On Tuesday morning, as a train bearing 5 lakh litres of water pulled into Latur station, the city’s administration finally lifted the ban on the assembly of more than five people at drinking water collection spots.

The visuals were compelling. People at the station celebrated the train’s arrival, say reports. Thick plastic pipes siphoned water from the wagons into a cement conduit, which poured it into a massive well. From there the water was sent out into the parched city in tankers after filtration.

News from Latur in drought-hit Marathwada has been grim for months now. The main dams serving the city long ran dry, leading the administration to commandeer over 150 borewells around the city for tankers to serve water. Households were getting 200 litres of water once a week, though one individual alone needs around 85 litres a day. People have died in queues for water.

Even with the “water train”, Latur’s crisis is far from over.

Latur city needs 5 crore litres of water each day. The train carried only 5 lakh litres in its ten wagons. A second train with 50 wagons is scheduled to arrive on April 18, but at a carrying capacity of 54,000 litres per wagon, it will transport at most 27 lakh litres. This is still just a fraction of Latur’s needs.

“All these are part of firefighting mechanisms,” said Vijay Diwan, a water expert and founder of the Nisarga Mitra Mandal, a non-profit working in the field of conservation. “Latur has exhausted all its water sources and people are migrating to other places. By way of providing immediate relief, this train is a good thing.”

The problem, Diwan said, was that the effort and expenditure were not in proportion to the water being brought in.

Incidentally, Pandurang Pole, collector of Latur district, feels the rumours of water having run out in the district is exaggerated. He told the Indian Express that four barrages in the state had five million cubic metres of water, enough to tide over 10 lakh people in the district until the monsoon.

An expected crisis

That a crisis was approaching Latur had become evident by last August. After months of scarce rain, it was clear that no amount of showers in the remainder of the monsoon would be enough to fill up the dams that supply water to Latur city.

By September, the district administration had begun to formulate plans, including one to take water by railway from Ujjani dam in neighbouring Solapur district. This was estimated to cost Rs 3.75 crore per month.

As experts pointed out at the time, this was both phenomenally expensive for the amount of water being carried and practically unfeasible for the infrastructure that would be needed to be built from the station to the nearest holding dam.

The plan was changed. Instead of Ujjani, the train started 300 km away, from Miraj in Sangli district, which is also hit by water scarcity.

“I have my doubts about how long we can continue to do this,” Diwan said. “This is not a permanent solution. At some point people in Sangli and Miraj, which is also drought prone, will think whether it is possible to give water to the city.”

There was an alternative proposal last year to extend a pipeline from Ujjani dam to Latur city. Under this plan, water would be taken from a quota allotted to a pipeline running from the dam to Osmanabad city. But while this plan was thought to be more feasible, water had been estimated to run out well after the pipeline could be extended from Osmanabad to Latur.

Meanwhile, some of the concerns with the railway plan have been bypassed. The cost is no longer a consideration. Instead of transporting water from the station to Dhanegaon dam, it is being taken via a temporary pipe to a large well near the station.

This well, incidentally, belongs to Amit Deshmukh, son of late Vilasrao Deshmukh and Latur MLA. Public outcry over water wastage made Deshmukh call off a volleyball event planned by his supporters in Latur at the end of March – a week after Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code had been imposed there prohibiting the gathering of more than five people.

Deeper issues

Latur has three dams serving it, all along the Manjira river, which rises in Beed district, Diwan said. Two ran dry despite being augmented in 1989 and 2001, respectively. The third and farthest, Dhanegaon in Kallam, 35 km away from Latur, has a storage capacity of 250 thousand million cubic feet. Its live storage is 174 TMC. When it was built in the 1980s, officials hoped that it would be a permanent source of water to the city. Even before the drought, its water levels kept going down.

According to Diwan’s calculations, there are 50,000 hectares of sugarcane being grown in the vicinity of the Dhanegaon dam. There are also five sugar factories, at least one of which was co-founded by Vilasrao Deshmukh. These factories allegedly ran through the processing season between October and April, despite authorities being aware that water would soon run out.

As sugarcane is closely linked to politics and supported by myriad state policies and subsidies, it is difficult to ease out its cultivation. In neighbouring Solapur, district collector Tukaram Mundhe has made an attempt, according to a report from the South Asia Network of Dams, River and People. Mundhe refused to release water from Ujjani dam for sugarcane cultivation during the rabi season (winter crop), saying the dam was meant for eight-month crop cycles, not for perennial crops. Other districts have not followed this lead.