22 March, 2022

One Water: Ensuring water sustainability for future generations

Come summer and we can expect sad stories of water shortages, long lines for collecting a few pots of drinking water, deployment of water tankers, and, in extreme cases, running special water trains to provide drinking water to citizens in several parts of India. The seriousness weans away, once we experience a reasonably good monsoon. We also read about how climate change could affect water availability and, in turn, quality of life and economy; yet, critical issues surrounding water security in India remain.

As it stands…

India is home to about 17% of global population but holds only about 4% of global water freshwater stocks. As per the Jal Shakti Ministry, the total quantity of usable water, annually, is about 1122 billion cubic meters (BCM). With the demand estimated to grow to about 1180 BCM in 2050, the annual per capita water availability may go down drastically. Furthermore, about 60% of Indian citizens live in rural areas and, as per census 2011, only about 18% in rural households had access to household tap water, while it stood at about 62% in urban households. Most of the rural women, the primary members entrusted with managing domestic water, face a high burden of fetching water from distances, which affects their health, livelihood opportunities, and overall dignity.

Another notable fact is that, more than 80% of rural water supplies depend on groundwater, which is depleting at alarming pace — declined by about 61% during the period 2007 to 2017 — due to over-exploitation and climate change impacts.

This should make us think seriously, about the needs of our people. Especially for ensuring safe, adequate, reliable and affordable drinking water supplies for all citizens, which as per The United Nations and The Supreme Court of India is an integral part of ‘right to life’.

It is not that there isn’t much work done. Since 2019, the Government of India, through the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), has provided Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTC) to six crore new households, covering about 48% of rural households as initially envisioned. Tata Trusts, through their Water, Sanitation & Hygiene initiative, has collaborated with 12 state governments to support the implementation of the JJM in about 3,500 villages, but more such initiatives need to emerge.

Creating a reliable and sustainable system of delivering quality water

To provide reliable and quality services to citizens, the first step is to establish quality infrastructure, followed by a mechanism to maintain them, periodically.

Second, ensuring sustainability of water sources is critical. The water sources in several villages are largely groundwater dependent and diverse geographies, such as coastal, tribal, and hilly regions, experience varying levels of challenges and stress in summer months and, therefore, require context-specific solutions. While JJM emphasizes the need for ‘source sustainability’, new ways of addressing the same are required.

Studies indicate that Indian farmers use 3 to 5 times more water for producing the same quantity of crops in comparison to their counterparts in China, US and Israel. In rural India, about 80% of the groundwater is used for irrigation, while drinking water forms only a small fraction. Ensuring ground water sustainability requires a holistic solution using several advanced technology-driven tools, such as satellite data, remote sensing imagery, and AI, with accompanied field data, and platforms to estimate ‘water budgets’, at the village level to enable faster and more precise estimations at reasonable costs.

Third, financial management is critical for long-term sustainability of services. While the government is funding infrastructure, the local governments and their committees are required to ensure mobilisation of finances for operations and maintenance of the systems. Some grants are available to villages under the 15 th Finance Commission devolutions and other devolution funds. These might not be sufficient, in many cases, and the local governments are encouraged to charge an appropriate ‘user fee’ and use the same for maintenance, repairs and upkeep. In the current political economy, many Gram Panchayats are under spending on operations, which could lead to deterioration in services and sustainability. Therefore, there is a need for adequate efforts and regulations to encourage and capacitate Gram Panchayats to imbibe financial discipline and wean politics away.

Fourth, coordination and unified planning and monitoring across ministries and departments at the national, state, district and local government levels is a must. Integrating it with the knowledge and practice on water resources management and planning at the grassroots – ‘one water’– will help with management, sensitisation and drive towards collective planning and action, and effective demand and supply side management of water resources, in the context of groundwater. Lastly, there is a need to convert citizens, local governments and water departments into active ‘water owners’ from ‘passive project implementers’. This would require massive communication campaigns, multi-stakeholder participation and capacity building of community institutions and local governments, similar to what was done under Swachh Bharat Mission.

Ensuring water security and its sustainable use requires a bottom-up approach and this needs a rethink. Now is the time to act, before it’s too late.

— Mr Divyang Waghela, Head – Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene, Tata Trusts and Mr JVR Murty, WaSH sector expert currently associated with Water Resource Group – 2030 (World Bank)

This article was first published in Voices, TOI, on 22 March 2022.

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