India, the second largest population in the world, is facing a water crisis with over 600 million people facing acute water shortage, as per a report by Niti Aayog, the government think-tank. India’s water crisis is expected to worsen, threatening the country’s food security as over 80 percent of our water is used in agriculture. Twenty-one cities are likely to run out of groundwater by 2020, despite increasing demand, as per the report.
“Meghalaya, home to Cherrapunji which receives bountiful rainfall of over 11000 mm was at the bottom as per the report's rankings. The crisis is "only going to get worse" in the years ahead unless significant steps are taken by shifting from supply side to demand side water management,” says U.P. Mishra, secretary, ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, speaking at a panel discussion held on World Water Day on March 22 by the National Water Mission in New Delhi. The speakers and attendees included representatives from government, research institutions and civil society.
Meanwhile, unchecked groundwater extraction has led to groundwater plunging in its levels to record lows especially in the states of Punjab and Haryana where the groundwater extraction is 200 percent more than the recharge. This is clearly unsustainable and can be attributed to a faulty crop procurement system that favours the rice-wheat cropping in these two states.
“Industrial use of water is just 10 percent. A lack of proper wastewater treatment from industrial and domestic sources has contaminated our rivers, lakes and groundwater, increasing health risks to humans and the ecosystem. We need to move away from the largely technocratic models built around surface water schemes towards sustainable systems of water use and management,” says Mishra.
The panelists stressed the need for an innovative and forward-looking approach to securing water for vulnerable populations. Civil society activists have been championing alternatives to the conventional water management solutions implemented by the government. Here are some of the solutions presented by the panelists.
Participatory groundwater management in command areas
Development Support Centre, a national NGO working on providing knowledge-based support to village-level institutions, has been promoting participatory irrigation management in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The centre presented its experiences on participatory groundwater management at the discussion. In the water-scarce north Gujarat, it conducted an analysis of groundwater use in the canal irrigated command areas. The Dharoi, Guhai and Mazum irrigation schemes in Mehsana and Sabarkantha districts of Gujarat was characterised by exploited groundwater systems that posed management challenges beyond those of conventional canal-based surface water management.
“We held discussions with people telling them how the area’s prosperity from dairy and agriculture was short-lived given the poor state of water resources management. We worked on integrated water resource management and set up many sujal samiti (water user groups) in the command areas of the irrigation systems,” says Sachin Oza, Development Support Centre speaking at the panel. These groups have initiated participatory groundwater monitoring by bhujal jankaar (para workers trained in hydrogeology) and prepared water balance and water security plans. They also promoted sustainable agriculture activities, forward-backwards linkages and integration through farmer-producer organisations in both rainfed and irrigated areas with the help of government and other donors. This has helped bring in sustainable water management in the area.
Promoting water harvesting systems in Bundelkhand
“Bundelkhand has always had a water problem and faces drought regularly. However, the traditional storage systems—the Chandela and Bundela talab—made water available to people who grew two crops. Over the years, they have fallen into a state of disrepair, largely due to the breaking up of the sense of community. The Apna Talab Abhiyaan promotes the building of private talab on peoples' lands to help improve groundwater recharge in Bundelkhand,” says Pushpendra Bhai, who spearheaded the movement in the region. Several voluntary organisations and individuals are involved in the Apna Talab Abhiyaan as a part of which private talab (ponds) are being promoted on a mass scale in the district.
Hundreds of individuals are financing the building of these ponds on their private lands. The people of the region aren't princely any longer, but in their own way, are trying to emulate the legacy of the past by building them. The work began from Charkhari, an erstwhile princely state in India and home to intricate water management systems in the past. The government provides encouragement by felicitating individuals for their contribution in reviving the water bodies of the area.
Restoring the river Hindon
“Hindon River, a 350-km long river is dying a slow death due to substantial water abstractions and severe pollution loads it receives from various sources along its course. The condition is manifested in degrading ecological characteristics, contaminated ground and surface water and cultural disconnect with the river,” says Manu Bhatnagar, INTACH, a Delhi based non-profit organisation. The basin has several irrigation channels and regulation works such as escapes from Upper Ganga Canal which not only irrigates parts of the basin but also transfers Ganga water to the Hindon river. This transferred water is diverted at Ghaziabad through Hindon Cut Canal to feed Yamuna River and thereafter the Agra-Gurgaon Canal system. The use of the river as a water transfer canal, upsetting the entire ecosystem, has created a situation where it is neither fully a river nor wholly a canal.
“The organisation has conducted a study using existing data on water quality as well as availability and integrated them into a holistic scenario considering basin-level features such as the water budget of the basin, the impact of using irrigation water imported from adjacent basins, the widespread cultivation of water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane, the near extinction of forest cover and the widespread pollution in the basin,” says Bhatnagar. The basin-level conservation plan it prepared shows that the health of the river cannot be isolated from the environmental health of the basin. Bhatnagar recommended a landscape approach at the basin level which requires a certain amount of crossing out of jurisdictional and sectoral boundaries. It also entails a high degree of coordination amongst all stakeholders such as line departments, research institutions and NGOs.