Groundwater: A few ignored issues

Contaminated water in Bhalaswa resettlement colony (Source: India Water Portal)
Contaminated water in Bhalaswa resettlement colony (Source: India Water Portal)

Groundwater in our country is rapidly depleting. Inspite of the vision of water managers in planning and investing in the water sector, there are a few issues in the field of groundwater that seem to be partly responsible for this deteriorating groundwater scenario in the country, and these are largely ignored. Where does the problem lie? Does its root lie in the Constitution of our country, the diluted focus due to the National Water Policy (NWP) or the absence of integrated approach by planners? What has been the vision of water managers in planning and investing in the water sector?

Inspite of the role and support of government organisations and a road map for water adequacy in space and time, equity, and justice, the initiatives to tackle the grim groundwater situation seem both inadequate and inappropriate. This paper titled 'Groundwater: A few ignored issues' highlights the lacunae in the National Water Policy (NWP), and makes an effort to connect them to the created disparity in livelihood concerns of the common man in the upstream and downstream of the interventions as well as the absence of the role of civil society. The approach for food security by water managers indicates the short sightedness in the overall planning. The author discusses these ignored issues and strongly advocates adopting an integrated implementation approach for society.

Emphasis on surface water 

Some of the current water sector challenges are recurring droughts in drought prone areas, disputes in floodwater sharing, polluting water sources, declining river flow, impacts of increasing groundwater (GW) exploitation and quality deteriorations. The approach of the Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR) for combating the above challenges is mainly through surface water (SW) projects and therefore it tries to put maximum thrust on the construction of dams and advocates river linking projects. Since independence, it is presenting SW storage structures as the principle measure for providing food security in the country whereas contribution by GW structures is practically of the same order and of equal importance in doing the same. In spite of this, MoWR spends almost its entire budget on augmentation of SW storages, but allocates very little money for construction of GW storage and recharge structures. 

What does the constitution have to say?

India's constitution is silent on groundwater issues. The nodal department and others have also not made any effort to add them in the constitution in many years. National Water Policy (NWP) is the vision document for providing direction to managers of the water sector. It does mention GW, but the thrust in NWP on GW issues is suggestive and on a very low priority. Unfortunately the balanced thinking and required or need-based support to GW concerns, like drying rivers due to water table decline, quality and quantity issues, universal need etc., is inadequate and casual. It is a common experience that governments attend SW concerns promptly and adequately. It is observed that budgetary support to GW programs as compared to SW programs is abnormally low. Moreover, the focus of GoI (Government of India) and state organisations on GW concerns are blurred and stress more on data collection, research and investigation. The current approach is the cause of the water scenario in the country, and therefore it is this approach of nodal departments that needs a paradigm shift. 

Comparing GW & SW structures

A comparison of both these structures conveys their strength and weakness. SW storage structures are generally constructed to meet various water demands. They serve large commands till they become unsafe, uneconomical and fail to provide the desired service. In addition, they suffer from adverse effects such as water logging, environmental hazards and rehabilitation problems. On the other hand, GW extraction structures are constructed for meeting smaller water needs, and are of a different nature. They serve small areas but also do not suffer from adverse effects. The other limitation of SW structures is that they are built only at technically feasible sites and generally at a very high cost, with a longer construction period. It is told that the scope of SW structures has reached a plateau whereas GW structures are built almost everywhere and at very low cost, with the construction period as good as negligible. Recharge and clubbing of both SW with GW structures has an enormous potential to meet the demand with almost no adverse effect, and a humane face to resolve problems.

A shift in thinking required

It is in this background that we need a paradigm shift in the approach and designing of projects. The comparison if taken further, shows that people’s contribution and water management is easily available for GW structures whereas it is difficult in SW structures. Moreover efficiency of SW distribution in the command and poor utilisation of potential do not match with GW efficiency and potential utilisation. In spite of this strength and weakness comparison, GW withdrawal above 65% replenishment faces restrictions whereas no such concept exists for SW. We probably forget that GW over exploitation is manageable provided run-offs could be allocated and used. We ignore completely the simple fact that the life of SW structures reduces in proportion to silt load reaching the reservoir and its life cannot be revived whereas the life of GW structures depends upon natural yearly recharge and can be enhanced by artificial recharge. 

Ignored issues that need a relook

The above scenario of the water sector compels us to discuss and rethink present issues that are singularly ignored but of grave importance and value. If we want to manage our water better, we must adopt an integrated implementation approach for society. Now is the time to ask and try and find an answer to these critical questions.  

  • Should run-offs be utilised only for construction of SW storage structures? 
  • Could run-offs be allocated and used for GW recharge to normalise the situation and restore river flows? 
  • Could State GW organisations be persuaded to come out from data collection and research mode to implementation mode, in a bid to resolve growing concerns?
  • Could policy makers be persuaded to include GW concerns in the Constitution?
  • Could MoWR be persuaded to recognise GW at par with SW and allocate suitable positions in the NWP?
  • Could a road map of the water sector be redrawn to work for universal water adequacy, equity in sharing and ensuring community’s role in governance?
  • Could we think of sustainable and environment friendly options, which are free from water logging, salinity and miseries of rehabilitation and ensure environmental flows with the support of adequate recharge programme planning?
  • Could we think of revising our approach, technological options and vision in light of global warming? 
  • Could we think of quantification of allocation of runoff and ensuring minimum safe and potable water for survival of life on earth in water bodies? 

This original paper was contributed by K.G.Vyas, former advisor, to the Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission.