Water, water everywhere ...
Managing the ups and downs of Rayalaseema's water supply.
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Rayalaseema, meaning 'rocky region', includes the districts of Anantapur, Kurnool, Cuddapah and Chittoor, south of the Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh. It has abundant mineral wealth, providing excellent potential for the establishment of several mineral-based industries in addition to existing ones. The region is hot and semi-arid; average annual rainfall ranges between 16 and 40 inches, most of it occuring during a single brief period of the year. As a result, the region suffers annual short-duration flood damage, alternating with long-duration drought damage.

Floods cause loss of human and animal life, and damage houses, roads, and irrigation structures meant to impound water for use in summer. Scarcity of water, especially to meet drinking and irrigation requirements, is felt for most of the year. To combat these twin threats, the government of Andhra Pradesh is forced to spend substantial amounts towards flood- and drought-relief works. Since the two strategies are not consistently developed, neither effort creates long-term and durable assets.

Another problem arises from the popular belief that ground water is a natural alternative in areas where surfac e water is scanty. On the contrary, in areas where there is plenty of surface water, groundwater also will be plentiful. However, when surface water is available, groundwater is not usually needed. This leads to under-utilization of groundwater when it is most available and over-utilization when it is scarce. Secondly, high fluctuations in soil moisture in such areas lead to increased alkalinity of both soil and water, which in turn leads to increased concentration of dissolved salts. In some areas, the alkaline groundwater picks up fluoride in harmful levels. Drinking fluoride-rich water results in dental mottling in children whose permanent teeth are growing. The adults however develop the more severe symptoms of skeletal fluorosis affecting their bones and joints. As fluoride levels increase, the disease is spreading.

Genu valgum is a new endemic disorder noted in certain fluorosis areas receiving canal water from water-surplus areas during the last two decades. In the past, children in the fluorosis areas were spared of serious symptoms other than dental disfigurement. But with genu valgum, children develop knock-knee, crippling their lower limbs and making them completely immobile. It is believed that besides malnutrition, this disorder is because of molybdenum toxicity followed by calcium deficiency. There is an urgent need to set right the harm done to groundwater in this way. The local bodies as well as UNICEF need to take up in their agenda the problem of tackling fluorosis and genu valgum, which is spread in most of the states of India. It is possible that other developing countries also must be having this problem.

Another side-effect of underutilizing ground water is that unlike surface water, cleaning groundwater is a long-drawn process involving enormous money. If this is not done in time, the entire groundwater becomes unfit for any use.

Importing the Krishna water into Rayalseema is the current approach of the government to address the problems of the area. The Telugu Ganga, Galeru-Nagari and Handri-Neeva projects are the three projects formulated in recent years to import Krishna water into Rayalaseema. The main problem is that while the dependable yields of the Krishna river for allocation are limited, every state and region demand very high allocation of water for their projects. The Government of India has therefore postponed the issue of allocation of Krishna water to anybody. Despite this, Andhra Pradesh is going ahead with these projects on the basis that these projects depend only on the surplus flood waters experienced by the Krishna river once in a few years. In the absence of clear-cut allocation of Krishna water, none of these projects can hope to get any funding from international funding agencies.

Of these three projects, work on the Telugu Ganga project which supplies drinking water to Madras city and irrigation water to Rayalaseema and Nellore district alone has been taken up. Although the drinking water component of this project has been be completed, the work on the irrigation component of the project is slow owing to financial constraints. This leads to the unhappiness the local farmers, naturally. If irrigation water is not available, farmers may obstruct water flowing to Madras city.

An important step towards tackling these problems is to take up large-scale pumpage of groundwater by high-yielding wells located in water-surplus regions during monsoon soon after surplus hydel power is available. The water so pumped should be conveyed to water-scarce upland areas to artificially recharge groundwater which gets declined owing to over-exploitation of groundwater. If the magnitude of groundwater pumpage is really high, enough flood water could get into underground to recharge the depleted groundwater and at the same reduce the flood havoc to a reasonable extent.

The projects formulated by the Government to import Krishna water to Rayalaseema, including the Telugu Ganga project, can be modified in such a way that the flood waters are allowed to artificially recharge groundwater rather than provide canal water for irrigation. By this, the cost of these projects gets drastically reduced. Such schemes are then in better position to attract funding from large donor agencies.

Thirdly, scientific analysis based on the results of water harvesting structures needs to implemented. Most of the water-harvesting works tend to get washed off during flood time, beause of their poor quality; if reports on each watershed over a period of time is made available and presented in the form of a Geographic Information System (GIS), the project management will know to what extent the project is headed in the right direction.

Although this writer's experience is primarily in the Rayalaseema region, the arguments presented here can be applied to other semi-arid tracts in the country, especially in parts of Tamilnadu and Karnataka in the south, the Telegana region in Andhra Pradesh itself, as well as large parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

R Jagadiswara Rao
August 1999

Prof. Jagadiswara Rao has worked for 33 years in land and water resources management in Rayalaseema. He retired in August 1997 as Principal of the College of Arts and Sciences at Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. Since his retirement, he works full-time with the Rayalaseema Vikas Parishad, a non-profit organization he founded along with others in 1980.

Contact information:
Dr. R Jagadiswara Rao
63A, Vidya Nagar
Tirupati, 517 502.
Tel: 91 - 8574 - 29433
Email: rvp_org80@hotmail.com