India can be a global leader in creating transformation in the water sector. This is no longer an option and must be done for two reasons—the growing water demand-supply gap in the country, and the failure of water resource management across the board. The current national water crisis provides an impetus to revolutionize water management. It is time for government, private sector and civil society to exercise leadership in influencing the water agenda, and to innovate and support the emergence of solutions at all levels.
Close to 90% of the nation’s water is consumed by agriculture. Irrigation is important to buffer the high variability of monsoon rainfall, if food self-sufficiency for 1.2 billion Indians is to be achieved.
However, agricultural water use is characterized by enormous waste and lack of productive use—at the overall system level where there is a failure to manage systems of integrated use of water sources, and at the on-farm level. Indian government reports estimate that 68% of the water in the canal systems is lost before it reaches the fields, and poor policies have resulted in ground water levels falling precipitously in various parts of the country.
A model for water-saving technologies and practices that fits farm economics, and involves farmers and other agricultural stakeholders in the decision-making, is needed, which would not only create food self-sufficiency, but rural transformation that leverages the largest landed labour force in the world. Such innovation should occur as a strategic pact among government, private sector and civil society.
Outside of agriculture, the water situation is not different. Cities and villages lack a reliable water supply of adequate quality, and rivers have turned into sewers. A pervasive lack of 24/7 supply, very high network losses and a high percentage of underserved populations in rural and urban areas characterize domestic water supplies. It is estimated that up to 13% of drinking water in rural areas contains chemical contaminants, including fertilizer run-off (particularly urea and its decomposition products). Contamination of drinking water is the principal cause of health disorders, particularly among children. The industry and energy infrastructure is not receiving the water it requires to achieve the energy security required for long-term growth. Industrial water supply is becoming increasingly constrained, mainly because of competing demands from agriculture and domestic users, and industrial pollution is an increasing threat to watersheds.
Technologies to deliver reliable and clean water exist, either in the form of centralized or point of use systems. Government, private sector and civil society should enter into a long-term partnership to develop and operate infrastructure that serves all at a fair price.
The over-riding issue in India, as in many countries, is the appropriate valuing of water. Water charges are inadequate to cover the required expenditure on system management, operation and maintenance or to prevent overuse, leading to poor service and resistance on the part of water users to pay.
Too much of the focus so far has been on the supply side (construction) and less on the demand side (efficiency). At the basin level, water management has focused on irrigation alone and not on the effective management of surface and ground resources to ensure availability for all users. The government has realized the vital need to manage India’s water resources more holistically if it is to achieve growth and development goals. Solutions lie in policies that recognize the strong nexus and inter-dependence between the food, energy and water sectors and a coordinated action at a much larger scale by the public and the private sector. While not exhaustive, these are some imperatives:
• Transparent, inclusive and integrated water resource management, supported by new technologies in measurement and modelling. Water planning at the basin level, keeping in mind all users, including environment.
• Distribution efficiency and demand management to be a focus of integrated water management, in addition to diversifying sources of supply (e.g. reuse).
• Renewed focus on provision of quality drinking water in rural and urban areas, recognizing linkages to health outcomes. Strengthening urban utilities and use of decentralized models to expedite access and quality. Unblock the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and other grant facilities to support public-private participation (PPP) in urban water delivery.
• Focus on efficient irrigation, for ground water management. Bring in new technologies and private sector solutions. Decision-making to include water user associations (WUAs) and other agricultural stakeholders.
• Water to be valued appropriately, with cost-recovering service fees to be paid by all users. Appropriate and rationalized agricultural water tariffs are essential.
• Regulate industrial water use to enhance efficiency.
• Integrated governance—creation of a National Water Commission, greater accountability given to water resources ministry for overall water use, participation of all stakeholders.
• Partner with private sector to bring new technologies and delivery models into the broader water sector.
There is a wealth of experience and ideas that can be brought to bear, and corporations need to think of their role in steering government as part of their social responsibility, and in deploying the solutions. If a system of water and energy credits is needed to incentivize the revolution, then let us develop it and get it implemented. If a financing model is needed to stimulate integrated water, waste water and energy development, then let us develop it. If the wondrous vistas of India past and present need to draw tourism, then the rivers, lakes and environments need to be restored. Water cuts across all sectors. Silently it flows, till the roar of its absence can be heard no more.