Opinion | Above-Normal Rainfall Is Good News, But There's A Deeper Problem

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According to the India Meteorological Department's (IMD) latest forecast, India is expected to receive above-normal rainfall during the upcoming June-September southwest monsoon season. This is great news after a gap of eight years; 2016 was when India last experienced decent rain. The country's dependence on monsoon can be gauged from the fact that it receives about 70-90% of its annual rainfall in the four months of June-September.

Normal monsoon has a direct impact on the country's economy. Evenly-distributed rainfall is crucial for the 61% of Indian farmers who are dependent on monsoon for agriculture. A positive monsoon enhances agricultural production, which in turn boosts the country's economy and enhances food security.

Overuse of Groundwater 

Over the last few decades, dwindling resources have led to overuse of groundwater. According to the Central Groundwater Board of India, 18% of India's groundwater assessment units are overexploited or critical, meaning that the rate at which water is extracted is higher than the rate at which the aquifer can recharge.

The overuse of groundwater for agriculture has increased since the 1960s, especially after the Green Revolution. To fulfil requirements, a largely ungoverned groundwater irrigation economy has mushroomed in rural areas. Increased availability of borewells and free or subsidised electricity have allowed farmers to withdraw groundwater at will, leading to the resource's overexploitation.

The practice raises concerns given that about 75% of the annual groundwater recharge takes place during the southwest monsoon. With climate change altering monsoon patterns, these recharge cycles can get disrupted, consequently leading to high crop failures. 

Bengaluru's Mega Troubles

The IMD's latest monsoon prediction is music to not only farmers but also lakhs of people in Indian cities that have been battling water-related crises. Bengaluru is foremost among them these days. It has two major sources of water - while Cauvery water takes care of 60% of the city's water needs, the rest is fulfilled by borewells handled by Bengaluru's water supply authority.

Two large lakes in the metropolis, Varthur and Bellandur, have been lying empty for the last four years due to desilting work. The delay in their rejuvenation is one of the major reasons for the groundwater crisis in Bengaluru.

"Above-normal monsoon is good news for cities as both the local lakes will fill up and recharge the groundwater resources. The Cauvery basin will fill up, benefiting the south Indian states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala," says S. Vishwanath, trustee of the Biome Environmental Trust, Vishwanath had been one of the first persons to launch a campaign for rainwater harvesting in the city, way back in the 1990s. "We have to take care of the catchment area of the Cauvery basin, especially the forested areas of Wayanad, Coorg and Hassan, and make sure there is no felling of trees or conversion of land, no sand mining or discharge of industrial effluents into the river."

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), which has been facing severe criticism amid the water shortage in the city, has now come up with a strategy to conserve water through supply cuts to big customers. The authority hopes this will help it save around 60 million litres of water per day (MLD). "A 10-20% cut is manageable if large commercial establishments, apartment complexes and industries adopt simple water conservation methods, such as installing aerators to limit tap water flow, which can save up to 30% of water usage," says  BWSSB Chairman Ram Prasath Manohar. "Many large establishments already have sewage treatment plants and we have advised them to utilise treated water for various purposes, including flushing and gardening. The BWSSB plans to make treated water available to households through pipes to save and reuse water in the long run," he adds.

Not One City's Crisis Alone

It's not just Bengaluru, most major metropolises in India have been grappling with water shortages too. Mumbai, India's financial capital, is on the verge of one. The water stocks in the seven lakes that supply water to Mumbai have dipped to 37.9%, the lowest in the last three years. Reports indicate that lakes have dried up much faster this year due to inadequate rainfall.

Delhi, too, faces drinking water shortage every summer. The groundwater is depleted and the Yamuna, the source of at least 60% of water supplied by the Delhi Jal Board, is polluted beyond redemption.

Chennai has been infamous for its water problems for a few years now. The supply is completely dependent on annual rainfall. As with other cities, massive urbanisation and industrialisation have led to extreme weather conditions, triggering both floods and droughts. In 2015, it witnessed heavy flooding due to rainfall, and just four years later, on June 19, 2019, Chennai became one of the first major cities in the world to run out of water, forcing the state government to transport 10 million litres of water a day to its citizens. 

Most of the rainwater in the city is let off into the sea instead of being utilised for charging depleted groundwater reserves. "Every citizen has to participate in rainwater harvesting. Otherwise, even a bountiful monsoon gets wasted," says Vishwanath.

The Water Tanker Economy

Today, water crises are almost permanent features of India's urban centres, extending much beyond just summers. To ease supply gaps, municipal corporations and citizens have been forced to turn to water tankers, which have become an integral part of the unorganised urban water supply chain. According to estimates, a fleet of over 1,500 water tankers owned by around 500 dealers ply the length and breadth of Bengaluru every day, supplying water to various localities, society complexes, and businesses. However, this is an unregulated economy, and these tankers draw water from various sources, including unsafe and contaminated borewells near lakes, agricultural lands, private residences, stormwater drains, and even burial grounds. Naturally, the risk of diseases like cholera, jaundice and E. Coli infections has grown multifold. 

India needs a countrywide law to regulate groundwater and manage freshwater resources. A robust civic administration framework, with Central and state governments discharging their responsibility of providing efficient governance, is the need of the hour.  Overdependence on monsoons should have been a thing of the past by now. 

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.