Blessings are complicated. They come with a lot of attachments. And if you cannot manage them, you could invite disasters.
India is a blessed country in so many ways as far as water endowment is concerned. We are blessed with monsoons, rivers, aquifers, the Himalaya, the rich traditional techniques and management systems, to name a few. But the cumulative impact of our mismanagement over the last several decades has now coming out in the form of a many-headed crisis.
Unfortunately, the government treats water management as its exclusive monopoly. To call for a people’s movement for water conservation in such a situation would be disingenuous, to say the least – particularly when the water-resources establishment is doing everything against sage advice. For example, the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, the government’s top priority among such projects, involves cutting down 46 lakh trees in drought-prone Bundelkhand and facilitate the export of water to other areas. Imagine how much water the 46 lakh trees can harvest.
Or consider this other example: Between April 25 and June 12, 2019, the Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar dams, on the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers respectively, released over two billion cubic metres of water in non-agricultural season, most of which flowed away to Pakistan. This was of course against the public statements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the erstwhile Union water resources minister Nitin Gadkari, both of whom had said not a drop of water would flow out of India’s share of Indus water to Pakistan. Leaving that aside, it is well-known that Punjab and Haryana suffer massive groundwater depletions every year. So why was the dam water not used to recharge groundwater?
This brings us to the following question: so what are some of the key dimensions of India’s water management crisis? There are four.
I. The groundwater lifeline
Most of the water India uses today comes from over 30 million wells and tubewells. Irrigation is India’s biggest water need, and over two-thirds of the irrigated area uses groundwater. About 85% of the rural domestic supply and over 55% of the urban and industrial water supply comes from groundwater, and these numbers have only been climbing for at least four decades now. In fact, some estimates show that over 90% of the additional water that India used since about 1980 has come from groundwater. It sounds like an immitigable blessing. But that’s not how blessings work.
Data from the Central Ground Water Board shows that in about 70% of areas, groundwater is being depleted and in many places, it has been exhausted or is on the verge of exhaustion. Its quality is deteriorating. Warning signs have been visible for decades now, but the government has done little to address the crisis.
In fact, India’s water resources establishment, led by the Big Dam ideologues at the Central Water Commission, has ensured that the government doesn’t even acknowledge that groundwater is India’s water lifeline. That would be the first step. Such an acknowledgement, through the National Water Policy, would mean that India’s water resources policy, plans and programmes will effectively be working to preserve this lifeline.
This would need action on four fronts. First, we need to understand where groundwater recharge happens, and protect recharge mechanisms like forests, floodplains, rivers, wetlands and local water bodies. Second: we need to enhance recharge from these mechanisms where possible. Third: we need to create more recharge mechanisms, including reverse borewells. Fourth, and most importantly: we need to regulate groundwater use.
Such regulation is necessary according to the resource’s location and its contours. Groundwater occurs in aquifers. Aquifers in most places are local, and groundwater use is also local. Ergo, regulation has to start at the local level, enabled by legal, institutional and financial instruments. For cities and industries, this may include pricing mechanisms, with higher price for higher users and an element of cross subsidisation for the poorer people.
Unfortunately, no effective action has been taken on this groundwater regulation front. The Central Ground Water Authority, set up under the Supreme Court’s orders in 1996, has been acting like a licensing body rather than a regulating body. Regulation does not mean you pay and exploit. It would mean restricting and stopping wasteful and unjustified water-use activities in critical areas. Regulation should ensure that water withdrawal is within the limits of annual recharge.
II. The degraded catchments
While Chennai’s water scarcity grabbed headlines this summer, few remembered that only in July 2018, all the dams on the Cauvery, the most important river basin of Tamil Nadu, were so full that water had to be released to the already-flooded downstream rivers. The Mullaperiyar dam provided another bounty to Tamil Nadu in August 2018.
When the Cauvery dams were overflowing around July 24, 2018, the southwest monsoon in the basin was actually below normal. What does this phenomenon – of overflowing dams less than halfway through the monsoon, and when rainfall is below normal, followed by an unprecedented water crisis less than a year later – signify? The answer would be relevant for most river basins in India: that our catchments have a lower capacity to capture, store and recharge rainwater than before. So rainfall in catchment areas is quickly ending up in the rivers and reservoirs, leading to floods during the monsoon but dry riverbeds and water scarcity soon thereafter.
Deforestation, destruction of wetlands and other water bodies, and the declining capacity of the soil to hold moisture, are all contributing to this tragedy. So the way to reverse the scarcity crisis is to reverse all of this.
III. The urban water policy vacuum
The urban water footprint is going up in multiple ways, but the urban water sector is operating in a policy vacuum. Specifically, there are no policies, guidelines or regulations to guide the sector. Under the circumstances, the cities won’t harvest rain, won’t recharge the groundwater, won’t reduce transmission and distribution losses, won’t adopt other demand-side measures, won’t protect its water bodies, and won’t treat and recycle its sewage. Instead, they demand lazy, easy solutions like more and bigger dams, more river interlinking projects and/or massive desalination projects. The government has a Smart City programme but, inexplicably, it is not for water-smart cities.
As a first step towards correcting this situation, India urgently needs a National Urban Water Policy that will define what a water-smart city is and provide best-practice guidelines for various aspects of the urban water sector.
IV. Outdated water institutions
India’s water institutions were established soon after Independence, though some were older They operate with an outdated mindset and within an institutional architecture. An overhaul has been overdue.
The clearest problem with India’s water institutions is symbolised by the fact that we don’t have reliable information about water in India. This is because the Central Water Commission, which heads India’s water institutions, is involved in so many functions that are in conflict with each other. We need an independent institution, along the lines of the US Geological Survey, with the principal mandate to gather all the key water information on a daily basis and promptly place it in the public domain. But such an institute should have no role in water resources development or management.
Similarly, we need a National Rivers Commission to monitor the state of India’s rivers and produce reports and recommendations about what ails these water bodies. Similarly, river-basin organisations will have to be inter-state bodies that develop all the relevant knowledge about the state of the country’s river basins.
Prime Minister Modi, in his Mann Ki Baat on June 30, 2019, the first episode in his second term, highlighted the importance of water conservation and then used the 8% figure: “You will be surprised that only 8% of the water received from rains in the entire year is harvested in our country.” Where does that 8% come from? Modi did not elaborate but India’s annual rainfall is around 4,000 BCM, 8% of which comes to 320 BCM. That is approximately the storage capacity of India’s big dams. However, big dams are not rainwater-harvesting options; they are storage options.
Then again, they aren’t the only or best storage options. Those titles belong to groundwater aquifers, which are benign, naturally gifted, low cost, low impact and efficient. Wetlands, local water bodies and the soil are similarly qualified alternatives. But by mentioning this 8% storage figure, the prime minister is privileging big dams as well as ignoring all the others. And until our water-resources establishment does not get out of this bias for big dams and big projects, there is little hope that our water blessings will not become disasters.
Himanshu Thakkar is the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and a water expert.