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.