Marathwada in central Maharashtra is suffering from inadequate rain for the fourth consecutive year. Crops are devastated, farmers are committing suicide and drinking water is running out. News reports from two, five and even ten years ago all highlight the same issues. A drought caused by poor water management is made worse by water diversion and skewed agricultural and industrial priorities. This year, the crisis hit hard – dams went from 50% of their storage capacity to 35%, and finally in early September, levels plunged into the negative. Rain in the second half of September filled the storage facilities, averting a severe drinking water crisis until December and renewing hope for rabi sowing. Yet, anybody who lives off the land can tell this: the rain might make fields appear green, but the crisis hasn’t gone away. In this series, looks at Marathwada’s long-term water crisis and examines some of the proposed solutions.

In August, as the monsoon seemed particularly elusive and the dams dried up, officials in Latur city in central Maharashtra requisitioned tankers and borewells to distribute drinking water to the district. At the same time, realising that that won’t be enough, they began to consider other plans.

At first, they mulled extending to Latur a pipeline from Osmanabad district in the state’s south, which was getting water from Ujani dam in Solapur district. The problem was that the pipeline would take months to be laid. The city didn’t have that much time.

As the drought worsened, and the number of borewells and tankers increased, officials in Latur came up with what seemed like a more novel idea – transporting water by rail from Ujani dam instead of relying on a pipeline. It would clean oil wagons, fill them at Pandharpur with water from Ujani dam, send them to a point near Latur from where the water could be siphoned into a treatment plant and from there, be piped into the city.

The idea of a railway line is not new, even to Maharashtra. It was tossed around in the state even in 2013, though this was perhaps the first time that officials got around to chalking out its actual outlines. In 2000, Rajasthan used rail to ferry water to villages affected by severe water shortage. These trains were still running in 2009. Gujarat has similarly used the railways since at least 2003. And abroad, analysts in the United States are contemplating the costs of transporting water from the Pacific northwest to California, now under one of the most severe droughts in its history.

The plan, audacious and expensive, was roundly criticised as impractical as soon as it was announced.

The proposed route between Pandharpur and Latur is an existing single railway line, already used daily by passenger trains. The distance between the two places meant that even if trains ran up and down the lines the entire day, not accounting for time spent emptying coaches, they would still meet only a fraction of the city’s drinking water needs, pointed out Suryakant Vaidya, a retired water engineer in Latur.

“The trains will have to go up and down ten times a day to meet Latur’s daily requirement,” he said. “How will they manage that when it takes five hours for a train to go just one way?”

Besides, the plan would serve only Latur city, not other water-starved areas in Latur district. At an estimated cost of Rs 3.75 crore for just one month, the idea did not seem worth it.

Even so, the desperation was growing. Latur, Beed and Osmanabad are three districts in Marathwada that have suffered consistently from low rainfall in the past four years.

As it turned out, rain in Marathwada in the second half of September eased the pressure on dams and the railway plan was quietly abandoned. Still, the situation remains grim.

Latur did not get as much rain as the rest of central Maharashtra, and the water levels in its primary dam along River Manjira remain near the zero level. Around Marathwada, water in major dams is alarmingly low at 16% of storage capacity – as against last year’s 44% – and might last only until December.

The last-minute scramble for ideas in Latur points to deeper structural troubles in Marathwada. With scientists already predicting an even stronger El Niño phenomenon in the coming year, it is highly possible that the monsoon in 2016 will be even more erratic than this year. If that is the case, these districts will need to use this year to strengthen their water supplies.

Other plans

So what are the options before the authorities?

Even if the state was willing to put in the money and clear trains to implement the railway plan, this option remains unfeasible as a long-term solution. Also impractical for an extended period of time are tankers, which operate now by drawing from borewells. Once borewells too run dry – as they will someday – tankers will have to travel farther for water.

What is needed is a regular and reliable flow of water. The hopes of both Latur and Osmanabad districts lie with Ujani dam, built along the River Bhima, the longest tributary of the River Krishna.

More than the rail line, it’s likely that the government will implement the plan to extend a pipeline from Ujani dam to Latur via Osmanabad, which falls en route. When Osmanabad was connected to Ujani by the pipe in 2013, it eased the drinking water crisis of the city which had until then been dependent on tankers. Today, Osmanabad is technically allotted 10 MLD more drinking water than it needs. Latur hopes that if this is diverted to its own dam, it will satisfy half its water needs.

The pipe is relatively economically feasible. The government claims it will cost only Rs 4 crore – nowhere near the Rs 22.5 crore Latur district projects for operating a rail line for just six months.

Irrigation projects

In an ideal world, this would have been the end of the issue. Water would be neatly apportioned by consensus and transported from place to place without leakages. But the picture is far from ideal.

Ujani is already an overburdened dam. It provides drinking water to Solapur city and supplies water for irrigation and agriculture to Solapur district, which has the largest number of sugar factories in Maharashtra. Another portion of its water is reserved for industries.

Even when the state decided to extend a pipeline from Ujani to Osmanabad, there were protests in Solapur for fear that it would result in scarcity in that district. Protests were relatively muted when Latur announced its plan, perhaps because it was clear it would not be implemented any time soon.

Solapur collector Tukaram Mundhe emphasised that the plan was entirely feasible and that he would not pose any objections to water from Ujani being sent to Latur, provided water was reserved only for drinking.

“Solapur needs 40 MLD of water, industries 20 MLD, and two MIDCs [Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation parks] need 8 MLD,” he said. “We can provide water to other areas till August if we don’t give water to industries.”

The real big picture

All these plans must be seen in the context of the larger Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Scheme, which at Rs 5,000 crore, will use lift irrigation to bring 21 TMC – or possibly 7 TMC, at last count – of water to one lakh hectares of land in Marathwada from Ujani and the Bhima sub-basin in Solapur. This is almost half of the water storage of that basin.

The plan was one of several irrigation schemes recommended for closer scrutiny by the Madhavrao Chitale-led Special Investigation Team that examined the Ajit Pawar irrigation scam.

It, however, ignores the inevitable – water will eventually run out in Ujani, unless it is reserved only for drinking water. But this is politically impossible. No government can bear the political costs of denying water to farmers and industry.

Which is where the larger Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project comes in.

This project means to link the Krishna in Kolhapur further south (away from already arid north Karnataka) with the Bhima and Ujani in the north. With increased water supply, the dam will then be able to send water to Marathwada. In 2013, the Krishna Water Disputes Award Tribunal rejected the plan for the Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project, pointing out the obvious fact that it would lead to undue scarcity downstream.

But the Maharashtra government had already started construction in preparation for the Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Scheme, noted Pradeep Purandare, a retired associate professor at the Water and Land Management Institute and convenor of the advocacy group Marathwada Pani Hakka Sangharsh Samiti.

“Assuming the Krishna Bhima Stabilisation Project would be there, Osmanabad and Beed began to construct lift irrigation schemes for the Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Scheme,” he said. “They spent Rs 500 crore on this and now it has been cancelled by the Krishna Award. Osmanabad and Beed suffered and are now in a financial backlog. These are not permanent solutions. The problem cannot be solved unless the region goes in for watershed development at a large scale.”

Despite water not being available for the scheme, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change gave the Krishna Marathwada Lift Irrigation Scheme an environmental clearance in June.

If big schemes are not perfect solutions, how else can a parched region get water?

This is the first part in a series on Marathwada’s water crisis.