Solving India’s water crisis: Ground-level action, community-level initiatives needed
By Paul Abraham
Taps running dry, water being transported by trains and tankers, police protection for water resources, and so on, are common sights in many water-deficit states of India. With rivers drying up, groundwater reserves getting parched and water bodies getting unsafe, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s resolve to support the management of the growing water crisis in the country came as a welcome relief.
During her Union Budget speech, the finance minister listed a 16-point action plan for the agricultural sector. The plan laid down comprehensive measures to address water shortage in 100 water-stressed districts in India. Amongst the steps taken, an increase in the budget of the Jal Shakti Abhiyan paves the way for a large-scale campaign focusing on conservation, rejuvenation and optimum utilisation of water. Earmarking of funds from the Union Budget 2021 (approximately Rs 11,500 crore) solely to the Jal Jeevan Mission will help create focus on water initiatives that are proposed. These steps also encourage large corporations (India Inc) to continue devoting their attention to play their part in resolving water crises.
Water conservation requires a few substantive policy changes to structurally address the water situation. Changes in agricultural practices, cropping mix, pricing of water as a scarce commodity, river water sharing, utilisation and preservation of green cover are some of them. We hope to see some bold actions being taken by both the Centre and state governments to address some of these fundamental challenges around water; after all, it is a key resource that could, if not handled efficiently, impact the very fabric of our society.
The focus being bought to this enormous challenge through both the Jal Jeevan Mission and the Jal Shakti Abhiyan is a welcome move. Initiatives like rainwater harvesting, restoration and rejuvenation of traditional water bodies, and community watershed development are all essential and near-term solutions. However, these need to be combined with a huge sensitisation drive via awareness programmes and community ownership of resources. Sustainability will be ensured if consumer communities feel the urgency of conservation and management of a resource that is a collective need.
Corporate India also needs to play its part—in-house consumption needs to be controlled, especially those with large industrial footprints. With vigilance and effort, becoming water-positive is doable. Corporates should direct CSR spends to projects that ensure water availability to communities through initiatives like water ATMs. However, we need to ensure extraction is supported by replenishment solutions like water harvesting and controlled usage. Our traditional temple tanks and village ponds and lakes need to rejuvenated. Panchayats and municipalities must be tasked with ensuring integrity of boundaries of water bodies, and penalised if encroachment and misuse happens under their watch.
Large-scale watershed development initiatives that bring together multiple village communities must be encouraged. Building and investing in check dams, contour trenches, storm water run-offs, drainage, water distribution and rights, rationing philosophies, governance around pricing should all be supported and communities trained to take on these responsibilities.
India needs to invest in new technology-based solutions and seek innovative structures that involve bringing together multiple stakeholders and financing techniques like development bonds and outcome-based financing. The government needs to provide holistic data to ensure that baselines and metrics around use, consumption and management can be established. If there is a challenge in this century for our country, it is water. It’s satisfying to see increasing acceptance of the dire straits that we are in. Now is the time for collective action with a sense of utmost urgency.
The author is president, Hinduja Foundation