What's needed for effective water management: Less govt, more governance

The recent Supreme Court judgment on the Cauvery waters dispute has provoked this reflection on water governance.


Freshwater is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in India. At Independence, our per capita annual water availability was over 5,000 cubic metres (cu m). This has now fallen to around 1,500 cu m, a level that is below the global norm defining water-stress. This is a national average and many parts are below the 1,000 cu m global norm for water scarcity.


Water is also a threatened resource. First is the threat from ecologically unsustainable over-exploitation — groundwater in  20 per cent of our development blocks is in a critical or over-exploited state and river flow downstream of the 4,000-plus large dams we have built since Independence is well below the level required to maintain river health in many stretches. Second is the threat from pollution. The bulk of the urban domestic and industrial waste water that we send to our rivers and lakes is untreated and each litre of this waste pollutes 5-8 litres of clean water. Third is the long-term threat from climate change.


All the water that we use comes from precipitation and 50 per cent of this falls in just two months of the year. That, and the annual variability of the monsoon, means that floods and droughts are common and systematic arrangements for managing these and evening out water availability over the year are essential.


Managing water scarcity requires efficiency in use, responsibility in effluent disposal, and cooperation by users in sustainable and equitable management of shared resources. Efficiency requires pricing reforms, but they will be difficult to secure, given the present mess. Enforcing responsibility for pollution management on large industrial users and urban authorities is possible. We could, for instance, insist that the fresh water requirements of these large users can only be met from the rivers and lakes into which they emit their effluents.


The big challenge is the need for arrangements that secure cooperation amongst users. Water governance today reflects the political and administrative geography of the country — the legal authority rests mainly with state governments and to a lesser extent with local bodies. However, the geography of the hydrological system, defined by watersheds, aquifers and river basins, cuts across these jurisdictions. Bringing together users in a cooperative arrangement requires water governance at these hydrological levels.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
At the base level of the micro watershed, work has started and there has been a country-wide increase in the number and financing for community-based projects. Local watersheds within state boundaries can be readily handled with the legislative and executive powers that states already have. But the focus on water management must be ensured and the programme must not deteriorate into a routine household subsidy initiative.


The next level for institutional reform, the aquifer poses more challenges. Our laws confer rights to the water below the ground to the landowner even when the aquifer from which the landowner draws water is shared with others. This has to change — our long-term goal must be to provide a legal basis requiring all users and stakeholders to join compulsorily in a cooperative effort to manage the shared aquifer, with public authorities playing a regulatory, facilitating and financing role, as has been done in some water-scarce countries. This will take a long time to develop in India, but let us at least begin by mapping our aquifers — something that has not been done yet. Till this is done a crucial dimension of rational water management will remain missing.


Securing agreement on joint management of river basins, the third area of governance development, will be difficult for political reasons. Water is a state subject in the Constitution. Yet all the major river basins of India are shared by two or more states. Integrated management of a river basin has been reduced to securing agreement on water sharing. The Centre has not made much use of the powers given to it by the Constitution in respect of inter·state rivers and river valleys. Despite the River Boards Act there is no real river basin authority and no


basin-wide planning. The constitutional provisions may need to be reviewed in the light of the concerns which have acquired great importance in recent years, but till then we have to see whether more can be done within the present framework.


In the recent Supreme Court judgment on the Cauvery dispute, the court has reaffirmed the principle that “the waters of an inter-State river passing through the corridors of the riparian States constitute national asset and cannot be said to be located in any one State”.1 The Supreme Court’s clear rejection of territorial ownership of surface water rights can provide a legal basis for moving towards a system of cooperative river basin management. As a first step, river basin associations of the states concerned can be formed for information and research leading to more substantial transfer of authority as mutual confidence builds up. The need for this type of cooperation will greatly increase as more and more surface water is required for domestic and industrial purposes.


At the national level, a committee headed by Mihir Shah has recommended the creation of a new National Water Commission (NWC) as the apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data, and governance. This would bring technical capacities for surface and groundwater under one umbrella and lead to better conjunctive use of these sources. But more than this the report also recommends a different approach to water development that moves away from an instrumental, command-and-control approach to one that is much more people-centred and ecosystem-oriented.2 This, to me is the real need. Nature will protect us and look after us if we protect and look after nature. 1. Supreme Court of India judgement in the case of civil appeal No. 2453/2454/2456 of 2007, paragraph 363

2. Mihir Shah, ‘The Way Forward’, Economic & Political Weekly, December 24, 2016, vol. lI, no. 52


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