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Subir Roy: The Great North Indian Desert, circa 2035

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

India has to change its entire culture of water usage if it is to avoid that eventuality.

Imagine north India 25 years hence, by when today’s pre-school children will be active grown workers. It will not be the country’s granary, fed by multiple rivers, as it is now but a semi-arid desert, the sort of place you now can now see only by undertaking a long journey into western Rajasthan. This is not an extreme scenario created by scaremongers but the likely possibility if things keep going the way they are.

North India is not a part of the Great Indian Desert, lying to its extreme west, for three reasons. One, for around three months in a year it is visited by a temperamental, not yet fully understood, weather phenomenon called the monsoon which brings copious rain to north India for less than 15 days in all. Two, it is served by a mighty network of rivers, fed by whose melting ice and snow make them perennial. Three, through millennia, the monsoon rains and the flowing rivers have charged the north Indian river basins with enormous aquifers of groundwater.

Around 60 per cent of the country’s total cropped area depends on the rains and the temperamental and erratic monsoon accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s rainfall. Only around 40 per cent of the total cropped area is irrigated and of this a good 60 per cent is accounted for by tanks and wells which have a close relationship with groundwater.

Now visualise north India circa 2035. Assume the monsoon has failed as it has done this year, a distinct periodic possibility. But the difference, and this is the scary part, is that by now the ground water and the are both largely gone. Latest scientific evidence says this is the likely scenario if we continue with the business-as-usual approach.

The findings of a scientific study using satellite imagery, by the of the US, made public recently, show that 26 cubic miles of water has disappeared from under the surface of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and the national capital region during 2002-08. The aquifers are reducing by up to 1 ft a year because they are getting depleted faster than they are being replaced.

Hence, NASA issues a dire warning: “If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater use, the consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortage of potable water… The loss is particularly alarming because it occurred when there was no unusual trend in rainfall (during 2002-08).”

If this is happening below the ground, what is happening high above in the Himalayas is equally scary. According to data put together by the Earth Institute of Columbia University from various sources, in the last decade the have been steadily melting along with striking rainfall changes, retreating by up to 70 metres a year. (After the polar regions, the Himalayas are the second largest glacial and permafrost region in the world.)

Glacial melt and snow account for over half the water flowing from the mountains into nine of Asia’s largest rivers, serving 1.3 billion people in seven countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China). The lives of 400 million people in India depend on the Ganga alone, which is one of those nine rivers and is also one of the ten most endangered rivers in the world.

Why is this happening? The glaciers owe their origins to the ‘roof of the world’, the Tibetan plateau, where temperatures are rising at the rate of 0.3 degrees Centigrade a decade, twice the global average. The reason for this warming is well known — emissions from automobiles, industries and also the cowdung-burning home fires lit across rural India.

All this has caused the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN to issue the dire warning: “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world… If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the earth keeps warming at the current rate.”

The most long-term and lasting solution is for India to join in the battle to reverse global warming so that the glaciers don’t melt at their present rate. India also has to change its entire culture of water use — go easy on cultivating non-essential crops that are water guzzlers, like sugarcane; widely adopt farm technologies like sprinkler and drip irrigation which use far less water; recycle waste water a lot more; rejuvenate rivers; and recharge ground water by storing and saving the runoff through water harvesting. These measures have by now become indisputable. Yet, the spectre of a creeping desert continues to haunt us because of grossly inadequate action.  

First Published: Wed, September 02 2009. 00:14 IST