The water truck: Record heat adds to woes

Amitabh Sinha
At the filling station in Mokhada tehsil. Trucks refill their tankers at least twice a day. (Express photo: Prashant Nadkar)

A shortage of water in the weeks leading up to the monsoon season is not unusual in many parts of the country. By this time, water stored in reservoirs, ponds and wells from the previous season s rains are near complete depletion, and the demand for water is at a peak due to high temperatures. Areas like Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra, which are water-deficient even in normal times, are under tremendous stress.

This year, however, the water shortage has been a little more acute in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka. Water expert Madhav Chitale described the situation in Maharashtra as a one-in-25-year event . There was just one month, February, in the last one year since July 2018 that the country as a whole received normal monthly rainfall. All the other months saw below normal rainfall. The pre-monsoon season of March to May had a 25 per cent deficiency in rainfall.

To add to the woes, temperatures this summer have been abnormally higher, especially in the western half of the country where the water shortage is more acute. Average monthly temperatures in the months of March, April and May have been 1-2 degree Celsius higher than normal in most areas in western India. In many places, it has been 3-4 degree Celsius higher. Many places saw record-breaking temperatures. Pune, for example, recorded its hottest April day in 36 years, with the mercury touching almost 43 degrees Celsius. A number of places in Maharashtra, western Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat recorded several consecutive days of 42-plus-degree heat.

In the month of May, in almost the entire western half, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and the entire south, maximum and mean average monthly temperatures were 1-2 degree Celsius higher than normal.

Heat map on June 13

This colour-coded map, accessed from the website of the India Meteorological Department, shows the deviation of maximum temperature over India from its normal value on June 13. Shades of yellow, pink and red represent temperatures higher than normal while shades of green, blue and purple represent temperature lower than normal. The area over Gujarat and Rajasthan turned to green and blue shades because of Cyclone Vayu which has brought some rain over the region. It had shades of pink and red till June 11.

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Gujarat: As many as 96 of the state s 250 tehsils, spanning 17 districts, having been declared either drought-affected or scarcity-hit, a majority of these in Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

Karnataka: Of 176 talukas, 156 have been listed as drought-hit. Of these, 107 talukas have been listed as having severe drought conditions.

Maharashtra: Until June 3, residents of 5,127 villages and 10,867 hamlets were solely dependent on tanker water supply for daily needs.

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The demand for water is at its peak in summer. That is not unusual. The hotter it is, the more the demand for water, mainly for use by humans and cattle. And because this summer has been unusually hotter, the demand has been higher. Consequently, the supply of water has been put under strain. The fact that it did not rain in the pre-monsoon season, and rainfall has been deficient even otherwise, has led to acute shortage, Narayan Hegde, trustee and principal advisor of the Pune-based BAIF Development Research Foundation, said.

While several unusually extreme factors have combined to make this a particularly bad year for water, experts say the shortage is more of a structural problem, and the situation would not improve significantly even in a good monsoon year.

You look at the water availability figures. The per capita water availability in the country has been going down consistently due to population pressure, and also from a rise in demand from industries. As of now, the per capita availability would be somewhere around 1400 cubic metre per year. We are already officially categorised as water-stressed. Besides, available does not mean utilisable . Even in areas where 1400 cubic metre is available, the utilisable water would be between 50 to 60 per cent. With population still increasing, more industries coming up, and because of climate change impacts, this situation will only worsen, M L Kansal, who heads the Department of Water Resource Development and Management at IIT Roorkee, said.

India s per capita water availability has fallen from 5,178 cubic metre per year in 1951 to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011, mainly because of the tripling of population from 361 million to 1.21 billion. In 2015, the per capita water availability is said to have fallen below the 1,500-cubic-metre mark for the first time. By the year 2050, this is expected to go as low as 1,174 cubic metres. A per capita availability of 1,000 cubic metre per year gets the official classification of a water-stressed region.

While the demand has been rising rapidly, the supply has been constant, even dwindling. India receives an annual precipitation of about 4,000 billion cubic metres, and this is the primary source for replenishing rivers, groundwater, lakes, reservoirs and ponds. The last few years have shown a consistent trend of reducing precipitation.

In only three years since 2000 has the annual rainfall touched its normal figure of 1,187.6 mm, and that too barely. The deficits in the deficient years, however, have been large, up to 20 per cent. In the same time-frame, there have been only six years when the monsoon rainfall, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of annual rainfall, has been normal or slightly better than normal. Again, the deficit years have been much more pronounced.

We are in a crisis situation, not this year and not just in Maharashtra. And we need to do much more than we are currently doing to address this, says Hegde.