An Indian devotee walks past the Shiv temple 'Hafeshwar Mahadev', which was uncovered when water levels dropped at Hafeshwar, some 240 kms from Ahmedabad. India's western state of Gujarat is facing water shortages. AFP
An Indian devotee walks past the Shiv temple 'Hafeshwar Mahadev', which was uncovered when water levels dropped at Hafeshwar, some 240 kms from Ahmedabad. India's western state of Gujarat is facing water shortages. AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat, is facing prospects of a serious water crisis that could drag on until at least the next average or above-average monsoon. About forty-four talukas (subdistricts) have reportedly had below 125 millimeters of monsoon-season rainfall since June 1. At a time when the monsoon is already more than halfway through, state rainfall levels have been 18% below average.

This figure hides the local situations, however. Morbi district, for example, has recorded a rainfall deficit of 42% since June 1, while the deficit was as high as 60% for Patan district. Several other districts have recorded a massive rainfall deficit in the period, according to India Meteorological Department (IMD) figures up to August 19. These include Kutch (-57%), Gandhinagar (-53%), Mehsana (-53%), Ahmedabad (-51%), Surendranagar (-41%) and Banaskantha (-55%).

Saurashtra and Kutch districts have collectively received 281.1mm of rainfall, with the deficit at 22%. But that region includes districts like Gir Somnath, which received 87% above average rainfall. So the real deficit in this region defined by IMD, which includes parts of North Gujarat, is much worse, and is the epicenter of Gujarat’s drought.

The Gujarat government has already asked farmers in South Gujarat to delay the sowing of sugarcane this year, because of low storage in Ukai Dam (21% on August 16, when it was 39% last year and is supposed to be 59% as per average of last 10 years). But that stands in contrast with the rainfall in districts of South Gujarat, including Dangs, which received 32% above average rainfall, Valsad and Navsari ( 29%), Surat (14%) and Bharuch (8%).

Surat’s above-average rainfall is bit of an anomaly as the district lies in southern Gujarat’s Tapi basin, which has received 9% below average rainfall. That is one of the reasons for low water storage in Ukai Dam.

In terms of Gujarat’s river basins, Sabarmati, with 29% below average rainfall, has the biggest rainfall deficit. Luni-Saraswati-Bhadar combine basin, which includes Kutch, most of Saurashtra and North Gujarat, has a 24% deficit, while the Mahi basin has a deficit of 13%.

Bharuch district has had 8% more rain than average. It lies in the Narmada basin, the most important river basin of Gujarat. The Narmada basin has so far had 21% below normal rainfall. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) dam on the Narmada River, considered Gujarat’s lifeline by the state’s politicians for decades, shockingly, had just 8% live storage as of August 20, which is way below 28% last year and a 26% average of the last 10 years. Gujarat farmers were, in fact, told there was no water for them. They were told the same thing before the end of Rabi season last year.

So why is the water level in the SSP so low? The farmers are suffering from the mismanagement, or wasteful political use, of the water that happened before the December 2017 Gujarat State Assembly elections. At the time, Prime Minister Modi and state Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, both of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), were often seen at major media functions,  participating in the name of one or the other components of the Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation Project or the sea-plane scheme with Shipping and Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari.

An impression was being created that Gujarat had no dearth of water, thanks to SSP. The project was declared complete by Modi in September last year. But his declaration was clearly erroneous, since SSP’s canal infrastructure is far from complete.

Then, within weeks of the new state government being sworn in, farmers were told there was no water in the dam. To stop farmers from taking water from the Narmada Canal, special police forces were deployed around the clock along the state’s 460km-long Narmada Main Canal. That in a year when the SSP’s water storage capacity had gone up by more than three and a half times, from 1.27 million acre-feet to 4.72maf. It was also the year when SSP’s water level reached its highest ever level of about 128 meters.

In the summer of 2018, the situation became so bad that no water was left SSP’s live storage and Gujarat had to take a special permission from the Narmada Control Authority to use the Irrigation Bypass Tunnel (IBPT), so that water could be taken from below the minimum drawdown level of 110.64 meters. But this further depleted SSP’s water level.

When monsoon inflows started into SSP from upstream, water could not be taken to canals for irrigation until the level reached above 110.64 meters again in July. After that most of the inflows were diverted to canals, so even on August 20, the dam’s water level was 114.69 – 8% in live storage.

There were many other costs of this mismanagement, including no power generation at the SSP riverbed power house, almost throughout financial year 2017-18 and well into 2018-19. There was no power generation at the SSP’s Canal Head Power House for at least five months (February to July) as well. The costs paid by the downstream river and fisherfolk, the people and environment have never even been calculated.

SSP’s water level fell precariously when the Narmada River, downstream to the estuary, faced an unprecedented crisis and destruction. Meanwhile, in the Narmada Valley, Bargi Dam in Madhya Pradesh state, in the upstream, had more than 1.4 billion cubic meters of water sitting idle, even up to the onset of the 2018 monsoon. That water could have easily been released at least for the river downstream from the SSP, but India’s water management, visions and priorities have gone so horribly wrong that no one even thought of using the water sitting idle in Bargi Dam.

The lifeline mantra that Gujarat’s politicians used for Sardar Sarovar has meant, particularly since 2002, that the state also neglected the local efforts it was famous for in the 1990s, including well recharging and check-dam movements. Gujarat’s official agencies adopted well recharging and check dams in government programs in the 1990s, and then after 2002 completely neglected them.

Successive governments have pushed Narmada Dam as a lifeline for the state, in the name of drought-prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. But a decade since water supply from the Narmada Dam started, it has become clear that the Gujarat government’s priority is to use SSP’s water for urban areas and industries, farmers in central Gujarat and, as a last priority, if there is any water, then the drought-prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

In terms of water-resources development too, the priority in this millennium has been given to mega-projects such as Sardar Sarovar, Sujalam Sufalam, Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation Scheme, Kalpasar and others. Local community driven efforts like well recharging, check dams, lakes and wetlands have been completely neglected.

The biggest casualty of these wrong priorities and the simultaneous neglect of local water systems is groundwater – the water bank that we can fall back on when rains fail. In that sense, sustainable groundwater, recharged by living local water systems, is the real water lifeline. Its neglect will continue to haunt Gujarat, not only in mismanaged years like 2017, 2018 and now likely 2019, but for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, this year and possibly next, Gujarat will suffer the sins of mismanagement during the pre-elections period of 2017.

Himanshu Thakkar is a coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.