Water governance reform

Synopsis: Given the level of the water crisis in India, there is an urgent need to take a deeper look at water management and water governance in India.


Ever since Independence, the governa­nce of water has suffered from at least three major issues or artificial divisions: between irrigation and drinking water, Surface and ground­water and Water and wastewater.

The new National Water Policy (NWP) suggests urgent action to overcome each of these divisions.

What are the challenges facing water management in India?

Hydro cycle: Critical inter-connections in the water cycle have been ignored, which have aggravated the water problems. For example, India failed to see the link between rivers drying up and over-extraction of groundwater, which reduces the base-flows needed by rivers to have water even after the monsoon.

Separation of Drinking and irrigation needs: Placing Drinking water and irrigation in separate silos has led to the drying up of aquifers, when used for irrigation purposes, and are unable to meet the requirements of drinking water.

Institutional issues: The Central Water Commission (CWC), set up in 1945 is India’s apex body dealing with surface water and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) set up in 1970 is the one handling groundwater.

Over several decades, even as ground realities and understanding of water have both changed, the CWC and CGWB have remained virtually unreformed.

Technical challenges: Government departments dealing with water resources include professionals from just civil engineering, hydrology, and hydrogeology. India never had a single river ecologist or ecological economist handling water issues anywhere in India.

Despite the fact that agriculture takes up most of our water, there is not even one agronomist within the water bureaucracy.

Community management: It is clear that water management needs community mobilization, but water departments have never included social mobilizers.

What are the suggestions offered by the National Water Policy?

The NWP has suggested the merger of the CWC and CGWB to form a multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder National Water Commission (NWC). It includes the following divisions, which would work in close coordination with each other:

First, the Water Security Division to guide the fulfillment of national goals pertaining to drinking water.

Second, Irrigation Reform Division to effectively meet the national goal of “Har khet ko paani” (water to every farm).

Third, Participatory Groundwater Management Division to ensure sustainable and equitable management of water.

Fourth, River Rejuvenation Division to work towards the revival of India’s river systems.

Fifth, Water Use Efficiency Division to improve performance on this parameter in all economic activities.

Sixth, Urban and Industrial Water Division to meet emerging national challenges;

Seventh, Democratisation of Data Division to ensure the development of a 21st-century national water database, with user-friendly access to primary stakeholders of water.

Eighth, The NWP seeks to build partnerships with primary stakeholders of water. This must include farmers, water practitioners, academia, industry etc.

Ninth, The indigenous knowledge of our people, with a long history of water management, is an invaluable intellectual resource that must be fully utilized.

There is also an urgent need for an institutional mechanism to prevent water conflicts or at least find a time-bound resolution for existing disputes. The NWP suggests creating a new inter-state council or recasting and activating the existing National Water Resources Council.

Thus, a new water policy, if implemented, can be a great leap forward in addressing the water issues facing India.

Source: This post is based on the article “Water governance reform” published in Business Standard on 20th October 2021.

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