Till taught by pain /man knows not what good water is worth.

 — Lord Byron in Don Juan

An unprecedented drought has caused an acute water famine in a dozen states. Reservoirs, tanks and wells have run dry in quick succession. The people, mainly in villages and small towns are bearing the brunt and hundreds have died of dehydration. The daily search of water on foot by women in villages has now doubled or trebled… and it is often futile. It is a dilemma of modern India that nearly 70 years after Independence, the government has miserably failed to supply basic drinking water to its villages and towns. And this despite the fact that it is now the 11th economic power in the world, has the world&’s third richest man, is a nuclear power to reckon with, and has the world&’s second largest democracy. Software development has become the country&’s forte and nearly one-third of IT experts in the USA are Indians, including CEOs of leading companies like Microsoft, Google and Adobe.

However, as soon as news of the drought and its disastrous effects reached the media, India&’s vulnerability to the elements was exposed and the world was reminded that it is still a Third World country. It is ranked 132 amongst the 174 countries in the UN&’s 2015 Human Development Index. Its position in the HDI is below Sri Lanka (HDI 95) and Myanmar (HDI 128). This inherent dilemma of modern India was addressed by the former US President, Bill Clinton, who exhorted an audience of young computer experts in Hyderabad on 24 March, 2000 — "Getting people connected to fresh water is as important as getting connected to the Net. The information technology that is creating 25-year-old multi-millionaires should not be governed by higher profits but higher purpose". I’m afraid that Mr Clinton&’s most inspiring words have fallen on deaf ears.

What has made the impact of the drought so severe is the fact that politicians, planners, administrators and engineers have paid no attention whatsoever to such natural calamities in the past . Lack of planning coupled with institutional weaknesses both at the Central and State levels have exacerbated the effects of the drought. In 1987, some 40 years after Independence, our legislators realised the need for a water policy. The Lok Sabha adopted the National Water Policy, which gave top priority to drinking water for the first time since Independence. Till then almost all water development projects were focused on irrigation. Although the worthies at the now-defunct Yojana Bhavan had dumped Marx and Laski for Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, their yardsticks for identifying the urgent needs of the people remain unchanged. They sanctioned mega dams and reservoirs to produce more food, but completely forgot that a person could survive without food much longer than without water.

India is a semi-arid or seasonally arid country where droughts can occur more often than in humid or temperate climates. The causes of droughts in Asia and Africa are complex and a lot of research needs to be done to establish whether global warming has increased their frequency or severity. According to a report from the Centre of Atmospheric Modelling at University of Reading (UK): "Indian rainfall has been monitored for well over a century and there is little evidence yet of any change in the monsoon that might be attributed to global warming". Extreme dry (and wet) conditions in the tropics are caused by the abnormal movement of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Droughts in India are not the result of a total rainfall failure — as happens in parts of Africa — but of partial failure. India is thus never far from drought.

The existing institutional arrangements, which date back to the British period, are totally inadequate to satisfy the basic drinking water requirements both for the urban and rural areas. At the urban level, the existing joint water and sewerage boards in major cities should be divided into two autonomous City Water Supply Board and City Sewerage Board. For rural water supplies, each State should also establish an autonomous Rural Drinking Water Supply Board with offices in each district. Since rural water supplies have been neglected more than the urban supplies, a Central Rural Drinking Water Supply Commission (CRDWSC) should be established in Delhi on the lines of the Central Water Commission which was created soon after Independence to develop water for irrigation and which has done an exemplary job. The CRDWSC should formulate policies, develop strategies, create a comprehensive national computerized hydrological database, test appropriate technologies, develop new technologies, and train manpower to investigate, develop and supply drinking water to villages and small towns. 

India has been a leader in the development/application of appropriate technology and the rural water supply development will provide a new opportunity for further initiatives. Specialised training of staff can be carried out in countries like Israel and China which have not only developed such effective techniques as re-use of polluted water and harvesting of rain-water, but are also using them on a mass scale. Many new technologies are available to augment the meagre and unpredictable water resources of arid and semi-arid regions. They have been tried and tested with varying degrees of success. In the present socio-economic conditions of the country, some of them may be either too expensive or too technologically advanced. We should try only those which are technically appropriate, economically feasible and socially acceptable. The two countries that have yielded spectacular results are Israel and China. A UN publication entitled ‘More Water for Arid Lands’ summarises all the available techniques. 

A particular technique is fairly well known in India; even large property developers are trying to incorporate it in their housing development projects. Rainwater from the roof of a house is directed by pipes to an underground tank or an over-ground water storage facility. The water stored during monsoon is used in the dry summer months after basic chemical treatment. Both central and State governments should popularise this technique especially in villages and the villagers should be given technical advice and financial help by the government to build it in their houses. In China, some villages received World Food Programme assistance to construct underground tanks in their new houses. With an annual rainfall of 500 mm or more in different parts of India, this is a most attractive and practical technique both for rural and urban India. The government can enlist the technical assistance of the Institute of Hydrology and Ecology in Roorkee in the design and implementation of rainwater harvesting schemes. Recycling or re-use of waste water from sewerage and storm water drainage systems can help in relieving pressure on such non-potable uses as small-scale irrigation, and watering of private and public gardens and areas covered with grass. There are many methods of recycling waste water. The artificial recharge of groundwater either by spreading river flood waters or pre-selected recharge basins or by direct injection into recharge wells could significantly enhance the recharge of an aquifer. Artificial recharge can also be carried out by building of ‘check dams’ or ‘sand bars’ on small intermittent streams.

The development of well fields in hydro-geologically promising areas is more beneficial for water supplies to large urban population centres than drilling of innumerable private wells. However, the present policy of encouraging individual households to drill their own wells has resulted in wells being constructed in densely populated areas, often hardly 5 metres apart. This policy will result in irreparable damage to the aquifer.

Several attempts in the USA, Australia and Europe to make artificial rain by cloud-seeding have been only partially successful. The procedure normally involves impregnation of the right type of clouds by silver iodide or other chemicals. Invariably, in all these experiments the little rain produced did not fall on the target area. Therefore, artificial rain-making on a scale that is required in India is not feasible, although many States spend crores annually under political pressure. The World Bank does not usually fund artificial rain projects. India has not learnt any lessons from previous droughts. But it cannot not afford to ignore the calamitous effects of the present drought which has engulfed almost half the country and which is unprecedented in its impact on the people.