Decentralised groundwater governance to deal with the groundwater crisis

Decentralised groundwater governance frameworks that integrate democratic institutional mechanisms are needed to deal with the current groundwater crisis in India.
The need for decentralised governance to deal with the current groundwater crisis (Image Source: ACWADAM) The need for decentralised governance to deal with the current groundwater crisis (Image Source: ACWADAM)

The challenges to sustain groundwater dependency in India are many where groundwater over extraction is not only leading to rapid depletion of the resource, but also giving rise to water quality issues in a situation where the response at the level of policy continues to be lukewarm.

A workshop titled ‘Groundwater governance in India: Synthesising experience and looking ahead’ organised by Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM) highlighted the groundwater challenges in India and the importance of decentralised groundwater governance to address vulnerabilities arising out of increasing dependency on groundwater, groundwater depletion and contamination, and competition and conflicts arising out of the groundwater crisis.

The workshop also highlighted the important role of robust, participatory and democratic institutional mechanisms in aiding decentralised governance of groundwater. The workshop involved sharing of experiences among the participants on groundwater management and governance and efforts made in different contexts, the learnings that emerged from these experiences and the way forward.

These were the main points that emerged from the discussions.

Enabling factors that can help in facilitating decentralised governance of groundwater

  • The need to shift from groundwater management to governance

There is a need to make a distinction between groundwater management and governance. Management deals with the “nitty-gritty of day-to-day operations” that are done based on certain decisions undertaken or “purposeful and organised activities that enable the accomplishment of objectives or goals”. Thus management deals with the day to day practical and effective ways to achieve certain goals or objectives.

Groundwater governance on the other hand provides a framework that can help in effective management of water resources through promotion of responsible collective action to ensure socially sustainable utilisation and effective protection of groundwater resources for the benefit of humankind and dependent ecosystems. The four tenets of groundwater governance are transparency, participation, information and the custom and rule of law.

Since groundwater is a common pool resource, it is vulnerable to excessive use and exploitation by potential stakeholders who may try to use it for their own short term gains rather than taking into consideration long term community requirements. Groundwater as a ‘common pool resource’ thus requires the practical application of a series of principles that include considerations like clearly-defined boundaries for the purpose of resource evaluation and allocation, responsibility, participation, information availability, transparency, custom and rule of law. Groundwater governance thus includes elements of socio-hydrogeological settings while making partnerships and collaborations to bring communities closer to aquifers.

  • Looking at aquifers as units for decentralised groundwater governance

Groundwater governance also needs to take into consideration the geographic scale at which governance arrangements need to be made. Although groundwater is widely distributed, it is essentially a local resource and clearly defined boundaries need to be made at the local, aquifer level to make governance arrangements.

This is because making governance structures at the broad national or regional levels will not help as the ground water crisis in India is influenced not only by socioeconomic factors alone, but also by the typology or physical setting. For example, it is very difficult to plan at the state or regional level as hydrogeological settings are diverse even within a single state calling for the need to manage groundwater differently and at the local level. Also many a time, a single hydrogeological setting is repeated in many states making it necessary to understand groundwater behavior at the local rather than the broader level.

The need for groundwater governance in India (Image Source: ACWADAM)

While aquifers are the basic units at which groundwater governance needs to be framed, there is very little awareness and information about the science of hydrogeology and aquifers among the people, the ones who are the most dependent on groundwater and use it to meet their everyday water needs. On the other hand, hydrogeology and the knowledge of aquifers has remained confined to formal academic circles who have had very little connection with its application at the ground level.

The understanding of hydrogeology and aquifers thus needs to move away from the domains of purely academic knowledge to translating and demystifying it for people from different disciplines and common people who would be a part of the groundwater governance framework. Capacity building as a continuous activity is a vital part of this process.

  • The need for robust data and the challenge of scaling up

The need for robust data at the aquifer level to understand the ground level situation is very important for designing groundwater governance mechanisms. Also how to scale up this information from the micro to macro levels to design appropriate strategies to manage and govern groundwater is a growing challenge that needs to be addressed in the coming years.

Making available data more accessible to the people will also be a challenge that will need to be addressed in the coming years. For example, although we have a national programme on aquifer mapping, it is not available for common public to access. More data visibility and pooling of data from different sources in a systematic way is also important. Also making data available at different levels is crucial for designing the groundwater governance framework.

  • The crucial role of partnerships

There are a number of examples under the PGWM and Springshed approach where different strategies have been tried for water management under different hydrogeological settings by involving local communities and demystifying the science of groundwater.

The role of partnerships in building local skills and generating local level data can be greatly useful in scaling up the effort. The challenge lies in how to engage with more and more organisations to scale up the effort. GW management without bringing new allies or stakeholders is difficult and the challenge is to bring in new partners and collaborations.

  • Understanding horizontal connectivity of aquifers

There is a need to stop working in silos and move away from the compartmentalised approach at the policy level that deals with groundwater and surface water as two separate resources. We also need to understand that while we focus on vertical level connectivity of aquifers while understanding them, the horizontal connectivity of aquifers, for example, their connections with watersheds, surface water, ecosystems, as well as upstream and downstream water need to be understood and taken into account.

  • Integrating quality concerns in groundwater governance

While groundwater exploitation continues to be an increasing concern in India, groundwater quality issues are on the rise and are posing a great risk to health and environment. Integrating groundwater quality issues in the groundwater governance framework and addressing data and capacity building concerns at the institutional levels is the need of the hour.

Institutional mechanisms needed to meet the groundwater governance challenges

  • The crucial role of stakeholder participation and information

Participation and information are important components in the actual implementation of the groundwater governance processes. This will need to include stakeholders right at the level of local governing institutions to that at the regional, state and national levels.

ACWADAM’s experiences show that while engaging with local governance institutions, there is an assumption that local governance institutions have a long term vision and that technical know how is integrated into the processes and that they are representative of the politics of institutional spaces. However, in reality, capacities of local governance institutions need to be developed by empowering people with demystified knowledge on hydrogeology which can be used to generate, analyse and synthesise local information to produce data at the local level to take collective decisions regarding water management.

Given that groundwater is a very localised resource, appropriate institutions may need to be created, mandated and strengthened, especially at the ground level with communities/villages/ gram panchayats and by also involving government machinery. This local data/information then needs to be compiled at each of the higher levels and gradually at the top through the bottom up approach and fed into the decisions taken at the policy level to address the present gap that exists between the local realities and decisions taken at the policy level.

For this, governance support for easy access to data/ information is essential along with uniformity in data collection and decentralised data collection and decision making for groundwater management.  In addition, also finding mechanisms to integrate data from CSOs, NGOs, academic organisations, research institutes and  governmental organisations and sharing these data in the open/ public domain for enriching and refining the data aspects is needed.

The crucial role of participation and information (Image Source: ACWADAM)

Training and capacity development at every institutional level and across a range of sectors and stakeholders is important for ensuring healthy collaboration in integration of groundwater management and governance strategies at various levels across diverse socio hydrological typologies across India. These need to feed into the processes of legislation that retain the understanding of groundwater as a common pool resource rather than following the command and control type of legislation.

Regulation, whether through social norms or through formal law-making, needs to be developed with the aim of protecting the resource as well as encouraging good practices that include processes which promote equitable and efficient use of groundwater resources. Regulation must also be able to compliment participatory processes of groundwater management.

  • Understanding the economic, social and political dimensions of the groundwater crisis

Groundwater governance needs to recognise the linkages of groundwater exploitation with land use, environment and external drivers such as changing drinking water needs for irrigation and agricultural, impacts of urbanisation, industrialisation etc. It is important to understand that the problem of groundwater exploitation has not occurred in isolation, but is also connected to other broader economic, political and social issues.

The groundwater crisis is more of a political economy problem and so solutions need to be explored in the domains of politics and economics aided by science and technology.
The political economy based nexus approach to water argues that water including groundwater cannot be treated in isolation and groundwater exploitation has regional dimensions. Decisions in water sector are often influenced by priorities set in the other sectors such as keeping food prices low, policies for energy security etc. Thus not only groundwater laws and regulations, but changes in other connected sectors will need to be made to successfully implement the groundwater governance mechanisms.

  • Not participation, but multilayered democracy

Since groundwater is a common pool resource, regulation, resource allocation and decision making at every level are important. Thus not mere participation, but participation that enables the integration of the democratic principles of representation, transparency and accountability at every level in the governance mechanisms is essential.

Gender concerns and the voices of the marginalised such as dalits, pastoralists continue to be underrepresented in the water sector. Widening dialogues and ensuring their representation at every level will ensure democratic participation in groundwater governance mechanisms.

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