Through the summer this year, farmers in Mandya, Karnataka that was reeling from last year’s drought were worried their standing crops could fail as groundwater levels fell. The region had not received any rainfall until pre-monsoon showers started around two weeks ago.

“In this region, 30% of wells have water but 70% do not,” said Vijaykumar, a farmer. “We have a borewell that goes down 400 feet and we have to use a pump to get water. We get electricity for about four hours to extract the water and use it for our fields.”

Shambunahalli Suresh, who works with the farmer organisation Mandya Zilla Rythu Sangha, said, “The farmers have invested lakhs of rupees to sow their crops. They are not getting loans from banks and are taking money from moneylenders. If there is no water, the crops will fail. The government has been unresponsive at this time.”

The Karnataka government’s lack of action is largely due to the Model Code of Conduct being in place for the general election. “MLAs and MPs we have approached said they can do something only after the model code is lifted,” said Suresh.

But, given the pre-monsoon showers, irrigation officials feel the immediate water crisis has been averted. They are counting on healthy pre-monsoon showers and a normal monsoon to restore the falling levels in reservoirs across Karnataka.

“Reservoir levels are normally at this level nearing the end of May,” said GS Srinivasa Reddy, director of the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre. “It is at the same level as last year and the 10-year average. But the water is sufficient only for drinking. We have directed all state level officers to release water only for drinking purposes. Only if there is excess water should it be released for agriculture.”

With the total live storage in all dams at a little more than 20% – slightly better than last year – the Centre has issued a drought advisory to Karnataka in mid-May recommending that water be used for drinking only.

Reddy said the Krishnaraja Sagar and Kabini reservoirs have enough water to supply Bengaluru, Mysore, 47 towns and 625 villages until the end of June.

“We have more than 7,000 million cubic feet in KRS [Krishnaraja Sagar] and over 4 tmc [thousand million cubic feet] in Kabini,” he added. “If it does not rain in June and July, then we may have a situation when we have to pump from dead storage of the reservoirs but that is unlikely to happen this year.”

As on May 25, 2019.

Groundwater depletion

This summer’s experience, however, has underlined Karnataka’s recurring water crisis, especially the depletion of groundwater.

“We are getting water only at 600 feet or 700 feet in borewells now, while earlier we were getting it at 150 feet to 200 feet,” said Suresh.

The falling water table is the result of excessive consumption for drinking and agriculture and the lack of recharge from lakes.

“Many of Mandya’s lakes have disappeared,” said Suresh. “They have been encroached on and concrete structures built over them. If the lakes were maintained and allowed to recharge during the rains we would not have a water problem. There is a lake conservation committee that is supposed to do this, but right now there is not even a drop of water as dead storage in any of the lakes. Last year, there were good rains but we have lost our lakes to collect the water.”

Until this problem is solved, Suresh feared, Mandya will only have more severe water shortages in the coming years.

Reddy pointed out that groundwater depletion was an especially serious problem in a state where more than 60% of villages and towns depend on groundwater.

“Of the last 18 years, 14 years have seen drought,” he said. “It has affected water resources, especially groundwater levels. According to data up to April from the Karnataka Ground Water Directorate, nearly 84% observation wells are showing a declining trend from the 10-year mean. Some observation wells have gone entirely dry.”

Since the carrying capacity of Karnataka’s hard rock terrain is limited, Reddy said, only about 10% of borewells will have water at 300 feet, 50% at up to 600 feet, and 25% at an abysmal 1,000 feet. According to a 2013 assessment by the Central Ground Water Board, 45 taluks in the state are categorised as over-exploited for groundwater use.

Reddy believes a newer assessment will show water levels in at least three more taluks as being over exploited.

“Under the village water scheme about 3,000 villages have been declared problematic and district authorities are supplying water tankers to 1,632 villages.” he said. “We have also taken about 1,800 private bore wells on rent to supply water under village water supply schemes. In urban areas, roughly 440 wards have been supplied with tankers.”

Reports from across the state show villages having to rely on water tankers through the summer.

Running dry in Bengaluru

Bengaluru gets most of its water from the Cauvery river, nearly 100 km away. Yet, people living along the edges of the city have had to depend on tankers.

Bellandur, infamous for its eponymous and very polluted lake, and areas just beyond such as Kasavanahalli and Mahadevpura, are among 110 localities that were included in Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike region in 2007. These newer areas of the city have high-rise apartment and office complexes – and a lot of unplanned building – but no piped water.

“Right now we supply only to 525 sq km out of the city’s 800 sq km,” said Tushar Girinath, chairman of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board. “In 110 villages it is the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s responsibility.”

Vishnu Prasad Hari, an activist with the civic group Bellandur Development Forum, said every house in the neighbourhood has a borewell but they all went dry by the end of January. “It was so severe that people almost came onto the streets to ask for water,” he added.

As groundwater levels fell, water tanker prices went up.

Lakshmi lives in a small rented house in Bovi Colony and works as a maid at an apartment complex nearby. She said a water tanker load cost Rs 500 earlier but prices have almost tripled in the summer.

“Our landlord pays about Rs 1,400 for one tanker load,” she said. “We pay him Rs 600 for water every week. This is for water enough to fill two drums of about five litres each. We get bottled drinking water separately. We spend more than Rs 1,000 every week just for water.”

A resident who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal from water suppliers described the crisis in her apartment complex on Kasavanahalli Road in mid-April. The complex has 320 flats with about 1,200 residents and consumes 25 tankers of water per day. Each tanker load is 6,000 litres. They were already buying bottled drinking water.

“Our regular water vendors suddenly said they could not supply water,” she said. “For three days we did not have even half of what we need, and one day we went completely dry.”

She said the residents made desperate calls to water tanker operators and finally made a deal with them. They would buy water at between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,400 a load instead of the usual Rs 450. They also agreed to buy a minimum load from tanker operators even after the rains begin.

“All the apartments have rainwater harvesting systems and with one good rain we don’t require tanker water,” she said. “They said they will supply water now only if we guarantee we will buy at least 15 loads even in the rainy season.”

This summer’s water crisis has made many residents and civic activists such as Hari determined to ensure the recharge of groundwater in the area.

“We have a campaign called a Million Wells programme around rainwater harvesting,” said Hari. “We have had workshops to conduct awareness about our very severely depleted water table. The city is getting water from the Cauvery but the river is not in a good state today and it is not a long-term solution. We have only to recharge our lakes and ponds.”

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