Nature-based, people-centred solutions for water

Topics BS Opinion | water | groundwater

Since Independence, water policy in India has focused primarily on construction of large dams and extraction of groundwater. The new National Water Policy (NWP), drafted for the first time by a committee of independent experts, argues that definite limits are becoming evident in further adopting this strategy in different parts of India. The country is running out of sites for building large dams, while the water table and groundwater quality are falling in many areas. Hence, without ruling out the construction of more dams or the sustainable use of groundwater, the new NWP urges a shift in fo.....
Since Independence, water policy in India has focused primarily on construction of large dams and extraction of groundwater. The new National Water Policy (NWP), drafted for the first time by a committee of independent experts, argues that definite limits are becoming evident in further adopting this strategy in different parts of India. The country is running out of sites for building large dams, while the water table and groundwater quality are falling in many areas. Hence, without ruling out the construction of more dams or the sustainable use of groundwater, the new NWP urges a shift in focus towards management and distribution of water.

The policy draws attention to NITI Aayog’s estimate of the growing gap between the Irrigation Potential Created (IPC) and the Irrigation Potential Utilised (IPU). This has meant that trillions of litres of water, stored at huge cost to the national exchequer and the environment, has not been reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. Bridging the IPC-IPU gap can add millions of hectares to irrigated area at very low cost, even without building a single new dam. To make this happen, the management of the command areas has to be handed over to the farmers themselves. All successful command area projects in several states show that once farmers themselves feel a sense of ownership, the process of operating and managing irrigation systems undergoes a profound transformation. Farmers willingly pay Irrigation Service Fees (determined in a transparent and participatory manner) to their Water Users Associations (WUAs). This enables WUAs to repair and maintain distribution systems and ensure that water reaches each farm. This kind of Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) implies that state irrigation departments concentrate on technically and financially complex structures, such as main systems and secondary canals. The tertiary-level canals, minor structures and field channels are handed over to WUAs to ensure that water reaches farmers even at the tail-end of the command. Many states have innovated by deploying pressurised closed conveyance pipelines, combined with Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and pressurised micro-irrigation. This enables multiple win-wins: lower cost of land acquisition, faster implementation, higher water-use efficiency and greater accountability and transparency, with timely information, assurance and distribution of water to farmers.

There is mounting evidence across the globe in favour of “nature-based solutions” for water storage and supply. Thus, the NWP places major emphasis on supply of water through rejuvenation of catchment areas. Neglect and destruction of these areas has meant annual soil loss of about 15.35 tonnes per hectare, which causes siltation of reservoirs and reduces their capacity by 1-2 per cent per annum. The NWP proposes a comprehensive review of safety and siltation of all dams and diversion weirs older than 50 years, and suggests that those deemed unsafe and/or silted up to more than 80 per cent of their storage capacity could be decommissioned in a phased manner, after building a consensus among all stakeholders.

The NWP recommends that rejuvenation of river catchment areas be incentivised through compensation for ecosystem services, especially to vulnerable communities in the upstream, mountainous regions. Renewed thrust on local rainwater harvesting to catch the rain where it falls, when it falls must be combined with demarcation, notification, protection and revival of traditional local water bodies in both rural and urban areas. This would form part of urban blue-green infrastructure for improved water levels and quality, as also flood mitigation, through specifically curated infrastructure such as rain gardens and bioswales, restored rivers with wet meadows (where they can meander), wetlands constructed for bio-remediation, urban parks, permeable pavements, sustainable natural drainage systems, green roofs and green walls. All government buildings, it recommends, would be built (and old public sector buildings retrofitted) in accordance with sustainable building codes, adopting water management with recycling, reuse and closed circuit technologies.

 
Recognising that groundwater is the lifeline of India’s economy and society, the NWP gives highest priority to its governance and management. Drilling to greater depths and pumping at higher rates have caused a precipitous fall in both the water table and water quality in a very large number of districts. This is a direct consequence of atomistic, competitive extraction of what is a shared, common pool resource (CPR), without taking into account the enormous diversity in the nature of India’s aquifers. The vital ecosystem services provided by groundwater have also been endangered. The most striking manifestation of this is the drying up of rivers, which depend on base-flows from groundwater during the post-monsoon period.

Given that groundwater is a CPR and considering the large number of groundwater sources — over 40 million wells and tubewells and 4-5 million springs — spread across diverse socio-ecologies, the NWP suggests that effective management of groundwater cannot be positioned on a centralised, licence-based bureaucratic approach. Rather, Participatory Groundwater Management (PGWM), being pioneered through the Atal Bhujal Yojana, must form the backbone of groundwater programmes in both rural and urban areas. Information on aquifer boundaries, water storage capacity and flows in aquifers should be provided in an accessible, user-friendly manner to primary stakeholders, designated as the custodians of their own aquifers, to enable them to develop protocols for sustainable and equitable management of groundwater. PGWM must be implemented in a location-specific manner that takes into account the diversity of India’s hydrogeological settings. The NWP also proposes that the National Aquifer Management Programme (NAQUIM) adopt a bottom-up approach and provide maps at a scale of 1:10,000. Only by going down to this scale will the information provided by NAQUIM be in a form that is usable for the main stakeholders engaged in aligning their cropping patterns to the availability of groundwater, without which, as I will explain next week, India’s water problem cannot be solved.
/> The writer is Distinguished Professor, Shiv Nadar University. He chaired the Committee to draft the new National Water Policy set up by the Ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019



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