauvery. The Krishna Sagara dam, that stores the Cauvery water, has water levels at a 15-year low. The Cauvery basin that should have received 311 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water between June 2016 and March 2017 received only 142 TMC, the lowest in 42 years. The Alamatti dam over the Krishna fares as badly, its near emptiness cutting a sorry figure.
In fact, there is only 7 TMC of Cauvery water left in the reservoir to meet the drinking water needs of 42 towns and cities, including Bengaluru and 625 villages. That demand comes to 3 TMC every month, with Bengaluru alone accounting for 1.5 TMC. With a seepage and evaporation loss of close to 2 TMC, it will be a miracle if Bengaluru and adjoining areas do not go thirsty this summer.
While the focus has been on Tamil Nadu due to the protest by farmers at Jantar Mantar, the fact is its neighbour Kerala is as bad, recording the worst drought in a century. The southwest monsoon from June to September 2016 recorded a rainfall deficit of 33.7 percent. The northeast monsoon from October to December was short by 61.7 percent, pushing Kerala into a water crisis.
Much of this grim reality is reflected in the data that is released by the Central Water Commission every week. A reading of the water levels at the 91 reservoirs in the country, 31 of them in south India, tells you that the summer of 2017, with a backlog of a bad 2016, has converted the peninsula into a parched land. The south reservoirs are meant to hold 51.6 billion cubic metres of water. But the present storage levels are just 13 percent of that capacity. At the same time last year, the reservoirs stored 16 percent of their capacity while the ten-year average storage for the same period in April is 25 percent.
Among the five southern states, only Telangana and adjoining districts of Bidar and Gulbarga in north Karnataka are doing a shade better thanks to the good showers it received last year. Barring parts of Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda districts in the southern part of the state, the lakes and ponds elsewhere still have water and that takes care of the drinking water needs. This was made possible by the government's focus on repairing and rejuvenating its wells, farm ponds and minor irrigation tanks, groundwater recharge and construction of water harvesting structures with over 1.21 lakh water-related works done under MGNREGS in 2016-17.
Compare that with bigger states Karnataka (69000 works) and Tamil Nadu (41000 works). A clear indication that lack of foresight at the ground level also has contributed to the drinking water crisis in these states.
Tamil Nadu was hoping that once it rains in Karnataka as the south-west monsoon sets in, there will be inflows into the Cauvery. But Skymet Weather prediction of a below normal rainfall has put a dampener. The Indian Meteorological Department's forecast is expected next week but farmers in Karnataka point out that it was way off the mark last year. IMD had predicted an above normal monsoon at 106 percent in 2016. It came embarrassingly unstuck in the peninsula.
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