India grapples with the worst drought conditions in nearly 6 decades

Sakhubai Chinda Dagale from Nashik, Maharashtra has no water to irrigate her fields this year, bringing her rice production down to half the usual quantity from earlier years. Bhima Mahadu Wagh from Atkawade village couldn’t even cultivate crops on his field this year. He is forced to search for alternative livelihood in the face of acute water shortage. Suman Sitaram Gulve from Ramnagar village is borrowing water from the neighbouring village to meet her family’s needs, and dipping into her savings to buy fodder and water to keep her animals alive. News reports indicate that more than 50,000 farmers from drought-affected villages in Maharashtra have moved into government run cattle camps, where water and fodder is being provided for their animals. Children are spending their play time traveling several kilometres just to fetch two cans of water for their families.

Such stories of survival have become common this summer, as India grapples with the worst water crisis nearly six decades. With rains delayed by over two weeks, India is facing a gross rainfall deficit of 25%1! This, coupled with an unprecedented heatwave making temperatures soar as high as 48 – 50 C (118 – 122 F), has resulted in nearly half of India experiencing drought-like conditions.

Suman Sitaram Gulve from Maharashtra is among millions that are struggling to meet their basic water needs this summer, as India faces one of its worst water crisis in history.

Suman Sitaram Gulve from Maharashtra is among millions that are struggling to meet their basic water needs this summer, as India faces one of its worst water crisis in history.

More than 500 million people, close to 40% of India’s population2 in urban and rural places alike, is impacted by this water crisis.

India needs resilient communities and ecosystems to cope with drought

While drought this year is abnormally long and dry, it is not an unlikely phenomenon in India, where 70% of the country is classified as dry land. Due to natural climatic conditions, many parts of India will almost definitely face drought like conditions every year, but the intensity may vary depending on the quality of rains. Current state and national policies focus on supporting communities to deal with the after-effects of drought, rather than helping to cope better with drought itself. India needs drought resilience strategies that enable communities to proactively manage their water needs in the face of drought.

Proactive drought planning for Maharashtra

Maharashtra is one of the worst impacted regions every year. More than half the state (7,000 villages) is facing acute water crisis. Nearly 26 reservoirs have reached zero capacity and farmers are among the worst impacted communities as they face high economic losses from crop failure. Maharashtra records the highest number of farmer suicides every year due to drought related losses.

The Nature Conservancy is working in Maharashtra to support the government in developing a proactive drought strategy that enables communities and nature to cope with drought. We aim to bring lasting impacts through science-led approaches that influence behavior and choices of communities, while also strengthening their social capital and conserving their natural capital.

Bhim is among many from his village in Maharashtra who travels several kilometres to fill up a few cans of water everyday

Bhim is among many from his village in Maharashtra who travels several kilometres to fill up a few cans of water everyday

We are initiating pilot projects in 3 regions – Ghod river basin in Pune district, Devnadi river basin in Nashik district and Beed district in the Marathwada region.

  • In the Devnadi river basin in Nashik district, we are working with communities to enable informed, science-based decision making on water availability and use, and undertake participatory aquifer mapping and hydrological modelling of the region. We will support communities to prepare village level water security plans to guide livelihood choices and set up farmer-friendly Early Warning Systems. By demonstrating these interventions on the ground, we will engage with the Maharashtra government to guide proactive drought management policies. We are working with NGO partners – Yuva Mitra, Arid Communities and Technology, Vanam Ecologics and India’s premier education institute IIT, Bombay – to conduct research and implement this project.
  • In the Ghod river basin in Pune district, we aim to set up India’s first Water Trust – a financial and governance mechanism that brings together all stakeholders from the region to collectively plan, implement and secure funds for watershed conservation activities. This is based on the premise that it is cheaper to prevent water problems at the source, than it is to address them later. By improving the watershed of the Ghod basin, which includes the endemic giant Malabar squirrel’s home – Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary – we aim to improve water quality and quantity available for local communities, businesses and industries, towns downstream, and nature itself.
  • In Beed district – a predominantly cotton growing region – we are working with cotton farmers to improve water use efficiency in cotton farming practices and strengthen agriculture resilience in the face of uncertainties. We are partnering with a regional NGO – Manavlok – for on-ground implementation.

India’s water problems are widespread and complex. But we have made a start to demonstrate how scientific, proactive planning and empowering communities to manage their water needs can help build a secure water future for a drought-prone region.

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