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Water crisis in South Asia
Patrick Fuller

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.
Driving 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 level."

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 failed.

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 sources.

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
Patrick Fuller is a regional information delegate with the Federation, based in New Delhi.

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