2020: Crammed in disasters, yet filled with hope

All was not negative for 2020 in the water sector as many states and districts gained credit for themselves (Image Source: IWP Flickr Album)
All was not negative for 2020 in the water sector as many states and districts gained credit for themselves (Image Source: IWP Flickr Album)

The year 2020 came with numerous disasters, not just COVID-19, a pandemic that brought the planet to a standstill, but many other natural calamities. During the year, the country suffered from cyclones, extreme rainfall, floods and locust attacks. Five cyclones—Amphan, Nisarga, Gati, Nivar and Burevi-- struck the Indian coasts. While Cyclone Amphan, which was the strongest cyclone since 1982, caused severe destruction, Nisarga, Gati and Nivar brought widespread rainfall and floods. Burevi, however, reduced into a deep depression.

With 26.3 percent surplus of rainfall, the month of August in 2020 became the wettest August in 44 years. The heavy rains last year led to floods in 11 states in the country, with Assam and Bihar being the worst hit. Apart from the natural disasters, the year observed manmade disasters as well, one of which was a massive fire break out incident at a leaking natural gas producing well of Oil India Ltd (OIL) in Assam's Tinsukia district. However, all was not negative for 2020 in the water sector as many states and districts gained credit for themselves.

Global recognition

Last year five more wetlands were added to the list of recognized sites of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, taking the total number of Ramsar sites to 42 in the country.

The five wetlands are—Tso Kar Wetland Complex in Ladakh, Sur Sarovar in Uttar Pradesh, Lonar Lake in Maharashtra, Asan Conservation Reserve in Uttarakhand and Kabartal Wetland in Bihar.

2020 also saw awarding of Blue Flag certification, a globally recognized eco-label, to eight beaches spread across five states and two union territories. The certification, accorded by the Foundation for Environment Education, Denmark is based on 33 stringent criteria under four major heads - environmental education and information, bathing water quality, environment management and conservation, and safety and services at the beaches. The beaches which have received the certification are Shivrajpur in Gujarat, Ghoghla in Diu, Kasarkod and Padubidri in Karnataka, Kappad in Kerala, Rushikonda in Andhra Pradesh, Golden in Odisha and Radhanagar in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

States achieving accolades

Goa has become the first ‘Har Ghar Jal’ state in the country. The state has been successful in earning itself the unique distinction by efficiently utilising the benefits of the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) which aims to improve the quality of life and bring 'ease-of-living' to rural communities. Similarly, Madhya Pradesh has become the first state in the country to have drafted a Right to Water legislation, a law that promises a minimum of 55 litres of water a day per person to the state’s 76.2 million residents. Also, as per the law, anyone affecting the water quality would be fined and jailed for up to 18 months and all construction work would have to bear a 0.5 percent cess to fund the development of water infrastructure.

With the successful implementation of Mission Bhageeratha, launched to supply safe drinking water to every house in the state and reduce the dependency of people on groundwater, Telangana has been declared a fluorosis-free state. The number of fluoride-hit villages in Telangana has come down to zero from 967 in 2014 when the state was newly formed. On the other hand, Uttar Pradesh turned out to be the top state in the country by employing 57.13 lakh workers under the MGNREGS. A large number of these workers were engaged in water conservation projects like deepening of ponds and river rejuvenation projects.

Tamil Nadu and Mizoram have also won accolades for themselves by receiving the Best State (Normal Category) and Best State (Special Category), respectively, in the National Water Awards, 2019 organised by the Ministry of Jal Shakti.

The former expanded its irrigation potential and enhanced its storage capacity by constructing new reservoirs and repairing the existing water infrastructure in the state, while the latter exemplified its efforts in promoting rainwater harvesting.

Success stories that received attention

A village in Wayanad district of Kerala kickstarted a tree-banking scheme in which farmers can pledge their tree sapling after a year of planting for interest-free loans from a local cooperative bank. The scheme aims to discourage farmers from slashing trees, a practice that has been widespread in recent years. The Nashik Municipal Corporation also set a precedent by freeing the Godavari river by decommissioning its riverfront which was constructed ahead of the Nashik Kumbh Mela in 2003. The concretization of the river’s bank and the bed had transformed it into a bathtub as the connection of the river with groundwater and small springs, on which the river depended for its flow, were severed.

Last year, Indore once again won accolades for being the cleanest city in the country in Swachh Survekshan 2020, the fourth time in a row. While Chhattisgarh bagged first place for being the cleanest state with more than 100 ULBs, Jharkhand topped as the cleanest state in less than 100 ULBs.

Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district also earned itself a recognition by entering the Limca Book of Records for the construction of 2,605 contour trenches and holding 469 jal choupals (village water parliaments) in a single month. The campaign, recognised nationally, is the first of its kind of community engagement model with large scale use of village water parliaments for mass action on water conservation. Similarly, Vadodara district set an example by installing rainwater harvesting structures in 1,000 primary and secondary government schools within nine months at an expenditure of less than six crores.

Government initiatives

With the start of the year 2020, the Environment Ministry notified new wetland conservation rules that prohibited setting up or expansion of industries, and disposal of construction and demolition waste within the wetlands. A month after this, approval to the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission was given with an estimated central and state budget of Rs 52,497 crore. The second phase, to be implemented on a mission mode between 2020-21 and 2024-25, will focus on Open Defecation Free Plus (ODF Plus), which includes ODF sustainability and solid and liquid waste management (SLWM).

In August, the Ministry of Jal Shakti launched a new version of the India Water Resources Information System (India-WRIS), which is open to the public and contains information related to water resources through dashboards for rainfall, water levels & discharge of rivers, water bodies, groundwater levels, reservoir storages among several others.

Towards the end of the year 2020, the Centre issued revised guidelines for groundwater use that restrained new industries and mining projects in over-exploited zones. The new guidelines mandate existing industries, commercial units and big housing societies to take ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) under expanded compliance conditions. Along with this, standards were revised for the packaged drinking water. As per the new amendment, the mandatory requirement of calcium and magnesium in packaged drinking water has been set at 20-75 mg/litre and 10-30 mg/litre, respectively.

Approval has also been granted to the Second Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Project (DRIP-2) with World Bank providing a loan worth $250 million. Described as the world's largest dam management program, the project will be implemented in approximately 120 dams across the states.

Projects deferred to safeguard the environment

Owing to emerging ecological concerns, the question on viability and inadequate information, the key expert panels of the Environment Ministry have deferred decisions on certain projects, including 3,097 MW of Etalin Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang valley and Mumbai Port Trust’s marina projects. Along with these, the other big projects whose green clearance has been deferred are 2,400 MW of Talabira thermal power project in Jharsuguda, Odisha and exploration of uranium in Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Telangana.

Deferring of these projects is a major victory of environmentalists who have been opposing them for long, mainly the Etalin project of the Dibang valley that would destroy the ecologically fragile region of the northeast.

Green clearance for the Lower Orr Dam project in Madhya Pradesh, which is part of the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, was deferred as it posed a threat to dense forests and the existence of vultures and tigers. Similarly, Dhalbhumgarh airport project in Jharkhand has been shelved in order to protect the elephant habitat.