Water management: Still a neglected electoral issue?
India is on the brink of a major water crisis. With drought looming over the southern and western parts of the country, the existing water resources are in peril. Rivers are getting more polluted, their catchments, water-holding and water-harvesting mechanisms are deteriorating and groundwater levels are depleting at an alarming rate.
Yet, issues related to water scarcity and its management have failed to appear as major issues at the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, argues the paper Challenges in water governance: A story of missed opportunities by Himanshu Thakkar published in the Economic and Political Weekly. The paper highlights the water sector challenges that need urgent attention in the country.
Various water woes plague India
India is drying up fast
The northern part of the country is getting depleted of its groundwater resources with western and southern India not far behind. But neither the national policy nor national or state water resource establishments acknowledge this reality. There is an urgent need to make efforts that focus on enhancing groundwater recharge and regulating groundwater use.
Focus on large water storage structures is worsening the crisis
A myopic understanding of water resources at the policy level has led to a continuing focus on surface water resources. The overemphasis on irrigation, hydropower and river-linking projects continues despite questions being raised about their feasibility, effectiveness and the irreversible environmental impacts that they are feared to unleash.
This excessive focus on large storage structures has led to the neglect of the essential principles of water storage at local levels that involve protection and sustainable use of water systems, rivers, wetlands, forests, soil and groundwater aquifers through the involvement of communities.
This has increasingly led to rural distress as depleting water levels continue to force farmers to dig deeper in search of water. At the same time, no concerted efforts are being made to change the water-intensive cropping patterns practised in a number of states such as sugarcane in Marathwada, western Maharashtra, northern Karnataka, the Cauvery belt in Tamil Nadu, the Gangetic plains in western Uttar Pradesh and the wheat-rice cycles in northwestern India. Even the existing water infrastructure fails to meet its mark and no attempts have been made to address the issue of dam safety. No dam safety act exists as of now to deal with the issue.
Rivers in the country need urgent attention
The state of rivers in the country continues to be pathetic. Current efforts made by the government to revive the Ganga are representative of the narrow understanding of looking at rivers not as living entities but as resources to be harnessed and manipulated for securing water needs. Thus, temporary and knee jerk measures to improve the waters of the Ganga before events such as Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj have done little to revive and maintain the long term health of the river.
Even worse has been the planning of massive projects such as waterways, riverfront development, highways, hydropower projects and interlinking of rivers that have been taken up on the rivers without any impact assessments, public consultations, appraisals or clearances.
Lack of genuine efforts to revive the dying rivers through regular monitoring of water quality and environmental ﬂows, by protecting the ﬂoodplains and maintaining river biodiversity is leading to the gradual death of rivers.
Cities are drying out
Current efforts made at development ignore the crucial role of water management for sustainable cities. Aggressive infrastructural projects in cities are destroying local water bodies and tree cover, ignoring the fact that many of these cities are dangerously water stressed and need better policies to treat their sewage properly, harvest rainwater, and use their water resources with utmost care.
Communities most affected by climate change continue to be marginalised
Little or no systematic effort is being made to evaluate the impact of climate change on those affected the most by it mainly the farmers, ﬁsherfolk, tribals and mountain residents.
Environmental impact assessment processes are being diluted
Credible environmental and cumulative impact assessments, public involvement at various stages of planning and project implementation, appraisals involving independent experts and monitoring and compliance are crucial to evaluate the impacts of any intervention on the environment. However, efforts have consistently been made at the governmental level to dilute the whole process rather than strengthen it.
What needs to be done on an urgent basis Water governance needs reform
Water governance institutions in India continue to have the top-down, bureaucratic, unaccountable, non-transparent and non-participatory approach in their functioning. These non-democratic governance mechanisms continue to hinder progress and need to be made more transparent, accountable and participatory in every sub-sector, be it in the management of rivers, groundwater or floods.
Credible and systematic evidence is needed to trigger appropriate action
While droughts, floods and acute water scarcity continue to threaten India’s future, lack of credible information has led to a poor understanding of the gravity of the situation. Accurate and reliable data on water storage, groundwater, water ﬂows, rainfall and snowfall levels are needed to understand the urgency of the situation and undertake action.
India’s water crisis is real. The paper argues that while the current government has been unable to find sustainable solutions to the challenges facing the water sector, no longer can we afford to be ill prepared to deal with the situation as it threatens to worsen with climate change. Irrespective of the outcome of the elections, sincere acknowledgement of the growing water crisis and concerted and urgent action is the need of the hour.
By Himanshu Thakkar