Governing groundwater: depths, shallows of a tricky issue

The persistent drought situation has forced the Government of Karnataka to recently lift the ban on drilling bore wells for irrigation purposes in 65 taluks in the state. This is expected to ease the agony of farmers to an extent, subject to availability of ground water in the first place.

At the same time, the decision is going to impact several preceding orders that intended to restrict ground water depletion. In November 2016, the Karnataka Cabinet had decided to ban planting of eucalyptus and acacia trees to help the state avoid further depletion of its groundwater resources. There has been a series of such decisions preceding this blanket ban to address the groundwater situation in the state.

Bore well drilling was severely restricted in the taluks where groundwater resources have been over-exploited. The number of these taluks, also termed as notified zones, has increased from 30 in 2011 to 43 in 2015. Notably, most of the taluks in Bengaluru’s rural and urban districts have been classified as notified zones.

The state government has also made several institutional arrangements to address the alarming groundwater situation. In 1999, the Karnataka Ground Water (Regulation for protection of sources of drinking water) Act was enacted, in line with the Model Groundwater Bill prepared by the Government of India, to prioritise drinking water and protect drinking water sources.

In 2011, the Karnataka Ground Water (Regulation and Control of Development and Management) Act was enacted to control the indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater in the notified zones.

Apart from the technical specifications, the 2011 Act provided for an important instrument for groundwater governance - the constitution of the Karnataka Groundwater Authority (KGA). The KGA, in consultation with various expert bodies including the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), has the power to notify areas to regulate and control the development and management of groundwater.

Regulatory functions, like granting permission for digging bore wells, which were until then being carried out by the CGWB, were transferred to the newly formed KGA, under this Act. However, even until 2013, the CGWB continued to perform these functions because the KGA had remained dysfunctional mainly due to lack of capacity.

Since 2013, the KGA has not granted permission for any new bore wells, except for those to be used for extracting drinking water. In August 2016, the state government issued orders to ban the sinking of new bore wells including those for extracting drinking water to prevent groundwater levels from further decreasing.

In 2013, another important institutional change happened with the formation of the Ground Water Directorate (GWD), under the umbrella of the Water Resources Department. The GWD was carved out the Ground Water Wing of the Department of Mines and Geology. Apart from groundwater monitoring, quality assessment, site selection of bore wells etc, GWD is also performing the technical tasks required for KGA’s functioning.

With the increasing dependence on groundwater and its fast depleting trend, the formation of GWD and KGA are definitely positive actions, although there are capacity issues in both agencies, which stand in the way of effectively enforcing regulations. Sources suggest that illegal bore well drilling continues to happen in several parts of Karnataka. However, a larger challenge that needs more deliberation is the gap in addressing water as a networked resource.

It is important to recognise that surface water and groundwater are two components of the hydrological system, and are in continuous interaction with each other in all types of landscapes. Groundwater extraction from shallow aquifers, which are connected to surface water bodies, can lead to considerable decrease in the available surface water supply.

The extraction can also induce flow from the surface water body to the surrounding aquifer system, furthering the loss of surface water. Polluted surface water can also lead to contamination of groundwater aquifers and vice versa.

Integrated approach
This interconnected nature of the water resource is recognised in the Karnataka State Water Policy 2002, which envisions an integrated approach, conjunctively, for surface and ground water. However, looking at the institutional landscape in Karnataka, one can see very little formal mechanism that ensures coordination between the agencies for integrated water management.

A multitude of agencies deal with water in Karnataka such as the Karnataka Lake Conservation and Development Authority, the Water Resources Department, Zilla Panchayats, Municipalities, development authorities etc. Apart from representation in committees, how these institutions interface with each other in delivering a comprehensive mandate is not clear.

It is not uncommon, neither unproductive, to have multiple decision centres with autonomy, working under an overarching set of rules. The state water policy and the Groundwater Act provide for such an overarching set of rules. The state policy only talks about the development of a State Water Resources Board and Water Resources Development Organisation for multi-sectoral water planning, inter-sectoral water allocation, planning of water development programmes, management decisions and resolution of water resources issues.

Establishment of a State Water Resource Data Centre, as already suggested in the water policy, can be the first step towards this integrated approach. Currently, the ground water and surface water data are collected and managed by different agencies. This reduces the possibility of using the data effectively, in formulation of integrated policies/plans/actions, which consider water as a single resource.

A single repository which manages all state water-related data, pulled in from different agencies, can be a stepping stone towards a comprehensive understanding of water issues within the state. One must recognise that the future of sustainable groundwater governance will depend on how successfully the state creates effective institutional mechanisms and management practices that consider water as an integrated networked resource.

(Muralidharan is Research Analyst and Bhattacharya, Senior Research Scientist, Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bengaluru).

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