Calcutta Notebook


Residents of Aurangabad, Maharashtra locked up officials of the water utility company in their office for about three-and-half hours due to non-supply of water for six consecutive days. Similar problems are reported from across the country. The problem is really global. Demand of water is increasing while availability is limited.

One way to face this problem is to augment the total availability of water. Huge amount of water is lost through evaporation in large dams like Bhakra and Tehri. This loss can be eliminated by storing water in groundwater aquifers. The Central Groundwater Board has estimated that 76 billion cubic meters of storage capacity exists in the aquifers of Uttar Pradesh. The storage capacity of Tehri reservoir is only five percent of this. Well, the authorities  can store 20 times the water in these aquifers and also save the loss from evaporation, if they so wish.

About 88 percent of water is used in agriculture. Much of it is used for the production of water-intensive commercial crops like grapes, red chillies and menthe that one can easily do without. Also, India is exporting large amounts of water by packaging it in sugar. Demand for these luxury crops is driven by the demand from the upper classes. Huge amounts of water are being used to produce these crops with the result that there is less available for the production of wheat, rice and vegetables.

There is a huge wastage of water in agriculture. States like Punjab are encouraging the farmers to over-irrigate the crops by providing free electricity. Most states charge farmers for canal water on the basis of area irrigated irrespective of the number of times irrigation is done. Farmers do not have an incentive to invest in water saving technologies like drip and sprinkler irrigation because water is cheap.

The Government is not interested in sorting these problems because of vested interests. There is a huge dam construction lobby that does not want storage to be done in groundwater aquifers. The upper class wants its grapes and chillies no matter how it affects the food security of the country. The middle class does not want the farmers to be charged for the volume of water used by them so that the cost of production of agricultural crops is less and they do not have to pay more for the flour and rice.

The scarcity of water is intertwined with regional geopolitics. Political analyst Brahma Chellaney says that the 1965 war launched by Pakistan against India was aimed at controlling the waters of the rivers that flow from Kashmir. India is engaged in an ongoing tussle with Bangladesh on the sharing of waters of the Teesta River. Most analysts in Bangladesh hold India responsible of "piracy" of the waters of the Ganga by unilaterally building the Farakka Barrage. China's claim on Arunachal appear to be anchored on the lush water resources of that state. Release of waters from dams in Nepal is often blamed for floods in the Kosi. The irreversible fact is that South Asian countries are inextricably tied up with each other on the water flowing through their common rivers.

The problem requires a more nuanced approach. India is upper riparian with reference to Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is only natural that neighbours seek more water, while India wants to give less. The problem will ultimately be solved politically. But economics can help. The way forward is to assess the gains to, say, Bangladesh if India releases an extra one cubic meter of water from the Ganga at Farakka; and the loss to India from the release of the same water. If gain to Bangladesh is more than the loss to India, then India should release more water of people's Collective good. But India cannot be altruist and suffer for no reason. The way out is to ask Bangladesh to compensate India for the loss borne due to release of more water. Bangladesh must share with India the benefits from getting more water. Such framework can become a win-win situation.

In certain areas the conflict is more of engineers' making. The Farakka Barrage has become a curse for both India and Bangladesh. About one-half of the water is diverted to the Hooghly by India and one-half goes to the Padma in Bangladesh. But the river carries sediments as well. These sediments settle in the Farakka Reservoir and they are flushed into the Padma. In all probability Bangladesh gets about ninety percent of the sediments while Hooghly gets only 10 percent. The excess supply of sediments to Bangladesh is leading to deposition of the sediments on the riverbed, raising of water level in the river and to increased flooding. The reduced supply of sediments to the Hooghly has its own consequences. The section of Hooghly between Farakka and Diamond Harbour is benefited. Less inflow of sediments leads to less deposition and less need of dredging. But the section below Diamond Harbour is on the receiving end. The Sea has a natural hunger for sediments. Less sediments are leading to the Sea eating away West Bengal coasts to meet its hunger. As a result large scale erosion of the Sunderbans is taking place. About 50,000 persons have been displaced so far. The lopsided distribution of sediments have become a curse for both countries. The way out is to redesign the Farakka Barrage so that sediments and water are distributed in the same proportions.

Vol. 47, No. 49, June 14 - 20, 2015