The benevolence of the monsoons after weeks of uncertainty has brought cheer across our country. But for how long can India afford to depend on the vagaries of the monsoons to determine its growth? Let not the bountiful rains give us the easy option of postponing the challenge of ensuring India's water security for an uncertain future.
India is the fastest growing economy in the world at present. It is poised to be the second largest economy (on purchasing power parity basis) by 2050, however, underlying its emerging success story is a very real concern of depleting water resources, with experts warning that the country could be hit hard by water scarcity by 2050. As water is the most essential resource for attaining India's commitments to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of zero hunger and zero poverty, it is mission critical to address this concern.
Water conservation driven by enhanced storage, delivery and conservation feature high on the country's water security agenda.
In India, the monsoons are the primary source of freshwater, falling directly onto fields, replenishing the water table and rivers. The machinery of our economy is lubricated by their frequency and intensity, directly impacting food prices, inflation, consumer spending, and even interest rates. With the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) predicting an above normal monsoon for 2016 (at 106% of the long period average), with most regions receiving above average rainfall, a much needed boost to the Indian economy is expected, after two consecutive years of poor monsoons.
At present, India's per capita storage capacity of 209m3 is amongst the lowest in the world, much lower than our BRICS counterparts Brazil (2632 m3), Russia (5986 m3), China (416 m3), South Africa (609 m3). Our per capita water availability at 1545m3 per annum, is also amongst the lowest in the world. Therefore, water conservation driven by enhanced storage, delivery and conservation naturally feature high on the country's water security agenda.
Towards this endeavor, we have to commit to the basic 5 Ps of water management in India.
1. Prevention of losses, wastage and pollution
Despite being a water scarce country, our use efficiencies among different water users, i.e. civil, industrial and agricultural, are poor. According to the Central Water Commission (CWC), improving current water use efficiency could save up to 23% water from all the sectors. Currently, 70% of India's surface water and a growing percentage of groundwater reserves are polluted, with approximately 100 million people dependent on such sources. Proper treatment of municipal water and recycling it back for consumption will reduce pollution in natural water bodies and put less pressure on freshwater sources.
Only a strong collaboration among multiple stakeholders and government ministries will enable us to undertake a nationally important project of this scale.
2. Promotion of groundwater banking
This is done through rainwater harvesting and recharge across India. Of the total groundwater available in the country, almost 61% is being withdrawn annually for agricultural, domestic and residential use. Clearly, there's an urgent need for replenishing groundwater resources during the monsoon season. Groundwater banking presents clear benefits in terms of the costs involved -- financial (dam and reservoir construction), social (rehabilitation and resettlement) and environmental (ecological changes and unproductive evaporation). Identifying aquifers which are easy to recharge hold the key to unlocking the groundwater storage potential.
3. Preserve, conserve and restore wetlands, water bodies and traditional practices
Wetlands cover approximately 50 million hectares in India and play a vital role in water recycling and absorbing the intensities of droughts and floods. The government recently released the draft Wetland Rules 2016 to conserve rapidly disappearing Indian wetlands. Traditionally, societal ownership went a long way in promoting conservation and equitable distribution of water resources. Even today, experts believe in the efficacy of the strategy of engaging local communities at basin levels. Local, traditional practices of watershed management need to be better understood and deeply leveraged to ensure execution and monitoring on the ground is effective and impactful. This leads to the perhaps the most important P in the matrix.
4. Power of Partnerships
Only a strong collaboration among multiple stakeholders and government ministries will enable us to undertake a nationally important project of this scale. Inclusive and integrated water resource management (which includes social, environmental, economic and political dimensions) that brings many stakeholder groups to design and implement this program is the need of the hour. Urban water management, in my view, also needs an immediate re-think given the rising pressures of urbanization on natural resources and the strong link between clean water availability and human capital productivity. Here, contracting the private sector to develop city water delivery, sewerage and recycling systems would bring in much-needed efficiency to ensure that the access to clean water as a fundamental human right is preserved.
Water can no longer be a free commodity for socio-economic groups that can afford to pay a price for each unit of water.
5. Pricing, market mechanisms and capitalization
Robust public-private partnerships, advanced technologies and the introduction of market mechanisms (such as industry water cap and trade mechanisms) have consistently proven to drive the efficient usage of water and increase cost efficiencies, to the point where the poorest of households receive clean drinking water for free through innovative methods, subsidized by the tiered price of water paid by richer households and water intensive industries. Water can no longer be a free commodity for socio-economic groups that can afford to pay a price for each unit of water. At the same time, it is morally distasteful that our poor have to pay exorbitant rates to water vendors in the absence of piped supply. This unfortunate skew keeps our urban poor locked into water poverty -- an issue we must address.
Channelizing private sector finance for water also depends critically on the price of water. Operations, maintenance and repair of water-related infrastructure (such as large dams or sewage treatment plants), surging water demand, and frequent weather events and disasters have been driving up water management costs in India. Most of the investments in this sector have been from the government, but to reach the required scale, bankable projects which attract private capital need to be developed, on the back of a tiered water pricing model for urban and rural India.
Bankable projects which attract private capital need to be developed, on the back of a tiered water pricing model for urban and rural India.
The government must further galvanize the sector through new structures -- like credit guarantees -- which could create a greater appetite for such projects. Water-specific financial investments, such as "blue bonds", may be used to channelize investments. Municipal bonds have also served as a significant source of funds in the developed markets. In the Indian context, such bonds will also strengthen the financial state of the municipalities. Innovative financing models such as revolving funds, securitization and blended finance options with grants may provide critical breakthrough for unlocking private sector capital for water related projects.
India has a challenging responsibility of serving 17% of the world's population with just 4% of the global freshwater reserves. With such constrained availability and increasing demand, policymakers must begin to approach this issue in a multi-pronged way, involving multiple ministries and industry sectors. Policy initiatives such as the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) which focus on providing irrigation to non-irrigated fields with built-in efficiency measures are commendable, but need to be intricately linked to other schemes like the Integrated Watershed Management Scheme. The National Water Mission as one of the eight missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change is a step in the right direction, but it is time to seriously bolster efforts along the 5P guidelines. I sincerely believe that water forms the most important part of the planet's natural capital, and it needs a concerted effort from all stakeholders to trigger a "blue revolution".