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Orissa's man-made water crisis

How is it that a state with an average rainfall of 1,502 mm experiences acute water shortages in summer? Perhaps because the approach to the problem has been a ‘one-size-fits-all’ one, with no assessment of the ground realities and no implementation of area-specific technologies

Every year, with the arrival of summer, local newspapers in Orissa are full of heartrending stories about the water woes of people. There are heated debates in the state assembly about the drinking water crisis in various parts of the state. The government announces several drinking water projects to tide over the crisis, a few foundation stones are laid, and then all is forgotten, till the next summer. 

In a state with an average rainfall of 1,502 mm, there is no reason why there should be a water crisis in the first place. But the fact remains that vast areas of Orissa do face an acute drinking water shortage every year. Long queues of women with pitchers on their heads are a common sight in many parts of the state.

There are no easy answers to explain this paradox. One aspect of the problem is the age-old government tendency to cite statistics to exonerate itself without bothering to study the ground realities. And statistics, as they say, hide more than they reveal.

A case in point is the provision of drinking water through tube wells. According to government figures (till March 2009), there are a total of 270,418 tube wells in the state, and 9,287 bore wells. There are also 259 spring-based water supply initiatives and 5,158 rural piped water supply schemes. Even without taking into consideration the piped water supply and water supply to urban areas, that works out to one tube well for every 131 persons, which is lower than the revised 1:150 ratio fixed as per new norms laid down by the Government of India.

But is this the reality? If so, why the water crisis all over the state?

There are many habitations in Orissa that do not meet the norm of 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd). The state government is, in fact, in the process of adopting the new norm of 70 lpcd, which will add to the list of ‘not covered habitations’. Ensuring that these villages are covered is important. 

What the figures don’t reveal is the fact that a large number of tube wells are defunct. If there are 10 tube wells in a village, it’s likely that only four are functioning, even as the official statistics list 10 tube wells. As a result, as figures are juggled to ‘prove’ that all is well on the drinking water front, the goal of providing drinking water to all remains a mirage. If anything, the number of people without access to drinking water is growing thanks to a burgeoning population and proliferation of new settlements.

In this context, the sole responsibility for operation and maintenance of drinking water sources lies with the community (in the case of sector reform projects) and panchayati raj institutions. Very few people are aware of this.

To overcome this problem, the state government initiated an elaborate plan to appoint self-employed mechanics (SEMs) in every village. But even though SEMs have been appointed, there is no guarantee that tube wells will be repaired expeditiously. Repair work is often delayed for a variety of reasons such as non-availability of spares, non-payment of dues, and non-cooperation of people and gram panchayats. 

In a number of areas, tube wells stop yielding water during summer (sometimes even before this) due to a seasonal problem known in departmental parlance as ‘draw down’. The problem occurs when the watertable falls below the level to which the tube well has been dug. Sometimes, however, this ‘draw down’ problem can be attributed to the fact that the requisite length of pipes has not been used. Remedying this problem ensures a windfall for departmental staff as huge amounts of money are allocated to procuring additional pipes that reach the watertable.

Notwithstanding such anomalies, the fact remains that depletion of groundwater has been an area of major concern in Orissa. According to the Ground Water Census Report, there has been a substantial depletion of ground water in 24 out of the 30 districts in the state. 

Piped water supply projects carry a different set of problems, perhaps greater than the difficulties experienced with tube wells. Piped water supply projects call for a) technical expertise for maintenance and repair, that is, mechanical expertise for the pump set, b) electrical expertise for the motor and electricity, and c) civil expertise for pipelines and standposts. It is difficult to find all three levels of expertise in a rural set-up. Again, as piped water supply entails recurring expenditure such as electricity bills, etc, often, after a few months of operation, the system automatically shuts down due to non-payment of bills. Lack of proper institution-building and a structural approach that ignores the social dimension ensure that the system fails to deliver the desired output.

The fact that people dig chuans on river beds and wells in agricultural fields to tide over the water problem implies that sub-surface water can be harvested even if groundwater levels are low. In hilly terrain, dug wells have been found to be much more effective than bore wells. But the department is obsessed with bore wells, presumably because they are easy to dig. There is a strong case for adopting area-specific technology rather than taking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

-- Bikash Kumar Pati 

(Bikash Kumar Pati is Programme Manager -- Water Programme, Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, Bhubaneswar)  

Infochange News & features, April 2010