Centre, states must join hands to ease water woes : The Tribune India

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Centre, states must join hands to ease water woes

In the absence of reforms in India’s water sector, the existing 256 water-stressed districts out of 766 in the country will tend to be water-scarce in the coming years, and more districts will fall in the water-stressed category. Every citizen must become a change agent regarding the way he or she consumes and manages water. The preparation of a climate-resilient water agenda has to be expedited; it should then be implemented urgently.

Centre, states must join hands to ease water woes

Under stress: Officially, more than 15 per cent groundwater assessment units in India are overexploited as annual extraction exceeds recharge of aquifers. Reuters



SK Sarkar

Distinguished Fellow, TERI, and former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources

THE theme of this year’s World Water Day is ‘Accelerating change’. The broad goal of this day is to create awareness among water users about sustainable and accelerated water management. The world is not on track to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 — ensuring access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. To achieve this target, world organisations and other institutions have to come together in partnership and cooperation with policymakers and stakeholders.

About 2.2 billion people are living globally without access to safe water; by 2050, the worldwide water demand is expected to increase by more than 50 per cent. In view of global warming, sea levels are rising and the cryosphere is melting. Resultantly, floods, heatwaves, droughts and storms are occurring rapidly. UN-Water indicated that between 2001 and 2018, 74 per cent of natural disasters were related to floods and droughts. Thus, there is a need to change our approach towards early warnings in order to make citizens aware of water-related hazards due to global warming. If global warming is restricted to 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level, water stress caused by climate change can be reduced up to 50 per cent.

According to a NITI Aayog report (2019), by 2030, the water demand in India will be double its supply. Economic growth, rapid urbanisation, population growth and lifestyle changes will increase the demand for water use in various sectors. India is a water-stressed country, and will become water-scarce in the near future. Per capita water availability has been decreasing over the years.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 spells out the need for expansion of institutional cooperation and capacity-building support in water-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water-use efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies. There is also a need to support and strengthen the partnership between local communities, including women, to improve water management.

Water is a state subject in India, with the role of the Centre only in regulation and development of inter-state rivers. The state is mandated to undertake projects pertaining to water supply, irrigation and canals, embankments, water storage and water power, but these do not match 21st-century requirements such as integrated water resource management, environmental flows, basin management, water markets, conjunctive water use and water footprint for virtual water trade. There are many institutions working in the water sector without a common vision. A systematic change of approach towards handling the sector is necessary.

Water programmes are often initiated by the Centre, but their implementation is within the domain of the states. There is a need for cooperation among Central and state governments for the success of various programmes. The Prime Minister, while highlighting ‘Water Vision 2047’ during the Bhopal conference in January, had emphasised that “water should be a subject of cooperation and coordination between states and the Centre and their respective departments should act as one entity with clarity and common vision on water security.”

India can accelerate change in the existing water sector management in many ways. For example, increasing water-use efficiency (WUE), treating and reusing of wastewater and artificial recharge of groundwater are some of the areas of immediate importance.

In India, about 70 per cent of water is used in the agriculture sector, but WUE (about 30-35 per cent) is very low compared to international standards. If WUE is increased substantially at a quick pace, water will be saved; it could then be reallocated to industrial and domestic sectors. It is essential to ensure sustainable availability of water to households under Jal Jeevan Mission and to industries under ‘Make in India’ programme of the Union Government.

According to a Central Pollution Control Board report (2020-21), 72,368 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage is generated, out of which only 20,236 MLD (28 per cent) is effectively treated. The rest goes to rivers, lakes and open drains, and contaminates these sources. This trend should be arrested by accelerating the use of existing technology for wastewater treatment, and by the use of advanced technology such as nanotechnology in combination with advanced oxidation process as early as possible.

Groundwater extraction in India is the highest in the world, according to an article in ScienceDirect. More than 15 per cent of the groundwater assessment units are overexploited as annual extraction of water exceeds recharge of aquifers. Irrigation wells in India increased more than threefold during the period from 1986-87 to 2013-14, leading to a decline in groundwater levels across the country. Irrigation is responsible for more than 90 per cent groundwater extraction. Artificial recharge is a process which increases infiltration. The water source for artificial recharge can be rainwater (harvested on the surface) or other sources such as treated wastewater and canals. Artificial recharge has to be accelerated, as it is accepted worldwide as a major intervention to augment groundwater resources.

Political commitment at all levels for undertaking ‘accelerated change’ in water management is a must in the coming years. The current century’s challenges in the water sector are vastly different from those of the pre-Independence era when only engineering solutions to water management were the norm. The need for adopting sustainable fresh ideas with speedy execution should be recognised. The preparation of a climate-resilient water agenda has to be expedited; it should then be implemented on an urgent basis.

In the absence of reforms in India’s water sector, the existing 256 water-stressed districts, out of a total of 766, will tend to be water-scarce in the coming years, and more districts will fall in the water-stressed category. About 42 per cent rural households may get water by 2024 if water management is transformed and ‘Nari Shakti’ and ‘Jal Shakti’ are synergised. Every citizen must become a change agent regarding the way he or she uses, consumes and manages water.


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