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  • Water: Will there be enough for all? - II
    The second in a series of articles, D. Narasimha Reddy says that progressive directions to get India out of the current water management crisis may come from practices of the past.
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    June 2002: Out of the five elements of the nature, water is the most important natural element supporting life on the earth. It stimulates the entire chain action and reaction in the life process. Water is consumed for basic human survival and development. It is the only renewable resource available in limited quantities and is not available throughout the year in the same quantities. This very fundamental aspect challenged mankind who came up with techniques of rain harvesting. One of the many institutional and control mechanisms developed over the centuries that is gaining much attention today is soil and water management using tanks.

    Courtesy, Center for Resource Education, AP Tank based water management systems are a whole watershed system with a tank as its central point. Historically, India and especially her southern states have been following traditional methods of soil and water management through a network of more than 8 lakh tanks. Tanks are artificial lakes created out of advantageous land for rainwater harvesting and for vegetative regeneration. These tanks were variously managed largely following the principles of equity and justice in sharing these resources. Today, Andhra Pradesh has 82,500 such tanks irrigating more than 121 lakh acres directly.

    Historical evidence proves the mastery gained by humankind in developing rainwater-harvesting structures for irrigation and drinking water needs. The stone scriptures at Porumamilla in Cuddapah district in A.P. date back to 1302 A.D. This text provides guidelines on the need to construct such structures, and where to construct. These rainwater-harvesting structures are popularly called as `Tanks', which are small water reservoirs with earthen dams. Thus, tank irrigation is an age-old established practice in India, particularly in semi-arid zones of entire Southern India.

    During subsequent periods, irrigation systems progressively developed from minor, and medium to major, depending on the technology and on the size of the structure. Recently, in the 1970s and 1980s, agriculture witnessed the growth of lift irrigation and tube well irrigation.

    Tank Irrigation

    A tank is a perfect example of a complete hydrological system in which inputs and outputs of material and energy can be readily identified. The geomorphological conditions in semi arid upland area favored development of minor irrigation structures, particularly tank irrigation. Tank irrigation enabled the development appropriate situations which strengthened the social fabric in management of water resources. Restoration and rehabilitation of existing irrigational tanks is vital enough to restore the rural economy. Evolving appropriate methodology on restoration and management can lead into a sustainable development process. Today, the advantage is that most of the areas have existing structures and as such do not demand further capital investment.

    Various studies on water management systems and subsequent interaction with growing communities provided valuable information on the deteriorating conditions of rural economy. Though oldest in terms of structure and management, tank irrigation in India has fallen from a maximum of about 4.8 million ha in 1960-70, to less than 4 million ha in 1975-76. Out of a total 44-lakh hectares of irrigated land in Andhra Pradesh, 26 percent falls under tank irrigation. In some parts, it is 55 percent particularly in Telangana, Rayalaseema and upland areas of coastal region.

    Four and half decades of social change has had a definite impact on social structure and attitudes of people towards resource management. The education system has bypassed the traditional wisdom of resource management. There are several factors which caused this decline of tank irrigation in extent and reliability, especially in Andhra Pradesh. In the last forty years, focus, priority and investment shifted to major irrigation structures, and mega projects. Tank maintenance has been neglected.

    The centralized management of the Government through Irrigation Department has decimated local management structure. Some tanks under local Panchayat bodies were not rehabilitated due to inadequate management resources. Farmer's participation has been reduced to mere tax or cess payers, which resulted in the erosion of sense of belonging among them towards their local resources. Successive governments have given extensive support to the development of individual irrigation sources through tube wells. Administratively, area under tank irrigation was rescheduled as under well irrigation. Tanks were also made redundant because of environmental degradation such as deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion and siltation. In addition, changes in land use pattern particularly in the catchment zones of reservoirs, has aggravated soil erosion and subsequent siltation in tank beds. With the extension of rural agricultural community beyond the traditional sections, neo-farmers are yet to acquire proper agriculture and water management skills. With the growth of new agrarian society including small and marginal farmers, and individual benefit schemes, the entire socio-political system underwent change resulting in a vacuum at the community leadership level.

    In recent times, most of the tanks lost more than 50 percent of their water storage capacity either through siltation or damage to the bund, cumulatively, resulting in frequent flash floods. Percolation mechanism was disturbed creating an overdraft of ground water resources. Water regulating devices were damaged due to erosion while water management committees failed to take proper care to harvest the available rainwater. Catchment area farmers' situation became more vulnerable than the command area farmers did. Shortage of water resources created conflicts among the small and marginal farmers. In much of the area (almost 70%) only one crop is being raised, as is usually done under rain fed conditions. Agricultural labour, small and marginal farmers are hardest hit due to these conditions. Particularly victimized sections are women, who are left behind to struggle, while youth are faced with a directionless path.

    Migration to nearby towns has been growing trend for the past one and half decade and is ever increasing. Census data for the decade 1980-90 reveals that in most of the district headquarters and towns, population growth has touched 45 percent which is attributed to the migration of these deprived sections from rural areas. Farmers, particularly small and marginal, have lost trust and faith in the system.

    However, in the past 10 years, several NGOs across the country have been striving to revive these traditional methods while taking cognizance of modern conditions. Even the government has taken up several projects across the country, independently and also has been implementing in collaboration with NGOs. Already several such localized management systems have been revived complete with physical and social mechanisms, in several places of India. Notable among them are in Maharasthra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The state of Andhra Pradesh had declared 1993-94 as Year of Minor Irrigation, recognizing the role of these mechanisms in the revival of environmental and ecological conditions in the villages.

    Water Pollution

    One of today's main environmental concerns is pollution - pollution from agriculture, industry, from urban growth, and from water development projects such as dams and reservoirs. Contaminated water supply is the major cause of disease in the developing countries. Human activities have had devastating impacts on aquatic ecosystems - damaging fisheries, coral reefs, wetlands and watersheds. Each year as many as four million children die because they lack clean water and effective sanitation. The amount of wastewater is expected to double between 1980 and the year 2000. In 1993, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had proposed a major plan to clean the extremely polluted stretches of 13 major rivers in the country at a cost of Rs.1,115 crores.

    In many areas, modern agricultural practices have caused extensive water contamination with pesticides and salinisation of soils and ground water. Mining and industry have caused localized water contamination with industrial chemicals and metals. In certain areas, there is pollution in ground water, attributed to natural geological conditions, like arsenic in West Bengal, and fluoride in several parts of the country. Fluorosis is a major problem in Andhra Pradesh, particularly in the districts of Nalgonda, Prakasham, Chittoor, Anantapur, Rangareddy and Mahabubnagar.

    Untreated wastewater and unmanaged solid waste not only spread disease and create squalid conditions in urban slums, they also contaminate the rivers and ground water on which the cities depend. There are widespread problems with unsafe drinking water and discharge of untreated sewage. Mega cities release huge amounts of waste water, often the result of inefficient usage, into the existing water channels, thus polluting the freshwater channels. Technology offers the opportunity to harness this water, at a cost.

    Water Availability and shortages

    In India, the available fresh water from both the surface and ground water is 115 million-hectare meters. Taking the average of 1500 cu.m per year per person as the water need, the population of India will fall in the category of water stress. At present ground water caters to about fifty percent of the irrigation requirements in our country. In addition, about 80 percent of domestic and sizable portion of the industrial requirements are also met from ground water.

    The use of ground water for industrial, agricultural and domestic purposes has been increasing rapidly since 1970s. The utilizable ground water resources in Andhra Pradesh are about 3 million ha.m and the present stage of development is twenty five percent. The well population has increased from 0.7 million in 1991 to 1.4 million in 1993. Ground water development is the highest in Karimnagar district with the stage of development at 43 percent, followed by Anantapur district at 39 percent. However, there has been continuous decline of water table. Between 1990-95, the average fall in the water table is in the range of 0.5 meters to 4.5 meters in Rayalaseema region, 3.5 meters to 8.0 meters in Telangana region and 0.5 meters to 4.5 meters in Coastal region. There is a large-scale decline in ground water in rural areas, cities and towns.

    Water shortages put enormous strain on rural households, especially women, who have to travel to greater distances everyday to fetch water for the family needs. The combined effects of deforestation, water logging, erosion, etc., finally led to a fall in the water table and to salinisation problems. Eroded, over-exploited, over-grazed and deforested arid lands became more vulnerable to drought. Long and recurrent rain failures had caused additional soil erosion, thus accelerating the ongoing process of desertification.

    Deforestation had contributed to soil deterioration and water scarcity. The denuded arid areas were directly exposed to solar radiation, to the winds and rains, and therefore to increased erosion. Deforestation of watersheds reduced the water retention capacity of the soil which together with erosion, increased silt deposits and had reduced the effectiveness of irrigation schemes and water reservoirs. Things got worse when irrigation schemes did not match dry land conditions.

    (to be concluded)

    Coming up:
    • III - A perspective on modern water management
    • IV - Can privatisation of water do it?
    • V - Concluding opinion.

    D Narasimha Reddy
    June 2002

    D. Narasimha Reddy is Executive Director of Centre for Resource Education, 201, Maheshwari Complex, Masab Tank, Hyderabad 500 028 India. He is also on the Board of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements