7 PM | Rethinking water governance strategies| 12th August, 2019

Context: ground water crisis and measure to improve water governance

  • India is facing an unprecedented and worsening water crisis. The rivers are getting more polluted, their catchments, water-holding and water-harvesting mechanisms are deteriorating, and groundwater levels are depleting at an alarming rate.
  • A large part of western and southern India is facing a drought at present. Some of these areas, for example, Kerala and the Cauvery basin in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, are the areas that faced floods recently

Challenges in Water governance:

  • Information: The lack of credible “water information,” that is, information about water storage, groundwater, water flows and, in some cases, even rainfall and snowfall levels. Access to accurate water information could help one understand the risks and urgency of the situation and steer towards informed decisions
  • Multiple institutions:Central Water Commission (CWC), Central Ground Water Board, Central Ground Water Authority, State Pollution Control Boards and Central Pollution Control Board, among others.
  • These institutes may have a slightly different evolution trajectory, but they show a typical top-down, bureaucratic, unaccountable, non-transparent and non-participatory mindset.
  • Unsustainable extraction:More recent research has reinforced that North India is most affected, and is guzzling down groundwater at a rate 70% faster than estimated earlier (Economic Times 2019), but western and southern India are not far behind.
  • Groundwater is, has been, and is going to remain India’s lifeline for a long time to come. But, neither national policy nor national or state water resource establishments acknowledge this reality.
  • Water infrastructure: The water infrastructure continues to perform far below its optimum, as India is not allocating even a fraction of the required annual maintenance budget of $4 billion that it needs. It faces grave dam safety issues, as was also evident in the case of Kerala floods in August 2018.
  • Soil moisture: Soil moisture represents another major challenge. For the farmers facing increasingly irregular rains with changing climate, the increased capacity of soil to hold moisture is hugely useful, as also is the local water storage and sustained or enhanced groundwater levels.
  • The capacity of the soil to store water increases when there is more carbon in it, and this can be achieved with the use of greater organic inputs. More carbon in the soil is also great news for mitigating the emissions-inducing climate change. But, serious schemes are needed for achieving this.
  • Water footprint: As the urban water footprint is going up by leaps and bounds in multiple ways, there is a need for a national urban water policy to guide the urban water sector.
  • Be it Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Guwahati, Bhopal, Ahmadabad, almost every city is water stressed and yet does not have a concrete plan to follow up on the basic steps.

Measures to improve water governance:

  • River Basin Organizations (RBOs) with institutional authority for keeping the river basin and groundwater aquifers in good condition and productivity need to be established. They can be responsible for allocation of river flows and ground water to competing needs and demands in the basin
  • Various states in the basin will have the authority of executing water use within such an allocation. This will help in a gradual and ecologically-continuous distribution of authority from the national level to the RBOs to the basin states, and further down to the towns and villages
  • Effective functioning of RBOs will depend on the availability of recent knowledge and quantitative scientific data on the movement of water along all the links within the hydrological cycle, for the respective basins.
  • The new institutional structures need to be in close touch with new interdisciplinary knowledge in water science and policy. For this, institutions of water science and policy research need to pay attention to the much-neglected social, political, economic and ecological dimensions and the schools of water engineering need to be encouraged to be at the forefront through coordinated and sustained research programmes.
  • The institutions should also work to build wider professional linkages with various parts of the Ministry of Water Resources and the RBOs
  • With limited availability of water, water security will depend heavily on technological innovations aimed at better efficiency of water use and better de-pollution from waste water.
  • Thus, water-based technologies should have higher support and visibility in the new structure. At the same time, public information and participation in related research and dissemination also needs to be ensured
  • Maintaining water security requires the support of a comprehensive legal structure. The urgency of the situation with respect to water needs fundamental changes in the property rights and responsibilities of the citizens supported by an effective but participatory regulatory institutions
  • Cities need to stop the destruction of local water bodies and local tree cover, treat its sewage properly, harvest rainwater, and stop straightening and concretizing the rivers and encroaching on their floodplain.
  • The Centre has to work with States towards an institutional change for the necessary course-shift. The Finance Minister, in her budget, repeatedly stated that the government will work with States to address India’s national water security challenges.

Way forward:

  • The primary need is to address the democratic deficit in water governance. The first step in tackling this would be the recognition of this reality as a problem. The water governance ought to be made transparent, accountable and participatory in every sub-sector, including management of rivers, groundwater, floods, and biodiversity, among others.
  • There is no doubt that the current government has failed to perform in almost every aspect of the water sector. It has been largely a story of missed opportunities. However, continuing to miss these opportunities will be disastrous for India. So government should develop a proper framework for future growth of the nation without water crisis.


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