Gujarat’s water crisis rooted in years of misplaced priorities

As things stand now, Gujarat is facing prospects of a serious water crisis that may extend till at least next average or above average monsoon. State level Rainfall so far this monsoon is 19% below average as on Sept 1. But the state level average hides the local situation.

Some of the districts that have received rainfall with high deficits, as per IMD figures till Sept 1, 2018 include: Kutch: -58%; Patan: -58%; Gandhinagar: -51%; Morbi: -47%; Ahmedabad: -48%; Surendranagar -43%; Banaskantha: -55%; Mehsana: -52%; Devbhoomi  Dwarka: -40%. These district level figures indeed show massive rainfall deficit with less than a month of  monsoon remaining.

Saurashtra and Kutch collectively has received 303.7 mm rainfall, with 25% deficit, but that region includes districts like Gir Somnath having received 77% above average rainfall. So the real deficit in this meteorological sub-division of IMD is much worse, this is epicenter of Gujarat’s drought.

While Gujarat govt has already told this year the South Gujarat farmers to delay sowing of sugarcane due to low storage in Ukai Dam (41% as on Aug 30, when it is supposed to be 63% as per average of last 10 years), this presents contrasting picture with respect to rainfall as South Gujarat districts have received above average rainfall: Dangs: 28% above average, Valsad and Navsari 23% above average, Anand 19%, Surat 15% and Bharuch 8% above average.

Surat’s above average rainfall is bit of an anomaly. Its in south Gujarat in Tapi basin and Tapi basin has received 8% below average rainfall, one of the reasons for low water storage in Ukai dam.

In terms of river basins of Gujarat, Sabarmati, with 25% below average rainfall. Luni-Saraswati-Bhadar combine basin, that includes Kutch, most of Saurashtra and North Gujarat, has 26% deficit, Mahi basin has 3% deficit.

Bharuch district has had 8% above average rain. It’s in the Narmada basin, the most important river basin of Gujarat. The Narmada basin so far has had 18% below normal rainfall. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) Dam on Narmada river, considered Gujarat’s lifeline by Gujarat’s politicians for decades had just 26% live storage as on Aug 30, 2018.

So why is the water level in SSP so low? Gujarat farmers are in fact facing restrictions in water from SSP. They were told there is no water for them in SSP during Rabi season last year. They are all suffering the mismanagement, or wasteful, political use of the water that happened before the Gujarat assembly elections held in December 2017. During those days, we could repeatedly see major media functions where either the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister participated in the name of one or the other components of SAUNI (Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation) Project or the sea plane scheme with Shri Nitin Gadkari or showing Sabarmati river front with some foreign dignitary. An impression was being created that Gujarat has no dearth of water, thanks to SSP. The PROJECT (& not just the dam) was declared complete by the Prime Minister on Sept 17, 2017. That declaration was clearly erroneous, since the canal infrastructure of the Sardar Sarovar PROJECT is far from complete.

However, within weeks after the new Gujarat state government was sworn in, the state government told the farmers that there is no water for them from the dam. To stop farmers from taking water from the Narmada canal, special police forces were deployed round the clock along the entire 460 km of Narmada Main Canal in Gujarat. That in a year when the SSP’s live water storage capacity had gone up by over 3.5 times from 1.27 Million Acre Feet (MAF) to 4.72 MAF and in a year when the water level in SSP had reached highest ever level of about 128 m.

In fact, the situation became so bad in summer of 2018 that no water was left in live storage of SSP and Gujarat had to take special permission from Narmada Control Authority to use Irrigation By Pass Tunnel (IBPT), so that water can be taken even from below the Minimum Draw Down Level of 110.64 m, by passing the Canal Head Power House. Throughout the summer of 2018, Gujarat took the water, this way. This further depleted the water level.

So even when 2018 monsoon inflows started into SSP from the upstream, water could not be taken to canals for irrigation till the water again reached above 110.64 m in SSP Dam on July 17, 2018. After that most of the inflows had to be diverted to canals, so even on Aug 30, 2018, the water level at SSP Dam was 121.43 m. There were many other costs of this mismanagement, including no power generation at SSP river bed power house almost throughout 2017-18 and in 2018-19 so far and no power generation at the SSP’s Canal Head Power House for at least five months from Feb to July 2018. The costs paid by the downstream river, and the fisherfolks, the people and environment has never been even calculated.

Its interesting to note that while Sardar Sarovar Dam water level was going precariously down, when Narmada river downstream to the estuary was facing unprecedented crisis and destruction, in the same Narmada Valley, Bargi dam in Madhya Pradesh in the upstream had over 1400 Million Cubic Meters (1400 000 000 000 litres) water sitting idle, even till the onset of 2018 monsoon. That water could have easily been released at least for the river downstream from the SSP, but our water management, visions and priorities have gone so horribly wrong that no one even thought of using idle water sitting in Bargi Dam for the people or the river.

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

Various Gujarat governments over the last three decades have been pushing Narmada dam as a lifeline for the state in the name of drought prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. However, over a decade since water supply from Narmada dam started, it has become clear that Gujarat government’s priority is to use SSP water for Urban areas and industries, for farmers in central Gujarat and as a last priority, if there is still any water, then only the drought prone areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

In terms of water resources development too the priority in this millennia have been for mega projects, starting with Sardar Sarovar and including Sujalam Sufalam, SAUNI, Kalpasar and such projects, with complete neglect of local, community driven efforts like well recharging, check dams, lakes and wetlands.

The biggest casualty of these wrong priorities for mega projects and simultaneous neglect of local water systems is the 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. It’s neglect will continue to haunt Gujarat, not only in mismanaged years like 2017, 2018 and now likely 2019, but pretty long time to come.

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

Himanshu Thakkar, (

Note: An earlier edited version of this was published here:
– A Gujarati translation of an earlier version of this was published here: