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NEW DELHI : Facing an acute water shortage that is likely to get worse, the government on Monday launched a countrywide water conservation scheme focussing on 256 districts with the lowest availability of groundwater.

“Half of India is water-stressed. The need is to start a jan andolan (mass movement) so that we can conserve water for future generations. At present, we are only being able to save 8% of the rainwater; this percentage needs to go up," said Gajendra Shekhawat, Union minister for Jal Shakti.

The minister warned that the situation could get worse in the next few years, as India remains highly vulnerable to a water crisis, especially in view of climate risks.

India’s per capita water availability has fallen from 1,816 cubic metres in 2001 to 1,545 cubic metres in 2011. It is projected to decrease further to 1,345 cubic metres per capita per year by 2025 in a business as usual scenario.

The scheme launched on Monday targets 256 districts and 1,592 blocks spread across all states, where there is over-exploitation of groundwater. The states with the highest number of these districts are Rajasthan (29), Tamil Nadu (27) and Telangana (24).

Apart from awareness campaigns, which the officials highlighted as the “most important" component of the scheme, the government will mobilize farmers through Krishi Vigyan Kendras and urge them to shift to efficient irrigation practices.

“Almost 89% of the water is being used for irrigation in our country, which is 3-5 times more compared to countries like China. The need is to shift to less water-intensive crops and recharge our aquifers," said Shekhawat, citing Haryana, where farmers are given financial incentives to shift from paddy to maize cultivation.

Monday saw the launch of the first phase of the scheme, which will continue through the ongoing monsoon season until 15 September. The second phase will be rolled out from 1 October to 30 November for states with retreating monsoon.

“Each district would draft a water conservation plan, with focus on rainwater harvesting. Nodal officers would work with urban local bodies for reuse of waste-water for industrial and agricultural use, including segregation of grey water (kitchen) and black water (sewerage). Each of the urban areas will restore at least one traditional water body," said Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, ministry of drinking water and sanitation. The water conservation strategies fall under five categories—rainwater harvesting, renovation of traditional water bodies and tanks, reuse of water and recharge structures, watershed development and intensive afforestation. The activities would be carried out under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The progress of the scheme will be monitored by a nodal officer— an additional or joint secretary— in each district.

The government move comes as India faces one of its worst water crises, with a number of states reeling under drought-like conditions.

The situation has worsened by the delayed onset and further weak progress of the southwest monsoon which provides over 75% of India’s annual rainfall. As of Monday, the country faces a rainfall deficit of nearly 33%, with Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand reeling under a deficit of more than 20%. The water levels in reservoirs have dipped following scanty rains. The total ‘live storage’ available in the 91 major reservoirs maintained by the Central Water Commission has dropped from 17% to 16% of capacity (161.9 BCM), which is less than what was available during the corresponding period last year.

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