Roughly 350 farmers have died in Tamil Nadu in recent months, according to unofficial estimates. In the past 20 years, more than 300,000 indebted farmers in India have committed suicide – many due to family debts, reported The Hindu newspaper.
Years of scanty and inadequate rainfall have led to the drying up of water reservoirs and village water bodies in southern India, especially the grain-growing regions of Tamil Nadu which is facing its worse drought in 140 years.
The once-mighty 800km Cauvery River, a major lifeline in southern India on which millions of farmers depend, has turned into dust tracts in several sections before it trickles down to the Bay of Bengal.
Dense forests once helped to retain water on the hill slopes, enabling slow percolation into the streams that feed the river. But widespread deforestation along the Cauvery Basin has led to soil erosion and a reduction in rainfall.
Scientist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva pointed out that the region gets only four months of rain during the monsoons, during which in ideal circumstances, the water would be naturally stored in the humus and earth of the forests.
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“But if you don’t store it, the rain comes, causes a flood, and you have a drought,” she said.
“The second reason is that there is an over extraction (of water) beyond the capacity of the river. That extraction is leaving the river dry.”
Dr Shiva also blames the government’s ambitious scheme that aims to link Indian rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals, with dams diverting the flow from areas with a water surplus.
She said: “There’s this assumption that you can have bigger and bigger cities and you can divert water from hundreds and thousands of miles away.
To take all the rivers in India and divert them to the cities and industrial areas – all rivers will die.
Critics argue that damming the rivers will cause coastal erosion, deforestation and the displacement of people, and exacerbate the impact of climate change.
Dr Singh pointed out that the introduction of centralised irrigation systems and large dams have led to serious soil erosion. while the over-extraction of underground aquifers depleted the water table.
“There was no more water to be drawn from under the ground, and the water at the top flowed away with the soil, causing erosion and silting,” he said. “All the small rivers are dying.”
Bauxite mining has also wreaked havoc and contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels.
Environmental activist Mr Piyush Manush said that the rampant extraction of bauxite – from which aluminium is produced – from the Servarayan Hills has led to an environmental disaster.
Bauxite absorbs rainwater and slowly releases water into the streams. But the extraction of bauxite has left the hills bare and arid. “If the hill is undisturbed, the bauxite and other minerals inside act as a sponge to absorb water and release it slowly.
“Now, if you chop the hill for bauxite, the hill gets hardened with exposure to sunlight. And once it hardens, it loses that sponge effect,” he said.
In April, distressed and angry drought-hit farmers from Tamil Nadu took to the streets of Indian capital New Delihi to protest, demanding farm loan waivers. A few state governments have conceded, agreeing to waive their loans amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam will transform into deserts. All the crops will be destroyed.
Excerpts from a special investigation by Desmond Ng and Tamal Mukherjee for Channel News Asia, originally published as “As a river dies: India could be facing its ‘greatest human catastrophe’ ever” on 25 July 2017.