Water crisis in South Asia
Millions of people across South Asia are
facing the dire effects of drought. Although the causes vary,
similar long-term solutions are needed through good governance
and better management of natural resources.
through western Rajasthan the sun beats down mercilessly,
bleaching the desert landscape. A shape appears on the
horizon, shimmering in the 45-degree heat haze. A woman
emerges striding purposefully along the empty road with a clay
water pot balanced on her head. Resplendent in tribal dress
and weighed down by ornate silver jewellery, Chandra Ram walks
eight kilometres every day from her desert village to the
nearest working hand pump, returning in the scorching heat
with a full 10-litre pot. She spends over five hours each day
collecting barely enough water to meet her family's basic
needs. The water will be used sparingly for drinking and
cooking, and the next morning the routine will be repeated.
Like many across drought-stricken areas of South Asia,
Chandra's quest for water has come to dominate daily life.
The Indian government estimates that drought has affected
over 50 million people across 11 of India's 27 states - the
worst-hit regions being Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
Add at least two million in the provinces of Sindh and
Baluchistan in central and southern Pakistan, and three to
four million severely affected in southern Afghanistan, and it
is clear that a major crisis is evolving across South Asia.
Ordinarily, much of Rajasthan is semi-desert with minimal
rainfall. This year, however, the drought has pushed the
population to the brink, causing immense social and economic
dislocation and ruining the livelihoods of millions of
farmers. As wells dry up across the state, the government is
struggling to tanker in water supplies to the region, but for
most people it is too late. Their livestock have died and
their children are beginning to show signs of malnourishment.
Change for good and ill
In India the warning signals emerged as early as October
last year, and experts agree that to a great extent the
drought has been man-made. Although consecutive years of
substandard rains in some states have been one of the causes,
according to a recent World Bank study, fundamental changes in
how water is allocated, planned and managed must occur if
India's needs are to be met.
The drought has led to intense debate among politicians,
environmentalists, NGOs and community organizations as to the
best way forward. Some say that the time has come to start
charging farmers for power and water; others argue for the
construction of more mega-dams to enable areas with surplus
water to share it with drought-prone regions. Everyone agrees,
though, that people throughout the country must be made aware
of the urgent need to conserve water.
As more communities become reliant on piped water or tube
wells to feed their village hand pump, traditional methods for
harvesting water are forgotten. Very few communities build
'check dams' in dry river beds to catch the runoff from the
monsoon rains. Precious few homes collect and store rainwater
from their roofs, a practice that can provide six months'
supply of drinking water from a few weeks of rainfall. Bob
Kelly, a water and sanitation engineer seconded from the
Australian Red Cross, recently spent three weeks as part of a
Federation drought assessment team in India. "People
think that by sinking deeper wells the problem will be
solved," he says. "In some areas the water-table has
hit rock bottom and the result will be brackish water coming
up. Even if the rains are good this year, it will take a few
years of normal rains to recharge the water-table to a normal
Drought-affected villagers working on the construction
of a 'check dam' as part of a government cash-for-work programme.
The dam is constructed in a dry river bed and is intended to
collect the monsoon rains and replenish the water-table.
Populations on the move
This is the scenario rapidly emerging over the border in
Pakistan, where in the Thar Pakar area of Sindh province many
of the wells are now salty and undrinkable. Most of the
agriculture in the area is rain-fed and there are fears that
if the rains due in August fail, and more wells dry up, there
could be large-scale population movements of settled farmers.
The drought has also struck Sindh's neighbouring province of
Baluchistan where the situation is equally dire, particularly
for the Baluchi nomads whose way of life has remained
unchanged for centuries. As their herds of goats and sheep
succumb to starvation, thousands are now forced to leave their
ancestral lands, heading for makeshift camps which have sprung
up around available water sources. The pattern is repeated
across the border in Afghanistan, where thousands of Kuchi
nomads are heading for urban centres in the hope that they can
save their remaining livestock. Recent assessments revealed
that the entire country has been severely affected by the
drought. Worst hit are the rain-fed wheat producers. Their
crop, normally harvested between May and July, has largely
Unlike India, both Afghanistan and Baluchistan fall outside
the monsoon belt and are unlikely to see rain before October.
Three years of little or no rainfall and an absence of
snow-melt from the northern mountain ranges has brought the
region to its knees. Many people point to global warming as
the main culprit behind the drought, although over-intensive
irrigation of wheat and fruit farms has undoubtedly
contributed to the current crisis in Baluchistan. In
Afghanistan, the drought is compounded by poor management and
the collapse of existing water infrastructure, which is
perhaps inevitable in a country that has undergone 20 years of
war. Most of the population, urban and rural, remain reliant
on water supplied from shallow, hand-dug wells or from natural
Whatever the causes that lie behind the droughts in
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the way of addressing the
problem is roughly the same. "It's largely a question of
good governance and better management of the region's natural
resources," says Geoff Dennis, head of the Federation's
South Asia regional delegation. "Stakeholders from across
the spectrum need to be genuinely engaged and involved in the
process of development," he adds.
Although the Red Cross Red Crescent can provide targeted
relief assistance in the short and medium term, part of the
long-term solution to South Asia's water problems lies in the
need for an integrated approach towards watershed management.
There has to be a balance between available resources and
demand. This should encompass the overall development of an
environment and its people. It addresses the links that exist
between areas such as soil and water management, agroforestry,
health and education, and rural energy management. The success
of watershed management depends on empowering villagers and
their full involvement in the decision-making processes. This
would benefit vulnerable communities such as the nomads of
Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to Geoff Dennis:
"This requires a long-term vision and investment in time
and resources, but most importantly it requires an
understanding by everyone that water is not an infinite
resource in this part of the world."
Patrick Fuller is a regional information delegate with the Federation, based
in New Delhi.
Top | Contact
Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster
© 2000 | Copyright