Why India’s policy makers refuse to acknowledge groundwater as India’s water lifeline

big dam

By Himanshu Thakkar*

Blessings, like disasters, are complicated. Blessings 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. Our monsoons, rivers, aquifers, the Himalayas, the rich traditional techniques and management systems, to name a few. But the impacts of accumulated mismanagement over the last several decades are now coming out in the form of crisis in multiple ways.

Unfortunately, the government treats water management as its exclusive monopoly. To call for a people’s movement for water conservation in such a situation is disingenuous, to say the least. Particularly when the water resources establishment is doing every thing against the sage advice. For example, the Ken Betwa River Link project, the top priority river link project of the government, involves cutting down of 46 lakh trees from drought prone Bundelkhand and facilitate export of water to outside Bundelkhand areas. Imagine how much water the 46 lakh trees can harvest?

Or consider this another recent instance: Between April 25 and June 12, 2019, the three dams Bhakra, Pong and Ranjit Sagar, on Sutlej, Beas and Ravi respectively, released over 2 Billion Cubic Meters of Water in non-agricultural season, most of which flowed away to Pakistan. This was of course against the public statements of Prime Minister and earlier Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari, both of whom said not a drop of water will flow from Pakistan out of India’s share of Indus water. Leaving that aside, it is well known that Punjab and Haryana suffer massive groundwater depletions every year. Why was this water not used to recharge groundwater?

So what are some of the key dimensions of India’s water management crisis?

The Groundwater Lifeline 

Most of the water that India uses today comes from over 30 million wells and tubewells. Irrigation is India’s biggest user of water and over two thirds of irrigated area gets water from groundwater. 85% of rural domestic supply, over 55% of Urban and Industrial water supply comes from groundwater. The graph of % of water in each sub sector coming from groundwater has been going up for at least four decades. In fact, some estimates show that over 90% of additional water India used in last four decades have come from groundwater. It sounds like an unmitigable blessing. That’s not how blessings work, unfortunately.

Central Ground Water Board’s data shows that in about 70% of areas, groundwater is depleting and at many places it has exhausted or is on verge of exhaustion. The quality is deteriorating. Warnings have been available for decades now, but the government has done little to address the emerging crisis.

In fact, India’s water resources establishment, led by the big dam ideologues at Central Water Commission have ensured that the government does not even acknowledge that groundwater is India’s water lifeline. That is the first change required. The acknowledgement of that reality in National Water Policy would mean that focus of India’s water resources policy, plans and programs is attainment of sustenance of that water lifeline.

This would need action on four fronts. Firstly, understand as to from where the groundwater recharge happens. And provide protection to groundwater recharge mechanisms like the forests, floodplains, rivers, wetlands, local water bodies. Secondly enhance recharge from these mechanisms where possible. Thirdly create more recharge mechanisms, including reverse borewells. And Fourthly and most importantly, regulate groundwater use.

That regulation has to happen, considering the resource location and its contours. Groundwater occurs in Aquifers. Aquifers in most places are local, and groundwater use is also local. So regulation has to start at local level. So create legal, institutional and financial enabling situation to make such regulation possible. For cities and industries, this may include pricing mechanisms, with higher price for higher users and an element of cross subsidization 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 orders in 1996-97, is acting like a licensing body rather than regulating body. Regulation does not mean you pay and exploit. It would also mean restricting and stopping wasteful and unjustified water use activities in critical and over exploited areas. Regulation should ensure that water withdrawal is within limits of annual recharge.

The degraded Catchments 

While Chennai and Tamil Nadu water scarcity grabbed headlines this summer, few remembered that less than a year back, in July 2018 to be precise, all the dams in Cauvery, the most important river basin of Tamil Nadu, were so full that water started getting released to the flooded downstream rivers. The Mullaperiyar provided another bounty to Tamil Nadu in Aug 2018. When Cauvery dams were over flowing around July 24, 2018, the South West Monsoon rainfall in Cauvery basin was actually below normal. What does this phenomena of overflowing dams less than halfway through the monsoon, and when rainfall is below normal, followed by unprecedented water crisis less than a year later signify? What is described here is equally relevant for most river basins of India.

This phenomenon essentially signifies that our catchments have decreasing capacity to capture, store and recharge rain water. So the rainfall in the catchments is quickly ending up in the rivers and reservoirs, leading to floods in monsoon, but dried rivers and water scarcity soon thereafter.

Deforestation, destruction of wetlands and other water bodies, reducing capacity of the soils to hold moisture are all contributing to this degrading catchments. The way to reverse this crisis is to reverse all this.

Urban Water Policy Vacuum

The Urban Water footprint is going up in multiple ways, but the Urban Water Sector is operating in complete policy vacuum. There is no policy or guidelines or regulation to guide Urban Water sector. Under the circumstances, the cities won’t harvest rain, won’t recharge groundwater, won’t reduced transmission and distribution losses, won’t adopt other demand side measures, won’t protect its water bodies, won’t treat its sewage and recycle it. In stead, they would demand, lazy, easy solutions like more big dams, more river linking projects or massive desalinization projects. The government has smart city programme, but none for a water smart city! Can there be a smart city without it being water smart?

To correct this situation, as a first step India urgently needs a National Urban Water Policy that will define a water smart city and also provide best practice guidelines for various aspects of Urban Water Sector.

Outdated Water Institutions

India’s water institutions were established soon after independence or some even before independence. They have outdated mindset and institutional architecture. This needs urgent overhaul.

The clearest problem with India’s water institutions is symbolized by the fact that we do not even have reliable water information in India. This is because 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, on the lines of USGS, whose main mandate will be to gather all the key water information on daily basis and promptly put it in public domain. But such an institute will have no role in water resources development or management. Similarly, we need National Rivers Commission that will monitor the state of India’s rivers and come up with reports and recommendations about what ails India’s rivers. River Basin organisations will be inter state bodies that will come out with all the relevant information about the state of river basins.

In conclusion

The Prime Minister, in his Mann ki baat on June 30, 2019, the first episode in Modi’s second term, while highlighting need for water conservation, 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.” So where does that 8% come from? The PM did not elaborate, but India’s annual rainfall is around 4000 BCM, 8% of which comes to 320 BCM. That is approximately the storage capacity of big dams in India. big dams are certainly not rainwater harvesting option, though it is a water storage option.

But big dams are not the only storage option, nor the best storage option. The groundwater aquifers are the most benign, naturally gifted storage options, that does not even involve costs, impacts or losses. The wetlands, the local water bodies, and the soil moisture are other major water storage options. But by mentioning this 8% storage figure, the PM is not just privileging big dams as storage option, is in fact ignoring all other, most of which are much better storage options.

Till 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.

*With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Source: https://sandrp.in/


One thought on “Why India’s policy makers refuse to acknowledge groundwater as India’s water lifeline

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s