Water scarcity

As reservoir levels plunge in three states, South India braces for more water wars

With the monsoons failing the region last year, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are facing their worst drought in recent history.

South India is staring at an acute drinking water crisis.

After the failure of both the south-west and the retreating north-east monsoons, three southern states are in the midst what officials are calling the “second-worst drought” in history, after the dry spells of the 1960s.

Across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, reservoirs are so dry that even drinking water is hard to come by in several regions.

In Tamil Nadu, which gets a bulk of its rain during the north-east monsoon in October and December, the sight of women blocking roads with their plastic pots has become a commonplace in Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Chennai and Vellore in the state’s North.

In Karnataka, minor irrigation tanks in several southern districts such as Kolar, Chamarajanagar and Chikaballapur have gone completely dry.

Agriculture has come to a standstill in both states as groundwater levels have dipped considerably.

In Kerala, too, release of water for agriculture has been stopped in several places such as Palakkad due to rapid decline in storage.

Data from the three states presents a grim picture of the travails awaiting people in coming months. While state officials are looking at ways to bridge the deficit, they said fact is there is no water and acute drinking water scarcity is imminent in the pre-monsoon summer.

Plunging water levels

A Central Water Commission report released on February 23 showed that the southern region of the country was the worst off in terms of water storage.

In all, the Commission monitors 31 major reservoirs in the five southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

The 31 reservoirs together can hold of 51.6 billion cubic metres of water. However, as on February 23, the total water across these reservoirs was just 11.31 billion cubic metres, 22% of their capacity.

This figure will plunge further if the two reservoirs in Telangana – Sriram Sagar and Lower Manair – which have 62.5% storage are discounted.

In Kerala, all major reservoirs have registered a storage level of less than 50%. The Periyar reservoir, the second largest in the state, has just 6% storage.

FRL- Full Reservoir Level; BCM- Billion Cubic Metres
FRL- Full Reservoir Level; BCM- Billion Cubic Metres

Groundwater levels are also markedly low. In Tamil Nadu, some districts have seen a 6.5 metre fall in the groundwater table when compared to January 2016. Except for one district of Nilgiris, nowhere else has the water table seen an increase.

Though district-wise data for groundwater levels in January is still being prepared in Karnataka, officials in the water resources department said the figures are similar to those of Tamil Nadu in several of its southern districts, like Mandya and Kolar, and the central districts of Gadag and Davangere.

Groundwater levels in Tamil Nadu
Groundwater levels in Tamil Nadu

Rationing water

Officials in all three states said that a strategy to ration the use of water had already been put in place.

While Kerala and Karnataka have adopted such steps openly, such as restrictions on industrial use of water and rationing drinking water, Tamil Nadu has implemented these measures discretely, owing to political instability in the state since former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5.

A senior public works department official in Tamil Nadu said that given the current water levels in reservoirs, farmers in the state may have to forego the Kuruvai, or summer crop, for the sixth consecutive year in 2017. Last year, the state lost both the Kuruvai and the October-January Samba crop because of monsoon failure.

The official said this year could also see another round of legal battles between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing water from the Cauvery river. Tensions between the two states had come to a boil last year after Karnataka repeatedly refused to release Tamil Nadu’s share of water from the river, citing inadequate supply, despite several directives from the Supreme Court.

The official said that with the water crisis worse in Karnataka now, “there is little hope for timely release this year.”

The Tamil Nadu government has declared a state-wide drought and had sanctioned more than Rs 2,000 crore to give as relief to drought-hit farmers. However, the relief is no substitute for water. “The fact is, there is very little water to supply for irrigation. We have to prioritise drinking water,” the official said.

All three states have sought relief packages from the Union government, which is yet to respond.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.