Lokesh Verma, a farmer from Nainital’s Chanfi village, says this is the third year in a row that he is bearing losses in agriculture. “I have lost around Rs 2 lakh and there’s a debt of Rs 70,000 to pay off. I grow strawberries, guavas and peas in my 15 bighas of land, but there is not enough water in the hills to irrigate crops properly,” he says.
He says the only source of water in his village is Khalsa river but it has been running dry for the last two years. "During winters, we can get water from springs but in summers everything is dried up.” Lokesh thinks the situation is going to deteriorate this year.
No water for water projects
Uttarakhand is staring at a water crisis despite being home to a host of rivers and tributaries like Yamuna, Kosi, Sarayu, Mandakini, Sharda, Ramganga, Dhauliganga and others. A report prepared in January by the water regulatory body Uttarakhand Jal Sansthan (UJS) says 93 of its 500 water projects, which supply filtered water that takes care of both irrigation and drinking needs, have witnessed more than 90 percent decrease in water discharge in the past three years. The report notes that 268 projects have seen water discharge reduce by 75-90 percent and another 139 projects have seen it dip by 50-75 percent.
State chief secretary Utpal Kumar Singh has asked district magistrates and UJS officials to reserve water tankers and generators to deal with the situation this summer.
Chief general manager of UJS, S.K. Gupta, says they are concerned after going through the January report. “We do not want the situation to worsen. By now, we have arranged around 250 tankers to supply water,” he says, adding that increasing construction in the hills and decline in agriculture is responsible for the problem. "When there is no agriculture how will the ecosystem balance?”
Farmers bear severe loss
“I have tried everything. The rivers have totally dried up and no water is available for farming,” says Hemant Pangat from Nainital’s Bagar Malla village, who farms on his 30 bighas of land. “Last year I was growing potatoes. It was rice before that. And this year I am growing peas and some other vegetables. There is nothing for the farmer without water. We are a 10-member family and it is difficult to meet demands,” says Pangat. He has begun looking for a job since farming isn’t paying off.
In Nainital, a total of 25 projects have seen water discharge reduce by over 50 percent. Pangat points out that travelling to fetch water is not an easy task. “There is Singyari pond beside a hill nearby. It takes more than two hours to fetch water. You’ll have to travel by foot because there are no roads.” He adds that using the services of a tanker to bring water to the village would cost no less than Rs 2000 (for a water tanker of 5000-litre capacity), and not everyone can afford to pay for it.
Thirty-nine of the 93 projects which have seen water supply decrease by more than 90 percent are in Pauri Garhwal district alone, located partly in the Gangetic plain. Overall, 185 water projects in the district have seen more than a 50 percent reduction in supply. Tehri Garhwal district has 89 such water projects. The situation has become such even as Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, the two headstreams of Ganga, pass through Pauri Garhwal and Tehri Garhwal respectively.
1,122 villages to be affected
S.K. Gupta of UJS says rural areas, especially in Tehri Garhwal, Pauri Garhwal and Chamoli, will be hit hard this summer. “Though we are yet to calculate the magnitude of the problem, it is definitely going to affect 1,122 villages in these districts,” he says. He says the department has apprised the government about the situation and the supply of water tankers in affected areas will start in a week or fortnight depending on the heat.
From his experience, Birendra Singh Rawat, a resident of Dehradun, says these water tankers are unreliable. "They come only once or twice a week. They say the terrain is rough, the way is not clear and other things, but it never helps the villagers who suffer the most."
Sharad Jain, a senior faculty at the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee says the statistics are alarming indeed and a thorough probe should be done into it. He says water projects benefit from snowmelt and rainfall, “but the winter rains were meagre this time.” He believes if the situation continues, springs will go dry. “It will have drastic consequences for those in villages and agriculturalists. They do not have any alternative sources of water. Birds and animals are also dependent on this. Villagers will have to travel further away to fulfil their water needs. But hope is still alive as we may witness rainfall at the end of June and July. But the time preceding these months will be very difficult.”
Recounting the difficulty in getting through last year's summer, Vinika Karoli, a resident of Rishikesh says, "Water supply was affected from March and the situation got more grave during May and June. The UJS was providing water through tankers but it was not enough.” She hopes more tankers would be deployed this year.
The tankers, S.K. Gupta says, fetch water from urban areas using tubewell boring, jet pumps and submersible pumps since groundwater levels here are relatively unaffected. But what is the long-term solution? Construction of check dams, afforestation and raising awareness about harvesting rainwater, says Anil Joshi, founder of the non-profit Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO). He says the changing climate, scanty rainfall and non-implementation of measures to conserve rainwater is the primary reason for this crisis in Uttarakhand. “The situation will become darker if no action is taken now.”
Meanwhile, chief secretary Singh has directed state water regulatory body to install hand pumps wherever necessary. He has also asked for the drought manual to be read thoroughly so that the administration is prepared if such a situation arises.
(Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)