Water News: 2013 in review

Beginning with the Kumbh Mela and moving on to natural disasters like the floods in Uttarakhand and the cyclone in eastern India, water made big news throughout 2013.
Shiva statue, Kedarnath (Source: ibtimes.co.uk) Shiva statue, Kedarnath (Source: ibtimes.co.uk)

Kumbh Mela left its trash behind

The year began with the Maha Kumbh festivities near the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers in Allahabad. Pollution levels rose alarmingly at the Sangam in Allahabad where more than a 100 million people took the 'holy dip' during the 55 day long festival. Even as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh delivered a lecture at Harvard University on the success of the once-in-12-year-event, the city struggled to come back to normal after the festivities were over.

Water pollution from industries in Punjab one of the main causes of cancer

A State-commissioned study early last year showed that Punjab is among the the worst performing states in the country when it comes to checking water pollution. It is also among the worst defaulters in the country with at least seven grossly polluting industrial units dumping their toxic waste directly into rivers and lakes. Another survey conducted around the same time found that the incidence of cancer in Punjab is higher than the accepted national and the international average. Many studies attributed this trend to industrialisation, lifestyle changes, population growth, higher life-spans and the rampant use of pesticide, insecticide, chemicals and heavy metals.

Draft for a National Water Policy revised following opposition from the States

Almost all the States raised their opposition to the draft National Water Policy in the beginning of the year. The Draft gave more priority to industry over agriculture and emphasized on treating water as an economic good. According to the States' Chief Ministers, 'Water' was a State subject under the Constitution and the States have exclusive power of legislation on the subject. A  revised draft was brought out later in July.

Maharashtra faced worst drought in 30 years

The drought in Maharashtra last year was hydrologically worse than in 1972. There was ample supply of food grains this year but the drinking water scarcity was much worse. Water businesses boomed in drought-hit Marathwada as tanker owners transacted Rs.6 million in water sales every day in Jalna town, Maharashtra. In spite of acute water scarcity, politicians in Solapur district diverted water from dams to run sugar factories. A village in drought hit Jalna however, managed to tide over the drought with its water wisdom.

Construction of large dams, water intensive cropping patterns, neglect of local water systems and poor water management were blamed for this unprecedented situation. The drought brought back into focus the multi-crore irrigation scam on which a Special Investigation team is working now. According to the findings of an Economic Survey, though Rs 70,000 crore had been spent on various projects in the last decade, the State’s irrigation potential increased by only 0.1%.

Only 20 out of 423 cities scored well on sanitation
 
A survey conducted by private company AC Nielsen showed mixed results of the National Urban Sanitation Policy launched in 2008. It illustrated that 31 million urban households had inadequate sanitation facilities and that industrial townships like Jamshedpur and Rourkela did better than metropolitan cities. In ranking the cities for sanitation facilities, Chandigarh topped the list with a score of 73 points, while Churu in Rajasthan was at the bottom. The district in Rajasthan, however, has managed to get rid of this tag by becoming open defecation-free.

Nothing changed on the ground yet on Western Ghats issue

Two and a half years after the first report on the Western Ghats was submitted by a committee headed by Madhav Gadgil, the situation on the ground remains unchanged with industrial projects having their way. The report called for declaring the entire Western Ghats as an eco-sensitive zone and no permissions for new projects. Two years after the report was submitted, it was subject to another check by a 'High Level Working Group' headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan. The report called for 37% of the Western Ghats to be declared "ecologically sensitive." As soon as the notification for the same was to be out, the new Environment Minister Veerappa Moily put it on hold and invited comments on the same from the states that the Ghats run through.

Only 8% of India's population still into farming

According to a Census finding released in May, nearly 86 lakh farmers (cultivators) have left farming over the last 10 years. The number of agricultural labourers, on the other hand, increased by 3.75 crores, about four times the number of lost cultivators. Compared to the 2001 Census, there was an increase of 44% in the male population of agricultural labourers, while for females the number increased by 24.5%. Statistics revealed that only 54.6% of total workers in India are now part of the agriculture sector with a decline of 3.6% as compared to 2001.

Flash floods ravaged Uttarakhand

Floods in Uttarakhand were a combination of the Government’s short sightedness and nature’s fury. Kedarnath, one of the main Hindu shrines, suffered impact when the entire pilgrim town except the main shrine, was devastated by the floods. Ironically, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister had criticized environmental norms for being a hindrance to tourism and infrastructure development just a week before the calamity occurred. After the disaster, the Uttarakhand High Court banned all construction activity with immediate effect within 200 metres of rivers in the State. The ban applies to the Ganga and all its tributaries. Earlier, religious organisations were allowed to construct Dharmshalas and Ashrams within 200 metres of the Ganga.

The Supreme Court also told the Ministry of Environment and Forests not to approve any more hydropower projects in Uttarakhand as dams in the in the fragile Himalayan region contributed to the disaster. The apex court has also asked the Ministry to set up a committee to examine if the existing or under-construction hydropower projects contributed to environment degradation in the Himalayan state. Meanwhile, the pro-dam lobby claimed that the Tehri dam prevented damage in downstream areas of Rishikesh and Haridwar. This was contested by environment activists.

Countrywide ban on sand mining

The National Green Tribunal reiterated an earlier ban by the Ministry of Enviroment and Forests on sand mining or the removal of sand from river banks without environment clearance from the state or Central ministries and license from a competent authority. The order came in the wake of the suspension of an IAS officer from Uttar Pradesh who took strict action against illegal sand mining. Removal of minerals from the river beds causes serious threat to the flow of the river and forests on the river bank. However, the NGT was turned down in December by the new Environment Minister Veerappa Moily, who lifted the ban on mining of minor minerals within the range of five hectares.

No digging without Environment Ministry's permission: NGT

One and a half months after the ban on sand mining, the National Green Tribunal issued ban on digging of earth for bricks and road construction without prior environmental clearance. This order, like the last one, comes in the case of Uttar Pradesh. The Tribunal issued notices to the State Government regarding a plea to stop extraction of earth for making bricks and roads. As per the plea, earth digging in UP continued in violation of the Supreme Court decision as well as the Ministry's directions to all the states.

Amended land acquisition bill passed

The Parliament passed the Land Acquisition (Rehabilitation and Resettlement) Bill in September, albeit with amendments. The new amendment said that social impact assessment of a project for which land needs to be acquired, will not apply to irrigation projects like dams and canals. Apart from this, while a minimum of one acre of land will be alloted to people displaced from farmlands, this provision will not apply to irrigation projects.
 
Two cyclones in a row hit the eastern coast of the country while a third one hit with reduced severity

Phailin, projected to be bigger in magnitude than the 1999 Odisha cyclone, waned without causing much damage to human lives. An efficient early warning system and mass evacuation drive in the states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal helped save more than a million lives. The cyclone, however, caused huge infrastructural destruction, affecting 90 lakh homes and paddy crop worth Rs. 2400 crore.

The second to hit the coastline was cyclone Helen, which destroyed the standing crop in Andhra Pradesh. Helen, which hit the Machilipatnam coast in Krishna district in mid-November, killed seven people and destroyed paddy worth Rs 5000 crore. As per initial estimates, three lakh acres of rice were destroyed in East and West Godavari districts.

The third in line, cyclone Lehar, was expected to hit the Andhra Pradesh coast but it weakened considerably before forming a depression in the sea and crossing the coastline. Lehar, predicted to be as severe as Phailin with a wind speed of 200 kms per hour, crossed the coastline at 30-40 kms per hour only. According to scientists, winds blowing from central India, the low temperature of water near the coast and other climatic conditions resulted in Lehar weakening.

India and China signed accord on trans-border rivers

The two countries signed an agreement to facilitate exchange of flood data and addressed India's fears on dams on the Brahamputra. Under the agreement, the Chinese side will provide flood data of the Brahmaputra river from May to October instead of from June to October as per the previous agreements. India was concerned over China's plans to construct more dams upstream of the Brahamputra, which could restrict the flows of the Himalayan river flowing from Tibet. China, however, assured India that its dams are run-of-the-river (RoR) projects that are not designed to hold water.


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