Managing water: Paradigm shift needed

Managing water: Paradigm shift needed

Representative image. (Credit: iStockPhoto)

While the country goes into unprecedented lockdown to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, another threat looms large over peninsular India as the summer approaches: water scarcity. Last year’s excess rains notwithstanding, many villages and towns will face shortages, women from poor households will line up for hours, more poor farmers will quit farming and migrate, and rich farmers will spend more money on new borewells to replace failed ones.

What is the government’s response? The recent budget followed the usual pattern: the lion’s share of funding went to supply-side measures: large dams (Upper Krishna-III: Rs 10,000 crore), lift irrigation (Rs 5,000 crore), diversion of west-flowing rivers (Yettinahole: Rs 1,500 crore; Mahadayi: Rs 500 crore). The allocations for efficiency improvements were small (micro-irrigation: Rs 627 crore), and the support for groundwater management notional. Is this adequate or even appropriate?

Seventy years ago, water was seen as abundant but not available at the right place at the right time. So, the focus was on investing in infrastructure development (dams, canals, pipelines) to grab, store and bring the water to where it was required. But the situation has changed dramatically. Precisely because of this infrastructure, the east-flowing Cauvery, Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers are fully utilised. In parallel, the borewell revolution has led to dramatic lowering of water tables in most parts of the state. Meanwhile, demand is still growing, not just because of population growth but also lifestyles and agricultural crops chosen. Pollution, domestic and industrial, has also become a major menace. Aquatic life in east-flowing rivers has almost disappeared, and faces threats in west-flowing rivers and estuaries as well. Climate change will likely reduce rainfall in the Western Ghats while increasing erratic but intense showers in the east. And water scarcity does not affect everyone equally: there are serious socio-economic differences (class, caste and gender) in people’s access to water.

What then should the response be? The Karnataka Knowledge Commission’s Task Group on Water Policy (TGWP) carried out broadbased consultations and has proposed a radically different water policy. Its report recommends a new paradigm of water management focusing on efficiency improvements, reduction in use, regulation, redistribution, pollution control and reuse. Achieving this will require revamping how we approach water governance in the state.

First, the goals of water policy and governance must be clear and multi-dimensional: adequate water for human life, livelihoods and for non-humans. Fair sharing within and across sectors, and with downstream, and priority for weaker sections. Use must be sustainable, non-polluting, and promoting resilience by not depleting groundwater. And democratic and participatory decision-making must be a goal in itself.

Second, the conundrum of agricultural water use needs to be addressed. About 85% of water withdrawals (from streams, rivers or aquifers) in Karnataka are for irrigation, and that too primarily for sugarcane and paddy! Yet, a majority of the farmers do not have assured irrigation, as water is cornered by a select few. Moreover, over-pumping by farmers is severely impacting rural drinking water availability. Watershed development increases recharge, which is tapped by well-owners, while reducing runoff into downstream tanks. Even efficiency measures, such as drip irrigation, do not help the water crisis as farmers simply expand the area under irrigation.

Farmers need to be incentivised to shift back to grow ragi, jowar, other millets and pulses through a combination of increasing support prices, procuring these crops and supplying through PDS and mid-day meals, and campaigns for shifting consumer diets away from rice and sugar. These must be coupled with mandatory micro-irrigation and sprinkler irrigation in irrigation commands, promotion of water-saving rice and sugarcane cultivation methods and low-input agriculture in general, and volumetric charging for canal irrigation water.

Third, in the case of urban water, the problem is primarily of mal-distribution and inattention to local resources. Simultaneously, neglect of wastewater treatment means inability to reuse. Over-eager pursuit of big projects and of privatisation under the guise of “24x7” has prevented the exploration of innovations: addressing storage constraints in low-income/slum areas, parallel public supply of imported river water and groundwater, and incentivising (rather than penalising) rooftop rainwater harvesting and decentralised sewage treatment and reuse. These measures must be coupled with decentralised planning at urban ward level, where imported river water, local storm and groundwater, and treated wastewater are managed in an integrated manner, to limit overuse, ensure fair distribution and reduce wastage.

None of this will be possible without a major overhaul of our institutional arrangements—legal, administrative and fiscal. Legal changes for transparency accountability will have to be dovetailed with expanded staffing and training for monitoring and bottom-up regulation. Water management is too important to be left to engineers alone. A shift from an infrastructure focus to regulatory governance will require the participation of all.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, ATREE, Bengaluru)

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