Water: Governance challenges and suggested tools

Dahanu, a green zone enjoyed special protection since 1991 (Image: nathview.blogspot.com)
Dahanu, a green zone enjoyed special protection since 1991 (Image: nathview.blogspot.com)

Dahanu, an ecologically fragile area about 120 km from Mumbai, in Maharashtra’s Palghar district witnessed massive protests in 2019. Over 59 gram panchayats were opposing the land diversion to high-tech infrastructure projects. This green zone enjoyed special protection since 1991. The MoEF based on a directive from the Supreme Court had passed a notification declaring it ecologically fragile and had restricted hazardous industries.

The protests erupted yet again in February 2020 when forest felling was being done to set up the infrastructure to supply water for urban areas. Water was being diverted (403 MLD) from the Dhamni dam and Kawdas pick up weir to urban areas. Surya Pani Bachao Sangharsh Samiti was opposing the submergence of tribal lands and forests using tribal sub-plan money.

The dam authorities had promised that the tribals will get irrigation from the dam, but three decades after commissioning of the dam, the canals are yet to be constructed to irrigate 15000 ha, and authorities say they have ‘surplus water’. The urban areas that are to get water from the dam are high rainfall areas that do not harvest rain, do not protect local water systems, do not treat or recycle sewage, do not address demand-side measures or governance, and look for easy options.

MoEF wants to dissolve the Dahanu Taluka Environment Protection Authority (DTEPA) constituted in 2006 following a petition in 1994 and a NEERI report. The authority has not appointed its chair since Justice Dharmadhikary, the then chairman, died in Jan 2019.

“The case of Dahanu is emblematic of the challenges faced in the country’s water governance. Similar cases abound everywhere be it in Narmada valley, Statue of Unity, Ken Betwa river-linking proposal etc,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People speaking at a talk organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal as part of the series – The State of the Environment – #PlanetTalks.

Water governance poses a big challenge in modern-day India and looks out for definitive solutions. How will the scare water resource be allocated? How do we generate livelihoods, deal with the water-food-energy nexus and maintain the order of the biosphere? Particularly so, when the project purported to be built for the benefit of the tribal communities as also to provide water to the urban areas ends up submerging the lands and forests of the tribal communities. These were some issues discussed during the talk.

While highlighting the protest by the tribal community in the area, Thakkar said that the water from the dam was supposed to facilitate the typically mismanaged urban areas. But the lack of adequate potential creation for rainwater harvesting, mismanagement of the local water systems and untreated sewage did not address the demand side. It is a case of poor governance where the supply-side solution of developing water resources is creating havoc for the already disadvantaged and marginalised. Further, even with the involvement of state and non-state actors, the issue hasn’t been resolved.

Key aspects of water governance

Thakkar highlighted the key aspects of an effective system of water governance in a water blessed country. There is a need for a comprehensive policy that will acknowledge resource reality, fundamental governance values and framework and will be backed by an action plan. He also dealt with the importance of resource literacy on water and the building of institutions in line with framed policies. He called for substituting top-down approaches with bottom-up approaches and redefining the term ‘per capita availability’. He drew attention to the case of Maharashtra, which despite a large number of dams is characterised by areas that are severely drought-prone.

A major lacuna in water governance that needs to be addressed is the lack of reliable information and doctored data aided by the conflict of interest among governing bodies like the Central Water Commission (CWC), Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), the regulators, and the financing agencies.

“To bring transparency and bridge the information gap, data should be put in the public domain right away. It is important to look at localised storage options, flood management, optimal use of reservoirs, river management – its flow, pollution and biodiversity, catchment management via enhancing water recharge, the flow of sediments etc. There is a need to look at the management of agriculture – regulation of water-intensive crops and cropping pattern, regulation for groundwater consumption, an urban water policy focusing on water-smart cities, corruption-free quality and pollution management. There is a need to put a check on climate change induced by anthropogenic activities that cause harm to water resources,” said Thakkar.

Urban water policy and the role of industries

The population in cities leaves behind a huge water footprint in three distinctive features – the mismanagement of the demand side, the source of water - usually the big dams and the untreated sewage. The overt use of sand is another feature that affects the surrounding river flow as it is sourced by breaking a niche ecosystem. Thus, there needs to be a National Urban Water Policy that will fit and come under the ambit of a comprehensive National Water Policy.

Industries can play an important role in rainwater harvesting. Urban agriculture can benefit from treating greywater, thus creating a social responsibility scheme of ‘water responsibility’ supported by CSR for the industries that generate toxic effluents.

Further, Thakkar highlighted that official buildings should first equip themselves with a rainwater harvesting system before making it mandatory for private institutions and facilities. On untreated sewage, Thakkar advocated the need to formulate a decentralized system of sewage management in the urban localities and a transparent committee that will monitor and evaluate the progress.

Best practices

The World Bank-supported Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS) project helped equip groundwater farmer users with the necessary data, skills and knowledge to manage groundwater resources available to them in a sustainable manner, mainly through managing and monitoring their own demand. Farmers were equipped to understand their water budget, the changes in the water levels and the appropriate cropping patterns.

Articulating the best practices of water governance, Thakkar gave examples of river restoration work done by villagers and river communities in rural areas to protect the lifelines from unsustainable development projects. There are instances where citizens have come forward to take actions against the threats on rivers through “river walks” to “river parliaments” wherein the locals meet once a while to discuss water management. Durgashakti Nagpal, a civil servant’s experience on water governance highlights how the communities affected by water insecurity and are at the frontlines of vulnerability.

Pointing to the problem in citizen participation, Thakkar maintains that urban dwellers do not consider water management as their problem and don’t get actively involved in water governance. There is a need for ward level committees to educate the citizens about the source of water, the importance of conservation, and how they can play a role in water management and, subsequently, governance. The demand for a more significant role of citizens is something that should not be ever negated. 

Thakkar held that over 5000 dams were being constructed across India without public consent and this has done more harm than good, especially to the vulnerable groups. He voiced the need for post facto assessment; also the governing institutions should have the capacity to learn lessons and change accordingly. He cited an example of how NDMA should have an ‘independent credible assessment’ to put accountable mechanisms in place. 


Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer from IIT Mumbai, is currently the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. He has been associated with water sector issues for over three decades, including with Narmada Bachao Andolan, the World Commission on Dams and the Centre for Science and Environment in the past. 

This article is excerpted from a talk by him at the #PlanetTalks webinar organised by Impact Policy Research Institute, India Water Portal and the TERI School of Advanced Studies.

Acknowledgement: Indranuj Pathak is a research intern at IMPRI. He is pursuing Masters (Public Policy) from NLSIU, Bengaluru

Post By: Amita Bhaduri