India is confronted with many challenges in the water sector ranging from the lack of reliable information on water, absence of an initiative to restructure the water institutions, a distressed groundwater lifeline, push for large dams, increasing the urban footprint and rising consumption along with the sorry state of its rivers.
Water expert Himanshu Thakkar dwells on some of these issues in a telephonic interview with CNBCTV18.com’s Ajay Vaishnav. Here are the edited excerpts from the interview: Q. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his radio outreach programme, Mann ki Baat, has urged the people to conserve water. Will it help bring greater attention to the looming water crisis in India?
A. Well, Prime Minister Modi talking about the need for conservation is welcome, particularly the point where he stressed on the need to harvest rainwater. However, he needs to first ask how many government buildings actually are using water harvesting systems. In fact, the starting point should be the Shram Shakti Bhawan in Delhi where the Department of Water Resources is located. The government needs to do a lot more and its action needs to be commensurate with what it is saying. Also, it needs to carefully assess the impact of government decisions. For instance, one of the top priority of the government is river linking, with Ken-Betwa river linking one of its foremost projects. But the project will require the cutting down of 46 lakh trees in Bundelkhand, which will adversely impact water catchment area in the region.
Q. How serious is the water crisis in India and what should be done to deal with it?
A. We are facing a pretty serious water crisis, but it is more a water management crisis. Broadly, I see the need to focus on four specific areas to improve India's water management system. The first action is required in groundwater, which is India's water lifeline. More than two-thirds of the country's irrigated land is covered by the groundwater. More than 85 percent of the rural domestic water supply and more than 55 percent of our urban and industrial water supply depends on it. And its usage in all these sectors is going up fast. The whole focus of our national water policy should be on sustaining this water lifeline.
A: This will require an identifying source of groundwater and enhancing their recharging and replenishing mechanism, including through the creation of artificial recharge mechanism. For example, the Delhi government today announced a pilot project for conservation of water in the Yamuna floodplains and creating a mega-reservoir between Palla and Wazirabad.
Q. How do you propose to sustain groundwater and replenish it? Do we need regulatory intervention as well including some sort of pricing mechanism? But the foremost thing is regulation of groundwater use. And the regulation doesn't only mean pricing. It can be a small part of it, but the regulation is required essentially at the resource level, basically at the aquifer level.
And this has to happen in a decentralised manner.
Q. What are the other focus areas to improve the water supply situation in India?
A. The second intervention is required at the catchment level. For example, Chennai and wider Tamil Nadu is facing a severe water crisis but just last year during Monsoon in late July all dams in the state were releasing water as they were not able to store it. All this happened when the Monsoon was just less than half-way through and the rainfall was below normal in the Kaveri basin. What it clearly indicates that our catchment areas are seriously degraded in terms of capacity, store, recharge and then discharge slowly even during a below normal monsoon. We need to wake up to this reality of degraded catchment and work to improve it such as higher forest coverage, wetlands, local water bodies, increasing carbon content in soil et al.
The third intervention is required at urban water level management. Our urban water footprint is increasing very fast with rapid urbanisation. But there is no policy in India to guide the urban water sector; it is a kind of anarchy and the policy response to rising demand is very simplistic. For example, a metro like Delhi seeks increased water supply from different dams from neighbouring states. Most of our large cities, including Mumbai, works on more or less same lines, depending on outside sources. The government is planning to establish smart cities, but can we have such a city without a smart management system. What we need is smart cities with an integrated approach which can meet their water needs.
Q. Are our institutions capable of handling a water crisis of this magnitude or are they also in need of sweeping reforms?
A. A very important factor is institutional level support and it is a travesty that our water regulatory bodies, which were created with pre-independence mindset, haven’t evolved much. In fact, a major hindrance is the lack of credible water data, something along the lines of the United States Geological Survey. This US agency focuses on only handling water data and has nothing to do with resource development and other work. It puts out this data on its website on a daily basis and anyone can see it.
The Indian equivalent of the USGS, on the other hand, is the Central Water Commission. The CWC apart from handling most water data is also involved in policymaking, technical body, dam design, dam safety, dam lobby, R&D, monitoring and many other functions. There is so much conflict of interest within the Central Water Commission which has essentially become a surface water promotion body and it will never allow the reality to sink in that groundwater is India's lifeline. To put it simply, it needs an overhaul with special focus on separate management of data.
Q. Coming back to the point you have made that water crisis is basically related to management, does it mean that we have sufficient water resources to cater to the entire population?
A. When we say the entire population, it doesn't mean you can cultivate sugarcane in Rajasthan. Likewise, you can't have a water bottling unit in drought-prone areas or for that matter any other water-intensive manufacturing units. There has to be an appropriate use of resources both in agriculture and manufacturing as well. You can't have water-intensive crops or manufacturing units in low availability areas. But, there are so many things which we are doing, which ideally we shouldn't. That has to change as water availability has to last. It cannot be things as usual approach.
Q. Many parts in India are facing a drought situation, including the Marathwada region in Maharashtra. How can this problem be addressed?
A. Maharashtra and Marathwada is a case study in itself as the state has the highest number of big dams, probably even more than the next 2-3 states combined. But the state perennially faces water shortage because its water management is dominated by these large dams which are not delivering. These dams are meant largely for irrigating sugarcane fields or some focused activity like hydropower generation. These dams are not able to cater to the real water needs of a large populace. And the availability of the groundwater in peninsular India is limited and it is being unsustainably exploited. In fact, the entire water management system of Maharashtra is poor along with improper crop patterns in all regions including Marathwada and Vidarbha.
The major river basins of Maharashtra are Krishna and Bhima and they flow downstream in Telangana and Andhra. All these river basins are in crisis but every year two billion cubic meters of water gets transferred to the rain-rich and water surplus Konkan to generate hydro-power. The water just flows to the sea. If this whole water is allowed to flow in rivers and downstream, it will do more good. This mismanagement is creating a crisis for all three states. There exists a very powerful dam lobby in Maharashtra, which unfortunately is calling the shots.
An IITian, Himanshu Thakkar is currently the coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.