June 11th is the date for the arrival of the monsoon in Nepal. This year, there was no sign of rain on the 11th. The days ticked by as we looked at the skies, increasingly anxious about the oppressive feeling in the air. A cyclone predicted to hit the coast of Gujarat moved away to the ocean, and was blamed for sucking rain away from the mainland. Noone—meteorologists, climate change specialists, Indian scientific community, NASA-- seemed to know why the monsoon was delayed. As the drought worsened, maps started to appear on Twitter, showing how far the monsoon should have moved across the subcontinent by late June. Most Indian states which should have received rain had seen weak rainfall or none at all.
The briefest shower I have ever seen in Kathmandu washed away the dust on the leaves of my curry tree plant on June 17th. The rain lasted five minutes. On Asar 15th, we saw photographs of people planting rice in what looked like well-irrigated terraces. Muddy happy people stuck rice seedlings into the ground. For a Twitter moment, all seemed well.
For most urban dwellers running around on motorcycles, rain is an inconvenience that floods them in badly planned cities. Urban floods are an annual occurrence in cities like Mumbai. But “Floods” and “Droughts” are two sides of the same coin. For a continent that should recharge during rainy season and withdraw water during dry season, we tend to waste our precious water during monsoon in dirty, uncontrollable floods, and cry foul during dry season when another state or area which has better managed its resources refuses to give us its precious hoard.
South Asia has also adopted the electric underground pump with a vengence—most of us get our drinking water from groundwater reservoirs which are fed by rain. But South Asians in general are not known for frugal use of water. We extract massive amounts from our finite reservoirs with no thought for the future. We leave the tap turned on because there are no consequences from government or community.
Chennai, a city of an estimated 12 million people, has run dry. The alarming news that this major city in India had run out of water first became evident through satellite photographs posted by NASA, which showed before and after photographs of Puzhal Lake from 2018 and 2019. The four rainfed reservoirs in Chennai were operating at a 0.2 capacity. The city, the NASA article notes, “has been devoid of rain for almost 200 days.”
An article by Nidhi Jamwal in The Wire on June 27th, titled “Not Just Chennai, India's Drought Situation Is Far Worse Than We Realise” quotes the South Asian Drought Monitor, “more than 44% area of the country is facing drought-like conditions, of which over 17% is facing ‘severe dry’ conditions.”
On June 23, I read an article titled “Amid growing crisis, Madhya Pradesh may become first state to introduce Right to Water Act” on the India Water Portal. The language of rights has always interested me, not the least in ways South Asians demand rights without also realizing it comes with responsibilities. So I posted this on Twitter:
In India too, the talk is all about "rights" but nothing about "responsibilities."
Not even basic water conservation steps like turning off taps, not overusing tubewells (I've seen these left gushing in India), just plain old abuse of water is not addressed.
India wastes massive amount of water, not the least for irrigation where farmers turn on an electric motor and leave the water gushing for hours on end. This waste is fueled by cheap electricity subsidies. As the July 1st op-ed “To handle water crisis, overhaul irrigation” by Joydeep Gupta in India Climate Dialogue pointed out, this must be replaced by the more efficient drip-irrigation system which pinpoints and directs water directly to the roots of the plant instead of flooding the entire field. He also advocates for a move from water intensive crops like rice towards barley, millets which are water efficient.
It is clear that the Prime Minister’s Office in India is now taking the water conservation issue seriously. On 30 June, in his first Man Ke Baat program since his second re-election, PM Modi urged people to conserve every drop of water and create a database of people involved in the indigenous water conservation.
This is the very first step in acknowledging that wasteful use of water is a large cause of India’s water emergency. Now India needs to move towards a national and regional policy which prioritizes reforestation, river conservation, groundwater stewardship, rainwater harvesting, and wells and ponds revival.
Is South Asia, as a region, prepared for such a massive crisis? India and Pakistan continue to battle onwards with manufactured military crisis in Kashmir that eat away at their treasuries. So successful has this strategy been for political domination in each country that nobody—not least the political elites—seem willing to put this aside for the real issues, including water, besetting the subcontinent. India needs to sink a few million recharge wells into its cities and villages, but most of the money is siphoned off to buy clunky, decommissioned military hardware from Russia and France instead.
South Asia cannot afford a drought. We are a continent of a billion and a half people dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The crops may fail this year, and we need to plan for it. The alternative—South Asian government apathy—is too terrifying to imagine. Without rain to recharge these underground water dhukuti, we are looking not just at an abstract “monsoon deficit” but a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. India must stop its BIMSTEC nonsense and immediately come onboard SAARC again. The very first issues the South Asian region must discuss is how to resolve the water and upcoming food shortage crisis.
Printed in the Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019
Printed in the Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019