How can growing groundwater crisis be dealt with?

Water, a scarce resource
Water, a scarce resource

India is highly dependant on groundwater. As high as 85 percent of rural drinking water is derived from wells with 88 percent of it used for irrigation, and 48 percent of the urban also uses groundwater. The paper titled 'Shaping the contours of groundwater governance in India' published in the Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, informs that groundwater exploitation and contamination have found to affect as high as 60 percent of Indian districts.

Even though groundwater use has reached critical levels of exploitation, very little attention has been paid to its governance and to resource conservation and protection. Rather, the availability of groundwater has been attributed to chance that has triggered further extraction and increased contamination, which has now lead to a serious groundwater crisis in the country.

The paper argues that there is thus an increasing need to design a groundwater governance framework that is relevant to India’s unique groundwater situation and presents some basic ideas on a preliminary framework for the same, which could lead to more concrete policies, practices and institutions.

Difficulty with the one-size-fits-all solution to deal with the groundwater crisis

Aquifers form the fundamental units for good groundwater management while looking at groundwater abstraction and use. India's groundwater typology is based on six broad hydrogeological settings that represent aquifer systems.

  • Most of the larger states have mixed hydrogeological settings and this complexity makes it very difficult to understand the implications of categorising the groundwater situation in the areas as “safe” and “unsafe, semi-critical/ critical/ overexploited”.
  • Each hydrogeological setting is inclusive of many states, making it important to understand the social and economic implications arising out of the different levels of groundwater use under each of these settings.
  • Since there are differences in hydrogeological conditions, there is a need for greater disaggregation of data to understand groundwater exploitation and contamination.

Due to these complexities, it becomes very difficult to have a one-size-fits-all water governance paradigm that is often thought to be the best way forward in tackling groundwater management problems.

Groundwater governance and the need for such a framework

The paper argues that due to the common pool nature of groundwater in India, groundwater use needs management approaches that not only focus on groundwater settings but also take into consideration broader contexts of governance and the political economy.

The actual implementation of these strategies at the ground level will require a framework on groundwater governance, which is about decision-making on groundwater and involves individuals and/or organised entities at various levels. It involves the promotion of responsible collective action to ensure socially sustainable utilisation and effective protection of groundwater resources for the benefit of humankind and dependent ecosystems.

Important features of groundwater governance

The four broad principles of groundwater governance include transparency, participation, information and the custom and rule of law, which need to be defined by efficient processes and supported by the art of administrative action and decision making. The use and application of the following aspects are important in the development and evolution of the groundwater governance framework in India:

  • Science that goes beyond locating groundwater resources to that which generates accurate data and information to build a strong case for management of the resource;
  • User participation for cooperative management of groundwater resources;
  • Regulation through social norms that involves participatory processes that combine science, technology and influence social behaviour.

Groundwater management and governance: Roles and processes

The paper proposes a framework of roles at different levels, using basic administrative units along with the evolving institutional framework.

  • The policy focus in such a governance framework will be around building capacities and facilitating regulation to protect and ensure sustainability of aquifers, equitability in access and distribution of groundwater;
  • Shift from a source-based approach to an aquifer-based approach including recycling and reuse of groundwater;
  • Participatory recharge and demand-management processes..

Enabling a balance between policy and practice will require focus at different levels of the administrative and governance structures in India, which include the following:

  • At the level of villages (rural) or wards (urban) where aquifer mapping integrated with groundwater management piloting can be done;
  • The district units that can be empowered to facilitate convergence between groundwater management and various programmes under implementation;
  • States, which can be encouraged to strengthen their organisational capacities in aquifer-based groundwater management, primarily to regulate groundwater through a changed focus on legislation;
  • Policy and guidelines will need to be sharpened.

Processes enabling groundwater governance include:

  • Capacity building
  • Collaboration
  • Piloting
  • Legislation
  • Role of policy

The paper concludes that developing a policy is often the first objective in a groundwater governance exercise. However, it would be more prudent to develop a groundwater policy only after the first few baby steps have been taken in the pursuit of piloting groundwater management in conjunction with the aquifer mapping programme that the CGWB has embarked upon at a national scale in India.

Please download a copy of the paper below.