Water is a natural resource to be nurtured and managed, not just an input for life, agriculture or industry. It has life-giving and life-taking qualities; intelligent management can hone one and blunt the other. Current water management approaches have done the opposite: lowered per capita availability to about 1500 litres, created poorly managed storages and polluted 80% of all surface water sources.
The danger of a bureaucratic or technocratic leadership is evident in the way water has been mismanaged over the past 70 years.
India's water policies and water framework laws tried to address these aspects with varying degrees of success. The last draft policy formulated in 2012 is on the shelf but a water framework law to give it legal teeth has made headway. This makes the right noises about managing water but from a bureaucratic/technocratic point of view, where people's institutions or local government institutions under the Panchayati Raj Act find peripheral mention with limited roles.
Without debating the governance structure of the country, the danger of a bureaucratic or technocratic leadership is evident in the way water has been mismanaged over the past 70 years. Neither engineers nor bureaucrats have a perspective and holistic approach to water management. They bring programme management skills with short time horizons unsuitable to water programmes that have lifecycles of decades or centuries.
The question of management
The management structure at the top, middle and lower levels is left vague in the water framework drafts. The government plans to merge the Central Ground Water Board and Central Water Commission into a National Water Commission. Neither has been particularly effective in stopping the steady and precipitous decline in water quality and availability in India. In 20 years groundwater levels have dropped an average of 20 metres across the country. Water quality is plagued by untreated domestic and industrial waste and naturally occurring chemical contaminants.
The existing institutions have not provided technical inputs to help politicians take hard decisions. For instance, the biggest cause of river pollution in the Ganga River basin is effluents from municipalities and industries; this is compounded by a lack of fresh water flows in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Agriculture is the main culprit as both rivers are sucked dry on emerging from the Himalayas and then injected with a cocktail of sewage and industrial pollutants. Without their natural flows they are unable to handle this pollution load. During the 2013 Kumbh Mela, the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department opened the barrages at Bijnor, Narora and Kanpur that divert water for irrigation from the Ganga River. This lowered the bio-chemical oxygen demand to less than 3 milligrams per litre, good enough for bathing.
The draft framework law and policy... focus on supply and allocation. Unless demand is tackled, this is a half-baked exercise.
The draft framework law and policy have nothing on how to tackle such misuse. Instead they focus on supply and allocation. Unless demand is tackled, this is a half-baked exercise.
Pricing and funds
The law talks about pricing water while providing a certain minimum quantity of water for drinking free. It would have helped to have a clear elucidation of how to set and recover water tariffs for all domestic, industrial and agricultural consumers. The lack of funds is a major reason why water schemes fail, apart from bureaucratic ignorance and apathy and engineering incompetence. Water utilities and departments recover less than 30% of the capital and operating costs. Unable to charge adequately for water, municipalities scrimp on maintenance and irrigation departments cannot fix leaky canals or broken sluices.
Water tariffs must include the cost of transport from source, refining, transport within a city, treatment and reuse of waste water. These elements are mentioned in the framework draft but what would have made it more relevant is a way to work them out.
What needs to be navigated
Taking water management out of the purview of state governments into the realm of river basin authorities, as the draft framework law suggests, is a mixed blessing. River basins need integrated management authorities and master plans, but enforcing their writ across state will be impossible. These central mandated authorities will never have the clout to get states to comply and will end up as academic exercises unless state voluntarily relinquish their constitutionally mandated right to manage their water resources. This is a case where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. River basin master plans and other great ideas will founder on the reluctance of states to let go.
The more-crop-per-drop philosophy will not work. Instead, fewer-drops-per-crop and promoting appropriate farming is needed.
In the event, the well intentioned water security plans will fail. If the big water management picture is broken, micro-water management cannot work. If agriculture sucks rivers and aquifers dry, water for drinking will always be a problem. If an upper riparian state exploits a river before letting it flow into a lower state, there will always be a conflict. India's experience with resolving river water conflicts has been poor -- take for example the cases of the Cauvery River and the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal. Expecting state governments to let go of their control over this emotive resource is wishful thinking.
There is no cadre of water management professionals who understand technical, social and administrative aspects. This needs to be set up instead of expecting local government institutions to manage with their existing resources. Why not water officers? And I am not talking of engineers for reasons already given.
Water management institutions need to be integrated. At the moment, several departments manage water – there are public health engineering departments for drinking, irrigation, power, ground water, industry, pollution control boards, urban development, rural development, etc. None of them talk to each other. At the state level, if that is where decisions have to be taken, a water department that manages all water resources, demand and supply, needs to come together and take a holistic view of water as a resource. This includes surface, rain and ground water.
It is time the Ministry of Water Resources considered water as a valuable natural resource and not just an input to be exploited and priced.
Use and tariffs must be tackled, not in still-peripheral areas such as industrial or domestic water use, but in agriculture. The more-crop-per-drop philosophy will not work. Instead, fewer-drops-per-crop and promoting appropriate farming is needed. Along with this, water charges need to be reworked to reflect the cost of supply but not so much as to force farmers to use more groundwater.
Groundwater remains an opaque area. Despite making registration of tubewells mandatory, providing dedicated power lines for tubewells, trying to license tube-well boring machines, threatening to seal illegal borewells and a host of measures, this remains mostly ungoverned. It is water's wild west. The only solutions that work (and seem to have a salutary effect on decline in aquifer levels) are educating farmers on groundwater management and appropriate cropping. However, this is a slow, costly and intense process.
In sum, a cadre of water management professionals, integrated institutions, tariffs and public education seem to be needed. The draft law touches on these but remains bureaucratic and technocratic in its approach. It is time the Ministry of Water Resources considered water as a valuable natural resource and not just an input to be exploited and priced.