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Parched earth, pouring pain

With 2017 set to unleash unprecedented water scarcity in the country—from Bundelkhand to Andhra Pradesh—fields, ponds and reservoirs are drying up, leaving cattle to die and farmers foraging for food.

Published: 30th April 2017 06:11 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th April 2017 06:11 AM   |  A+A-

The Singanamala pond near Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh is typical of the bleak landscapes in India this summer. For miles around on the dried tank bed, that lonely shepherd and his goat are the only fauna looking for the last clump of grass|P Ravindra Babu

With 2017 set to unleash unprecedented water scarcity in the country—from Bundelkhand to Andhra Pradesh—fields, ponds and reservoirs are drying up, leaving cattle to die and farmers foraging for food. South India is already reeling under its worst-ever drought in decades.

Delhi is experiencing a summer of plenty avoiding water crisis and enjoying surplus power. Farway from its verdant colonies, the bare facts of India’s creeping drought and its cruel cousin, water scarcity, are frightening: 260 districts and 330 million Indians affected. The first trace of moisture available is at 100m below ground level in Rajasthan. In the South, reservoirs are down to 10 per cent of storage. In Bundelkhand region, the defining picture of drought is endless distances of parched earth.

Emaciated cattle, abandoned by farmers who cannot afford to feed them, search for a blade of grass. Some die of thirst in dry lake beds. Almost 80 percent of the region’s population is mainly agricultural (2011 census). However, one place where all that is blasé in India, bar the Thar desert, is Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, a crucible of drought for as long as anyone can remember.

Rayalaseema is synonymous with drought —a far cry from popular lore that during the time of the Vijayanagara kingdom, merchants would sell rubies in the markets. The poets used to call it Ratanalaseema, the country of jewels. But 2017 might well be the apogee from those days. Groundwater is at rock bottom: 20.52m below ground level (bgl). In Anantapur district, moisture is 26.79m, comparable to 30m in Ramgarh, on the edge of the Thar desert in Rajasthan. A majority of the 12,952 irrigation and drinking water tanks have gone dry.

Last year’s monsoon was poor, not as shockingly poor as in Tamil Nadu, which had the worst monsoon in 140 years. For the first time in years, Mantralayam, the temple town in Kurnool which used to be flooded by the Tungabhadra, is facing an acute wat­er scarcity. Even pits dug on the riverbed refuse to ooze water. The shortage is forcing pe­­o­ple to migr­a­te. Some have sold their livestock to sl­­­a­ughterhouses while others have set them lo­ose on the dry river beds to die from dehydration. Kurnool city’s lone water so­urce, the Sunkesula barrage on the Tungabhadra, has dr­ied up. Of the water from the Gajula Dinne project, 40 per cent evaporates before it reaches the city. The situation in Adoni is such that you are lucky to land a p­ot of water once in two days.

In Tamil Nadu, the drought has affected weddings too. When Pullani’s youngest daughter got married, her family bought an anju-kudam vandi as her dowry—a trolley that costs `4,200 to carry five pots of water—with their meagre savings. It has become an essential part of the dowry list demanded of girls’ families alongside the scooter and the gas stove. In rural Ramanathapuram, there’s not a house without a water trolley parked outside the door. An entire ancillary industry has sprung up in the district to go with the water trolley.

Across the border, the thirst has no relief. Of the past 15 years, 13 have been drought years in Karnataka. 2017 doesn’t bode too well either, according to the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC). The authorities also state that after desert state Rajasthan, Karnataka has the most extent of land ravaged by drought, with 80 per cent of its land prone to drought.  Though some parts of the country, including Madhya Pradesh, witnessed good rainfall, south Indian states bore severe drought. Last year, of the 176 taluks in Karnataka, 160 were declared as drought-hit.

Resourceful villagers in Kerala used to depend on nature for relief from drought. Pallam, a rocky hamlet in Kasargod district, gets its name from a naturally-formed depression on a hilltop which serves as a reservoir. Local residents of this region call theirs a ‘50-cent bowl’. Once it used to hold rainwater for eight months of the year. Of late, the hamlet is prone to droughts. The  government assigned the land to private individuals.

The new owners have started filling up the pallam with earth to level it. People realise the drought is due to the loss of their  50 per cent bowl; the pallam is crucial  for the ecosystem and helps recharge the ground water table. A bigger  reservoir nearby called the Valiyapara pallam is similarly being sent to the grave. “Revenue officers have no idea  about the importance of pallams. They assign land to private individuals  without applying their mind,” says OM Balakrishnan, a teacher and activist of Karinthalam. He and fellow residents are pressing the revenue department to annul the assignment of the two reservoirs. 

Rajasthan
Water trains being sent to parched areas
With 19 of the 33 districts being drought affected, the desert state is in the grip of a water crisis. The government is sending water trains to parched Bhilwara and tankers to other areas facing acute shortage. Nearly 17,000 of the total 44,672 villages are facing water crisis.
Telangana
Nothing on the other side
In Telangana, the government has emerged on the other side of the hole in the earth. Being tired of digging fruitless borewells, it has declared as many as 1,057 villages across the state as over-exploited villages. So any more bore holes are banned in these villages.
Bundelkhand
Dry in the heart of India
After 10 years of on-and-off droughts and mass migration on account of it, the administration has given certification to Sagar district as a water-deficient district. In the UP part, there is no water even at 800 feet. Reports say if the present overtapping continues for five more years, water will be adequate for just 50 per cent of the population.
Punjab
Land of five rivers being over-exploited
Of its 138 blocks, ground water in 105 blocks is over-exploited. In about 50 per cent of the area of Punjab, land of five rivers, ground water levels have dropped from 15m to 30m. A NASA report has shown that water is being pumped up and out faster than can be recharged.
Meanwhile, we’re down to 27% of capacity
Water storage in the 91 major reservoirs in the country has dipped to 27 per cent of their capacity, the  Union Water Resources Ministry has said in its weekly update. Last week that dread figure was 29 per cent. The good news is that it is better than the level at this time last year.



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