By Zubair Ahmed

Rain seems to be back. With the sky overcast and with a spatter of rains, there is a sense of respite in the air that the acute water crisis, the Island territory is facing may pass soon. The South West monsoon is on schedule, hopefully!

This sense of relief that rain brings along usually makes the Island Administration to forget and withdraw into its shell, as if nothing happened.  However, blame game and rhetoric about dream projects that would have sailed the Islands through the crisis keeps everyone busy for a while.

The year 2020 won’t be remembered just as the year of Corona by the Islanders. It also inflicted upon them the severest of water crisis, the worst in two decades.

Looking back, the north-east monsoon has been failing with frightening regularity from 2001, plunging the islands into severe crisis intermittently, and now right from day one of the year 2020.

Water crisis always made headlines when it hit Port Blair urban area. However, it was equally harsh in rural South Andaman with water being supplied once in a week. A unique feature added this year!

The extreme and desperate measures like transporting water from Little Andaman to Port Blair by a passenger ship, and plying tankers from Port Blair to rural areas like Namunaghar are unprecedented.

The Islands on an average receives 3000 mm rain. Two major water projects – raising the height of Dhanikhari reservoir by five metres, and commissioning of Kamsarat Nallah earthen dam in Wimberly Gunj should have solved the water crisis in both Port Blair urban area and major villages of rural areas of South Andaman respectively in such dire times when monsoon failed. However, both the projects couldn’t save the district from the imminent crisis.

What came as a rescue was the lockdown due to the Corona pandemic. Before the nationwide lockdown was declared from March 25, the Islands was already under shutdown with govt and private offices, educational institutions, hotels, restaurants, resorts and even places of tourism closed. There were no floating population with movement strictly restricted. Even, all construction work was stopped during the peak of the working season. It eased the demand of water especially in Port Blair, or else, it would have created chaos and mayhem on unparalleled scale. Blaming failure of monsoon or measures like transporting water from far-flung Islands wouldn’t have sufficed to overcome the crisis. The strict lockdown also helped in keeping the frustrated residents locked up in their homes, allaying all kind of protests.

Surprisingly, it all seems to be a replay of events from 2001, when the situation had turned even worse. The desperate measures resorted to also seems to be same as during the dawn of the new millennium, which didn’t augur well for the Islands.

In 2001, it had turned into an emergency. Schools were closed and the government employees were encouraged to go on leave. Water, for the first time was carted by barges from Rutland and distributed through tankers. There was total chaos and mayhem in the town. And in a knee jerk action the Port Blair Municipal Council undertook urgent repair and restoration of discarded wells. Tankers had field day transporting water from one corner of the island to another. The main sources of supply were the perennial streams and nallahs running along the road from Calicut to Kodiaghat.

There were fervent parleys and revived interests on various water related projects in pipeline. Major projects like raising the height of Dhanikhari Dam, Rutland, Flat Bay Freshwater Lake and Kamsarat Nallah earthen dam became hot topics of discussion.

And as soon as the skies opened up and rained, the proposals and projects were also put on the backburner. Water crisis followed perennially every year after tsunami, and renewed interests on the projects too.

The scenario would have been worst, if there was no lockdown, and all normal activities were on. Tourism sector would have added to the woes. The steps taken now to mitigate the crisis wouldn’t have helped much.

After a decade of conception, the height of Dhanikhari Dam was raised by 5 metres and completed in 2014. Meanwhile the demand had gone up. But, the elated statement that it would solve water problem in Port Blair city for another 25 years came as a surprise, as it didn’t. Such skewed up projections were quite misleading. The crisis continued unabated.

In rural South Andaman, the work on Kamsarat (Commissariat) Nallah dam in Wimberly Gunj also commenced and was completed in record time during the period of Lt Gen A K Singh. Despite its completion, the surrounding villages still face acute water crisis. Water is supplied once in a week in the villages surrounding the dam.

That says much about the ambitious projects, and the perpetual neglect of untapped water sources in and around the villages in the rural areas. There are such a large number of projects in the pipeline that the pipeline itself is choked!

Rutland has been garnering all the attention since decades.

The ALHW had come up with a proposal that envisages construction of weirs at nine nallahs, connecting these to a large reservoir at Purana Dera, the old operating base of ATI and pumping that water through a submarine pipe in McPherson Strait to Bada Balu, Landfall Point in South Andaman Island. From there it would be pumped into the Dhanikhari Dam for further transmission, treatment and distribution. A massive job projected to cost more than Rs 100 crores. Had this project reached completion, it would have made another 7 million litres available to the grid during January-February and 3 million during the worst period in April.

The project took off, but got mired in controversies and corruption charges. A crisis of confidence somewhere within the hierarchy about technical competence in laying submarine pipeline connecting Rutland and Phongi Balu made all the efforts go in vain.

However, the Chief Secretary has announced that the project will be revisited and completed before next summer.

In Port Blair town, daily water supply is still a far-fetched dream even during rainy season.

The long delay between conception of project and actual commissioning is a reason why all projections and planning go haywire. Hence, instead of working on one project, multiple options need to be explored concurrently. 

Of late, there has been excessive focus on beautification and creating tourism centric projects. There was extensive coverage on a four-lane Marina connecting Minnie Bay with Hathitapu and Dundas Point, which would be an ambitious addition in tourism infrastructure. But many wouldn’t know that the marina was just one spin-off of the Flat Bay Freshwater Lake project.

Flat Bay Fresh Water Project, the most ambitious one was developed taking into consideration the long term demand of water in the year 2050. According to the projections drawn up by the Andaman and Lakshadweep Harbour Works, the demand for drinking water in 2050 would be of the order of 105 million litres per day taking into account the present pattern of population growth.

The project would have connected the Crown Point at the back of Minnie Bay in Port Blair to Mithakhari in South Andaman. There would be a 1540 metre main embankment, 2725 metres of secondary embankment and a 750 metre long RCC barrage between Crown Point and Mithakhari.

Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works was hired in late nineties to conduct a survey and come up with a detailed project report. Extensive surveys and studies were conducted in consultation with reputed agencies like Water & Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) India, Central Water Power & Research Station (CWPRS), Pune, Danish Hydraulic Institute, Denmark, IIT Delhi and Chennai and HR Wallingford, UK.

But the project got bogged down with the Environment Ministry since about 40 hectares of mangrove would be affected by the project.

There were some reservations about viability of the project in the minds of intellectuals, scientific community and naturally, amongst the environmentalists. One simple reason was that there was only one example of turning the part of a creek into a fresh water lake or reservoir - Plover Core Water Supply Scheme in Hong Kong.

What we hear now is only about the Marina, which was in fact an offshoot of the freshwater lake project.

When policymakers lose track and grope, priorities get skewed. Instead of focusing on providing essential infrastructure and fulfil basic needs, they see opportunities in creek tourism overlooking the perennial streams like Koila Nallah in Mannarghat.

The Koila Nallah Water Supply and Minor Irrigation Scheme at Mannarghat, South Andaman has an approved capacity to supply 1250 lakh litres of drinking water to the residents of Mannarghat, Malapuram and Wright Myo apart from irrigation. The preliminary report was prepared in 1988 and the Geological Survey of India had conducted a study too.

Mithakhari Nallah Water Supply and Minor Irrigation Scheme at Mithakhari village in South Andaman have the capacity to supply 6000 lakh litres of drinking water to Mithakhari and the adjoining villages.

Indira Nallah Project at Maymyo village for an estimated 15 lakh litres a day is a classic case of neglect at the hands of those who manage the water supply schemes for the people of this territory. The scheme was conceived sometimes in eighties. A sum of about Rs 10 crore was sanctioned in 1995, the foundation stone was laid by Vakkom Purushothaman, the then Lt. Governor with great fanfare on September 14, 1995.

Rural areas can fend for themselves in most of the cases. There is no dearth of untapped water sources across rural South Andaman. Simple methods can be adopted to conserve the rain water, recharge ground water and harvest it through processes based on traditional wisdom. Small check dams, planting shady trees along the perennial nallahs and keeping it clean from dumping waste, digging wells near the check dams on seasonal nallahs would solve the problem of most of the rural villages. In Mithakhari, small gravel pits on river beds are providing water to clusters of families in this season too.

Addition of facilities to increase existing storage capacity also needs to be taken up near the existing check dams and weirs. But, the major issue would be inter-departmental coordination.

Coordination and involvement of local bodies like Panchayats in water sector will help in finding enduring solutions rather than knee jerk actions like transportation of water from far-flung islands. An order passed in 2015 abolished allocation of funds to Panchayats in water sector. However, the order also gave options to Panchayats to come up with projects without any fund constraints. But, the Panchayats find it difficult to get no objection from APWD and Forest Department.

Most of the intricacies involved in water management can be sorted out only if it gets unflinching attention. Water can’t be just a section of Public Works Department, if a comprehensive approach has to be evolved for the entire territory.

The territory would need a full-fledged water authority for policy framework, planning and execution of water projects. Lack of synergy between departments and institutions has severely affected or delayed many projects, which can be overcome, if a separate agency is constituted. Survey, study, identification and augmentation of water sources, grid management and subsequent works can be carried out throughout the year.

The onus of conserving non-existent water is always forced upon the Islanders. Recently, a diktat was issued to construct or add rainwater harvesting structures to existing buildings, both in rural and urban areas. Rainwater harvesting like solar energy is a good proposition. But, it becomes viable and practical, only if it’s done at large scale, especially in a tropical Island territory.

The year 2020 has exposed us to many challenges. All the years lost in pushing ambitious tourism projects including the ones NITI Aayog promotes needs to be reviewed in the light of present crisis. Without water management, not only tourism, but lives of the Islanders too will be poorly affected.

The indiscriminate earth-cutting, pulling down hillocks and clearing green spaces will destroy the ecology completely, thus making lives unbearable. There has to be a fine balance between ecology and development with a paradigm shift in our approach.

There is sufficient water for the needs of the Islands, which requires proper management. However, it can only be stretched to an extent, the Islands can take in.

We can feel good, cheer and applaud the efforts of transporting water from far-flung Islands by passenger ships to mitigate the present crisis at Port Blair. But, can we envisage a situation, where water was airlifted to Maldives from India six years ago!